1875 TWICE CRUEL
At both ends, this year was peculiarly cruel. Still the year’s “second winter” was in human terms the worst. In November the sidewheeler Pacific left Yesler’s wharf for San Francisco with nearly 300 passengers. Reaching the coast on a foggy night it slammed into a smaller ship, the Orpheus, but took the heavier damage and sank with very few survivors. It is still the worst maritime disaster in Northwest Coast history.
That November the city was also rushed by a gale force storm that toppled trees on Denny Hill, tore away fences, chimneys, barn roofs, three waterfront warehouses, and wrenched out of kilter two of the four ionic – and now iconic as well – columns on the university’s main building. By the incidents described, the 1875 storm rivals the Columbus Day Storm of Oct 12, 1962, as the worst to hit us. The university columns survive in the Sylvan Theater on the “new” University Campus at Interlaken and are the oldest standing artifacts of pioneer Seattle. Unless they are not. The Maynard-Hansen home in West Seattle that Ivar Haglund’s grandfather Hans Hansen and grand uncle Knud Olsen purchased from Doc Maynard in 1869 are, at least, contenders. The home’s provenance is somewhat clouded by a fire that destroyed Maynard’s first Alki Point home in 1858. This surviving structure on 64th Avenue West was built some indefinite time later and so is at least in contention with the university columns for the oldest architectural handiwork surviving here.
In January when Lake Union froze over it was of only slight interest to skaters. With perhaps 2000 citizens and no ready route to the mountains Seattle had not yet developed a culture for winter sports beyond rare snowballing and improvised sledding. California-based investors, however, were inconvenienced. They had used the lake regularly since 1872 as one part of a complex transportation chain for moving eastside coal from Newcastle and Coal Creek to the company’s long Pike Street Wharf and coal bunkers. Ordinarily a small steamer easily towed coal scows down the lake. To keep the coal moving through the 1875 freeze the company’s steamer had to first cut a channel the length of the lake. The fresh water Duwamish River also froze over and where it met the saline Elliott Bay broke into pig-sized pieces that were then driven by wind onto the Seattle waterfront making it nearly useless for shipping. The most lucrative of all Puget Sound paddlewheelers then, the relatively big North Pacific, reached Yesler’s Wharf only after plowing through the cakes of ice pushed against the city.
Most likely the earliest surviving photo of any Seattle snow – already printed above with the subjects on “cherries” – dates from this year, 1875, although we do not know from which end. To be honest, we don’t know for certain that it is from 1875, but that year is the best candidate. The only winter weather that the pioneers gave attention between their hardest winter of 1861-62 and their Big Snow of 1880, is this winter of ’75. The two photographs printed above – again with the cherries – of Cherry Street looking east from Front Street (First Avenue) may be compared. Most telling is the black frame box with four windows at the center of the ca. 1875 snowscape. It stands at the northwest corner of Cherry with 2nd Avenue. Greg Lange, scholar of Seattle’s pioneer life, notes that in 1855 original Seattle pioneer Carson Boren sold this corner to original Seattle pioneer William Bell. Lange allows that the house may have been part of the sale, but thinks it more likely that Bell, not Boren, built it sometime after 1858. Lange goes further and concludes that the black box was replaced in the late 1870s with the more distinguished residence that in the 1880 snow scene is mostly hidden behind the storefronts that line the north side of Cherry Street between First and Second Avenues.
We will and even should note that the accumulated snow in the earlier view up Cherry is not so deep. We know that most years – but probably not all – between 1862 and 1880 were visited with light snowfalls that after covering everything quickly melted away. As evidence for this we include a Wallingford panorama that reveals the winter wonderland dropped by the little snow of January 6, 2003. This almost two inch mantle was deep enough for sledding but also disappointing to sledders. It disappeared in a day.
1880 SIX FOOT DRIFTS – THE BIGGEST SNOW
1880 is the last year that Seattle was not counted as the largest town in Washington Territory. In the federal census Walla Walla still registered a few more residents than the 3500 odd and not so odd citizens enumerated in Seattle. However, by the time Rutherford B. Hayes, the first president to visit Seattle, arrived on Oct. 11, Seattle was already probably more populated than Walla Walla, and it surely was bigger the following year. It was to the citizens of the wet and more temperate side of the mountains that Territorial Governor Elisha Ferry bragged in his 1879 “State of the Territory” report to the Department of the Interior.
