Seattle Now & Then: Snowbound on Second

(click to enlarge photos)

THEN: In 1916, the year of this “big snow,” the Bon Marche Department Store, on the right, was already 20 years at the southwest corner of Second Avenue and Pike Street. (Courtesy, Lawton Gowey)
NOW: Last January's “nearly big snow” was, perhaps, as disruptive as our last sizeable snowfall – the one of 2008. But it was surely a kinder blizzard, one that did not upset the career of a two-term mayor.

On the third day of the four-day snowstorm that visited us last January – the one that kept schools closed, and had auto body shops polishing their tools for the expected parade of clanking fenders – Jean drove downtown, carefully.

His repeat of the historical snow scene that looks south on Second Avenue from Pike Street is relatively lean on snow but seems just as cold as the earlier snow – or colder.  The psychological warmth of the older snow might have something to do with the glow reflecting from the 5-ball cluster light standards, Jeweler Benjamin Gates sidewalk clock and the many snuggling store fronts that once made this stretch of Second Avenue one of the city’s most sparkling commercial strips.

The Big Snow of 1916 still holds as the second deepest blizzard in the city’s history. “On Tuesday, the first of February, when the commuters began leaving work around 5pm the snow became devoted to falling.  Twenty-four hours later 21.5 new inches were measured . . . This is still a record – our largest 24-hour pile.”  There I have quoted from my own “History of Seattle Snow” which can be found in the blog Jean and I share with Beranger Lomont – the blog referenced every Sunday at the bottom of “now and then.”

We will start with the Clemmer Theatre for a short review of three of the well-lit businesses on the east – left – side of this block.  Built in 1912 exclusively for photoplays, aka movies, with its 1200 seats the Clemmer won the distinction in 1915 to show “Birth of the Nation,” described at the time as “the most tremendous dramatic spectacle that the brain of man has yet produced.”  Meanwhile, and nearby, Boston Dentists were already ten years into half-a-century on this corner promoting themselves as “The originator of low prices for first class dentistry.”

As for “shoes,” fourteen of the 34 Seattle shoe retailers listed in 1915 were located on 2nd or within a half block of it.  Of the 34 one – or half of the Wallin and Nordstrom, far left – is still boosting shoes in Seattle, although not at this corner.


As you know, Paul, I wandered around downtown for a couple of hours. Here are a couple repeats and a playful angle for your amusement.

THEN: Carnegie Library, 1916
NOW: An approximate repeat
THEN: Trollies on 4th, 1916
NOW: Metro bus on 4th
Moore above the fray

Anything to add, Paul?

YES Jean, and with Ron Edge’s help we will first put up the fountainhead of Chief Seattle in Pioneer Place (square) under a frosting of the 1916 snow as a button to click, which will take the reader to that part of our History of Seattle Snows that treats on 1916.  Following that there will certainly be some repetition in the few stories we include below.  We may have even run one or more of them in a previous contribution (we don’t keep count), but we are always reminded and comforted then by my mother’s advise “Repetition is the mother of all learning.”  When I asked her, “What then is the father of all learning.”  She answered, “Memory does not need them.”


Eight-seven Februaries separate these two views of First Avenue looking south from Virginia Street into Belltown. (2003)  On the right side of both scenes the Hotel Preston, it seems, is the only survivor  — at least in the foreground blocks and in 2003. (Historical view courtesy Seattle Municipal Archive)


(First appeared in 2004)

The “Big Snow” of 1916 was a weeklong spectacle that may be the single most photographed event in the history of the city.  (I’m referring to “unplanned events” here; world fairs and summer festivals don’t count in this calculation.) Probably everyone who owned a camera got it out between Sunday, Jan 30 when the snow began to fall and the following Sunday Feb. 6, when the first snow-stalled trains – 19 of them – reached Seattle. On Monday the 7th, city streets were sufficiently cleared so that all the streetcars lines were again in operation.

This view looks south on First Avenue from Virginia Street.  In 1916 the street was lined mostly by one to three story structures – a mix of frame and brick – that would typically have “rooms” upstairs and businesses at the street level.   Between Pine and Bell streets the structures on the west side of First Avenue (like those on the left side of this scene) were generally a few years older than those on the east side of First.  The reason was regrades.

Between 1900 and 1903 the east side of First north of Pine Street was effectively a cliff until the Second Avenue Regrade of 1903-06 moved this steep bank one block east to the east side of Second.  With its modern grade the buildings on the right of this scene, like the Hotel Preston, could be quickly built to prosper, it was hoped, in a brave, new and nearly level Belltown. Instead, the commonplace urban legend that attaches itself to many small old hotels that at some point they operated also as “harlot hotels” may actually be true here on First Avenue.  Belltown never really recovered from the depression of 1907 until the 1970s when it began its transformation into a Seattle mini-version of Vancouver’s West End; a neighborhood of high-rises.

No enthused amateur recorded this snapshot.  Rather, James Lee, for many years the official photographer for the city’s Department of Public Works, made it.  Lee’s work has been shown many times in this weekly feature.  I am thankful both to him and the 1916 Snow, which has also frequently fallen here.


The Big Snow of early February 1916 may have been the city’s greatest photographic subject – of relatively short duration.   Here Herbert R Harter who described himself as a photographer in the 1915 city directory pointed his camera north on Railroad Avenue from the Marion Street overpass.   Photo courtesy, Dan Kerlee

In 1935 when motor vehicles already dominated the waterfront Railroad Avenue got its name changed to Alaskan Way.


One of the marks for the community’s passage of time is our Big Snow of 1916.  While still celebrated it is, of course, increasingly not remembered.   A very small circle of Seattle “natives” now recalls events of 90 years ago vividly.

Not so long ago the 1916 blizzard was still remembered.  Ten years ago during our latter day big snow of 1996, any born and bred local of, say, 90 would have remembered the snowfall that began in earnest on the late afternoon of Feb. 1, 1916.   By 5 pm on Feb. 2 the Weather Bureau at the Hoge Building at Second Ave. and Cherry Street measured 26 inches.  This is still our 24-hour record.   Five hours later the depth reached 29 inches.

This view of the historic pile-up looks north up the waterfront from the Marion Street overpass.  Here are the several “railroad piers” built early in the 20th Century with boom-time profits increased by the Yukon/Alaska gold rush of the late 1890s.  Most survive.  The smaller structure right of center is an earlier version of Fire Station No. 5

Canada’s Grand Trunk Pacific Railroad built the ornate pier filling the left foreground in 1914.  Here passengers could board the railroad’s own “mosquito fleet’ of sleek steamers for a scenic ride north to the railroads west coast terminus at Prince Rupert and there make connections for “all points east.”   The railroads first pier here was built in 1911 but destroyed by fire only three years later.  This replacement was built in the style of the original designed by Seattle architect James Eustace Blackwell, and survived until 1964, when it was razed for the staging of vehicles waiting to board Washington State Ferries.

Another look north on Railroad Avenue from the Marion Street overpass. Fire Station No. 5 on the left, at the foot of Madison Street - still.
East on Yesler Way from Railroad Ave. during the 1916 snow.


A contemporary photograph of the Chittenden Locks taken from the same prospect as the historical would have required a roost in one of the upper limbs of the trees that landscape the terraced hill that ascends from the locks to the English Gardens. (Historical photo courtesy of the Army Corps of Engineers)


In the descriptive and yet homely parlance of hydraulics the historical photograph reveals what Army Corp of Engineers called the “dewatered pit” of the ship canal locks at Ballard.   In the six years required to build the locks – from breaking the ground in 1911 to the dedication in 1917 – this photograph was taken near the end of the first year, in the fall of 1912.