And soon after Ferry took this official opportunity to embrace the Mediterranean slant on Puget Sound weather it all turned wonderfully ironic. Ferry evangelizes, in part, “When the statement is made that ice and snow are of rare occurrence and almost unknown in Western Washington, it appears to be so incredible to those residing many degrees south of this on the Atlantic Seaboard that it makes no permanent impression on the mind.” Ferry’s humor was printed front page in the Seattle Intelligencer’s first Sunday edition for Jan. 4, 1880.
That night the Big Snow preluded its coming with a hard cold wind that pushed into homes “through cracks not before known to exist.” First the rain froze and then on Monday it was all snow. Two days later the paper purposely exaggerated the depth of the snow at ten feet in order play it safe. On Friday the paper confessed, “We shall have to admit hereafter that snow does occasionally fall in this country . . .The average citizen walks nowadays as though he were drunk.” The next day the paper, perhaps hinting of Ferry’s report, advised, “If anyone has anything to say about our Italian skies . . . shoot him on the spot.”
Without doubt and even with no official weather service keeping records, the “Big Snow’ of January 1880 was the largest in the city’s history. There are at least six surviving photographs. One of these we printed near the top of this little history – the view up Cherry Street. The pioneer accounts describe the snow drifting in places to over six feet. It was a crushing snow, flattening a good number of shops, sheds, barns, and small warehouses. Two other recordings (included here) look over a snow-bound Yesler’s Wharf where a shed has lost its roof beneath the accumulation. Schools were closed and telegraph lines were downed. Snow shoveling was lucrative. The storm extended a hundred miles north and south from Seattle, and Puget Sound was so full of it that steamers had a hard time navigating while seagulls walked on water. On Monday January 12, it began to rain. The Thursday edition of the Intelligencer notes, “The snow is about gone in town. It disappeared as fast as it came.” But the melt from this biggest of snows saturated the often weak sides of the town’s many hills and bluffs, and many fell away with slides.
The following December, twenty-one more inches fell on Seattle, which was not quite as stirring perhaps as the behavior of Mt. Rainier, which in November belched smoke and steam — temporarily.
1884 LAKE UNION SKATING
In 1960 Charlotte DeMars recalled for a reporter that when she was only five “my uncle hauled me around on my sled over the frozen Lake Union.” Born in Seattle on the second of February 1878, it is more likely that little Charlotte was six – barely – when she took her ride. Early in February 1884, a Post-Intelligencer fantasist taking a page from Gov. Ferry’s 1879 report, announced, “February came in as bright and cheerful as January went out. The winter promises to continue to the end as warm, dry and delightful as it has so far been.” A few days later, on the eighth of February, two inches of snow fell and “it stayed on the frozen ground and was soon furnishing fair riding for occupants of a dozen or 20 sleighs.” Two of them can be found in one of the attached views, which looks east through Pioneer Square during the snow. Every river that emptied into Puget Sound froze over as well, stopping river traffic with one exception. The rugged W. K. Merwin backed her way down the Snohomish River, slapping her paddle wheel against the ice until she reached salt water. The chill and the snow both stayed put and by 1884 a town of roughly 8000 citizens could organize for winter recreation. Lake Union kept its ice, and on Feb. 14, the PI reported that the lake was “a favorite resort for our young people of the skating fraternity.” The thaw began on February 15, deceptively. Three days later 18 inches of fresh wet snow fell on the community, which then began to think back on the winter of 1880. Honoring that big snow, the newspaper determined that the Feb. 18th addition was “the greatest, with a single exception, in a quarter of a century.” Another of the few views of the ’84 snow, printed here, looks east on Columbia Street from the waterfront. First Avenue, then still called Front Street, crosses Columbia where the greater line-up of snow spectators stand, one block up the hill from the photographer. The tower of the city’s fire station near Second Avenue tops the horizon, center-right. And a third view looks northeast across the waterfront from the King Street coal wharf.