That the historical photographer from the Curtis and Miller studio stood on higher ground than I did for the “now” is evident from the elevation of the Magnolia side on the right.  The “then” looks both across and down on the locks, the “now” merely across it.  Why?

The dry pit is considerably wider than the combined big and small locks because the excavation cut well into the bank on the north side of the locks.  Much of the mechanicals for opening the big lock’s gates are hidden in the hill that was reconstituted and shaped with terraces in the summer of 1915 once the concrete forms for the locks took their now familiar shape at what is by someone’s calculation the second most popular tourist destination in Seattle.  (What then is first?)

Most of the temporary dirt cofferdam, upper-right, that separated the construction site from the temporary channel was removed in the fall of 1915 after the greats gates to the locks were closed.

Earlier, the dredge, preparing the pit before the dewatering, sucked the floor of the channel for mud to both distribute by pipeline to the campus built on the north side of the locks and also to build the cofferdam, which is outlined here by the row of pilings positioned on the far side of the dredge. Again, this view looks east-southeast from the Ballard side of the locks.

Next, on the second of February 1916 the locks were deliberately flooded and the doors opened to permit commuters to make emergency commutes to downtown Seattle by boat when the “Big Snow” (the second deepest in the history of the city) shut down the trolleys.

The first flooding of the large lock during the Big Snow of 1916. (Courtesy, Army Corp)

The locks were left open for tides and traffic while the damn was constructed to join the locks to the Magnolia side.  With the link completed the doors were again shut and Salmon Bay was allowed to fill with fresh water to the level of Lake Union in July 1916.  The small lock began working later in the month and on Aug 3, 1916 the first vessels (both from the Army Corp fleet) were lifted in the big lock.  The formal opening followed months later on July 4, 1917.

Dedication day, July 4, 1917
A repeat of the "dewatered" shot from above and below it an early look at the canal from the Great Northern's Salmon Bay bridge. The smoking mill, top-center, is the Seattle Cedar Mill, which burned spectacularly to the ground in May 1958. Below is a record of some salmon heading for the lakes through the dam's fish-ladder, at its southern or Magnolia end.


A team poses on 15th Avenue N. at the entrance to Lake View Cemetery. We wonder if white horses were gracefully picked for this 1916 snow portrait. (Courtesy: Lake View Cemetery)


When the Big Snow of 1916 decorated the granite and iron gate at Lake View Cemetery, it was already forty-three years since the first graves were dug there.   After pioneer Doc Maynard died in the spring of 1873 he cooled for a month while a road was built from the village to what was first called the Seattle Masonic Cemetery.   By the early 20th Century when this ridge got its surviving name — Capitol Hill — the original Lake View was so crowded with headstones that the cemetery was doubled to the east as far as 15th Avenue E.

This snow-bound gate is on Fifteenth.   But where?   Entrances to the cemetery have moved about.  Following the lead of a map a few years older than this scene (both map and photograph are in the Lake View archive) I recorded the “now” scene a half block north of the contemporary entrance near E. Garfield Street.  (When I can uncover it, this “now” will also show Jean Sherrard across the way, a rare treat.)  But I confess that the lay of the land behind this gate looks more like that inside the present gate than it does the steeper incline in my speculative “now” setting.

This snow scene is one of more than 100 illustrations in Jacqueline B. Williams’s new 200-page history of Capitol Hill.  She lives a short walk from the gate.   Williams has titled her well-wrought history “The Hill With A Future, Seattle’s Capitol Hill, 1900-1946.”    Last spring we reported on it as a work-in-progress and invited readers to help the author with leads.  Now they may help her and themselves with purchases.   This is the energetic author’s tenth book.  Among her other subjects are books on pioneer kitchens and cooking.




Through the coming year (2003) we will have many reminders  — attached to opportunities  — that 2003 is the centennial for the arrival of the Olmsted Brothers.   To celebrate the contributions of this pioneer landscape firm, the Seattle Parks Foundation will feature monthly walking tours consecutively through twelve Seattle Parks that were shaped by the Olmsteds, the most celebrated of national activists in the progressive “city beautiful” movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.   The first tour begins here at Volunteer Park next Saturday, Jan 18 (2003) at 10am.

The Olmsted Bros. are still very much with us.  In the more than 30 years that followed the 1903 introduction of their comprehensive plan for Seattle parks the Olmsteds were involved in 37 park projects.   Their near omnipresence is increased if we add our boulevards, the firm’s designs for many private local gardens, and their master plans for the University of Washington campus as well as the 1909 Alaska Yukon Pacific Exposition.

Volunteer Park at the summit of Capitol Hill was included in the Olmsted’s 1903 report and these recommendations were elaborated the following year with a Preliminary Plan for the park.  This view looks north through the park from the entrance to the water tower – another Olmsted proposal – during the snow of January 3, 1916  – a mere prelude to the “Big Snow” that began falling on the last day of what was then “the coldest month in Seattle history.”

The walkway that appears just above the three figures left of center runs between two lily pools that are planned for restoration during the Olmsted Centennial.   In 1916 both the glass plant Conservatory (top center) and the charming lattice pavilion (right of center) were but four years old.   The latter was replaced in 1932 by the Seattle Art Museum.  The covered bandstand on the far side of the reservoir is the newest structure in this winter scene.  It was completed in 1915 for Volunteer Park’s then frequent and popular concerts.

A Volunteer Park snow without a date.

[This may still work.]  For more information on the Olmsted Centennial including a list of the other parks scheduled for tours you may contact the Friends of Seattle’s Olmsted Parks through their web page,

Looking back at the tower. An undated photo by Turner and so circa 1930 (or earlier). Courtesy Michael Fairley


With its dome collapsed under the “Big Snow” of 1916 because of a flaw in its construction, St. James Cathedral has gone through four renovations and/or restorations, the most recent in 1994.  Built in 1907 the cathedral is fast approaching its centennial.


At 3:15 on the afternoon of February 2, the skylight dome of St. James Cathedral neatly folded like a house of cards and carrying the cross behind it fell to the transept floor 120 feet below.  It was the most spectacular collapse of the several local roofs that were crushed under the wet snow dumped during the historic blizzard of the winter of 1916.

In the accompanying photo most of the ruins are hidden beyond and below the partially crushed altar rail that crosses the scene from the right just beyond the steps to the bishop’s chair.  The sancturary was then still elevated four feet above the nave, and the high altar sheltered below its baldachin – a canopy supported by four ornate columns one of which shows in the foreground the historical view.  The repaired cathedral was built at one level and the altar now rests directly below the “oculus Dei.”  This “eye of God” first returned unfiltered light to the sanctuary a part of the cathedral’s most recent restoration in 1994.

The best way to compare the original sanctuary with its present setting is to examine the part that has changed the least — the nave that is capped at its western end with an organ that when it was installed was considered by many as “the best in the west.”   Because of the length of the cathedral and the accompanying acoustic delay a second organ was  installed at its eastern end, and the two can be played from one keyboard.

Thinking of the music, architect Lewis Beezer who helped plan the sanctuary’s reconstruction put the best construction the dome’s collapse when he predicted that the cathedral’s notoriously bad acoustics would be greatly benefited by the much lower and closed dome that was part of the new plans.   And the new roof would also leave no anxious doubts among parishioners that it might fall in again.  Still on the chance that a new, great and open dome might be installed four oversized piers were built at the corners of the transept.  One of these shows left of center in the “now.”

We conclude by briefly recounting two clerical responses to the dome’s collapse as shared with us by the present Director of Cathedral Liturgy, Corinna Laughlin.  When Father Noonan, the church’s pastor, first gazed upon the damage he instructed the editor of the Catholic Progress who was at his side, “Not a word of this to the press.”   By contrast, Bishop O’Dea almost as quickly went to the press with promises that a ‘new and substantial temple will replace the old.”

The somewhat neat clutter of the dome following its collapse - seen from the open roof.
St. James still with its dome, upper-left, and the original interior, upper-right. Bottom left, the interior after its latest changes.
Still in the First Hill neighborhood, and during the 1916 snow, Trinity Episcopal at James Street and 8th Avenue, northwest corner.


Resting as it does besides the “Mediterranean of the Pacific” Seattle, in its now 154 years, has had only six “big snows”—1861-62, 1880 (the deepest), 1893, 1916, 1950 and 1969.  If we join snow-to-mud 1996 may also be added. (This was written before the 2008 snow – but was it big?)  This campus scene is from 1916 – the second deepest of the seven.  Historical photo by Werner Gaerisch courtesy of Doreen Delano.  Contemporary photo  by Jean Sherrard.


Almost certainly Werner Gaerisch snapped this campus scene during the “Big Snow of 1916” – a February blanket that still measures as the second deepest in Seattle history.  At the time the German immigrant was a 24-year old baker with – judging by about 200 negatives preserved by his granddaughter Doreen Delano – an extraordinarily sensitive eye.

While the snow itself is perhaps the general subject the Campus Chimes is its centerpiece.  Built originally as a water tower for the new campus in the mid-1890s it was clothed and converted into a Gothic belfry in 1912 when Seattle Times publisher Colonel Alden Blethen donated the bells for it.

From 1917 to the tower’s destruction by fire in 1949 it was associated with George Bailey, the blind musician who three times a day played the 12 bells with heavy handles that required two seconds of delay in the keys mechanics between Bailey’s action and the bell’s peeling. Occasionally prankish students who required little ingenuity to break and enter the aging wooded structure also played the bells in the wee hours.  Bailey made a practice of composing or arranging a new piece every week and by 1935 remembered many hundreds of them.



(First appeared in Pacific, July 31, 1988)

Almost all University of Washington alumni will recognize the observatory. Built from stone left over in the construction of Denny Hall, it is one of the two oldest structures on campus.

Those who remember the Campus Chimes will recall more the sound than the sight of them. Seattle Times publisher Col. Alden Blethen donated them to the university in 1912.

For 32 years, George Bailey made his way 10 blocks from his home to campus, and three times a day he would play the 12 bells. Bailey was blind, but he used neither cane nor guide dog. Rather, he whistled, bouncing his own sonar off the many shapes of the University District.

Bailey began playing the bells in 1917, the year he graduated from the University’s School of Music. His repertoire was alternately witty, sentimental and classical. He played love songs the week he got married and the day his child was born. Bailey’s celebrated wit included numbers that fit the school calendar. Freshman~ orientation day he would introduce, with “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread” and the conclusion of finals with “There’s going to be a hot time on the old town tonight.”

Another George Bailey tradition was sounding the football scores on Saturday afternoons. Using the biggest bell he would play the UW alma mater before peeling forth its points. For the opposition, he used the small bell.

Twice on Sundays, Bailey withdrew his playful wit for the more sublime repertoire of hymns and appropriate classics like the “Bells of St. Mary’s” and the “Lullabye of Bells.”

Aside from campus hooligans, who would sometimes work the bells at night, Bailey was the last to make music with them. On May 23, 1949, he played “Summertime.” At 7 o’clock the next morning, the tower caught fire. Within 10 minutes, the flames reached 200 feet, dropping burning embers on the roofs of fraternity row.

George Bailey was making ready for his walk to campus when he was told of the fire. As the tower burned, Bailey wondered what he would do.

He eventually took care of the new carillon chimes which he played from a keyboard in the music building sending the sounds amplified to speakers in the Denny Hall belfry. With 37 notes, Bailey made new arrangements for his old repertoire. He continued to take requests until his death in 1960.

The Blethen Chimes parodied by U.W. Students.


Looking north on 4th from Madison Street during the 1916 blizzard. The McNaught mansion appears on the far side of Spring Street at the northeast corner of Spring and 4th, where it was moved from the library site for the latter's construction.


Nothing like a big snow to break the generally gray monotone of winters on Puget Sound.  And dramatic winter storms offer meteorologists thankful relief from the need to devise new descriptions for a weather which ordinarily rolls from drizzle to drizzle.  But most importantly photographers have a field day.

This view of the snowbound Carnegie library was photographed during the first week of February, 1916.  Probably no other natural event has been so embraced by local photographers as the Big Snow of 1916.  Of course in a city it is the artificial effects of a blizzard that make it such an entertainment.  Here with three feet of snow in two days the town’s electric and cable railways were shut down for a week, the schools closed, and a number of roofs collapsed one of them a landmark — the octagonal copper-skinned dome of St. James Cathedral.

But here on Fourth Avenue the big snow’s effects are decorative not disastrous.  The snow’s frosting, especially on the library’s grand front entry, is quite appealing.  This stairway was not part of the library’s original design.  Almost immediately after it opened in 1907 Fourth Avenue was regraded, lowering it here nearly to the level of the central libraries basement.

Both views look north across Madison Street.  One block north, across Spring Street, the blizzard continues its display on the overhangs, reliefs and faceting of the McNaught mansion .  Built in 1883 on the future site of the Library, James McNaught’s big home was moved across Spring Street in 1904 to make way for construction of the neo-classical granite and sandstone pile bankrolled with the help of steel capitalist Andrew Carnegie’s $220,000 donation.

The two landmarks stood across from one another on Spring Street until the late 1920s when the McNaught mansion was razed for the Kennedy Hotel.  The library held on until 1956 when it was knocked down for the modern library recorded in the “now” view (not included here).

The Big Snow of 1916 melted quicker than it fell and with considerably more disastrous effects.  The unseasonably warm and wet whether that followed loosened the many exposed home sites on Seattle’s hills crashing dozens of them to smithereens below and taking two lives.

Third, looking south thru Madison
The alley sides and contrasting skins of the Burke Building, on the right, and the Hotel Stevens, on the left, looking north across Madison Street between Second and First Avenues.



THIRD AVE. north from Cherry Street, with the Central Building (still standing) on the right.

Looking north on Fremont Ave. thru 35th Street.
The QUEEN ANNE COUNTERBALANCE looking north from Mercer Street.
Green Lake from the east shore. Long ago we included a feature on this subject in this blog.
The WALLINGFORD NEIGHBORHOOD looking from an upper floor - or roof - of Lincoln High School.
Second Avenue looking north with the Savoy Hotel on the right.
The 1400 block on 3rd Avenue, looking north.
The brand new Coliseum Theatre at the northeast corner of 5th and Pike.
Union Street, 300 block.
Kinnear Park - somewhere
UNION STREET STEPS, looking west from First Hill
West Seattle Ferry Dock on the West Seattle side.
Pantages Theatre looking south on Third from near Union St. The stained flip-side of this postcard and its personal message is printed directly below.
Hard to read but not impossible. The message here is flip-side to the card above it.
Leavenworth, and next its flip-side message.

The Parker Home, southeast corner of 14th Ave. (aka Millionaire's Row) and Prospect Street.
Second Ave. from the Smith Tower, before Second was extended south to the railroad stations and directly in line with its path north of Yesler.
Ballard Avenue, looking north towards the Ballard City Hall, with the tower.
First Ave. south from Pine Street with the Liberty Theatre on the left and the Corner Market Building on the right.
Cle Elum
Port Townsend


One thought on “Seattle Now & Then: Snowbound on Second”

  1. Wonderful photos! My 96 year old mother and I so enjoyed looking at them and learning about the big snow of 1916.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.