1916 SECOND BIGGEST & MOST RECORDED
By the year of our second biggest snow, cameras were nearly as commonplace as shovels. Almost certainly, more photographs of the 1916 snow were kept, copied, and shared than for any other of Seattle’s snows. Importantly, Seattle has had no snowfalls since then to fairly “compete” with it for snapping. We’ve included many photographs of the 1916 snow, which you may click to enlarge. Most are identified by location only.
The 1916 Big Snow stopped and/or closed almost everything. It also collapsed a few roofs, including a chicken coop and two churches, the biggest being the great dome of St. James Cathedral. With an undetected flaw in the steel used to construct it, St. James Cathedral’s octagonal dome and the electric cross that topped it went crashing at 3:13 pm on Wednesday under the estimated added weight of 30,000 pounds of snow. It was, however, too late to be reported in that afternoon’s Times. With time to research the dome’s collapse the newspaper did an admirable job in the Thursday edition. The bishop thanked God that no one was worshiping in the cathedral when its dome folded to the floor, but added nothing about God’s role in the crash itself.
The Times also described Lake Union as “about one half surfaced on the north side with slush, more or less frozen into ice.” A rough and pitted print of the Lake frozen at its north end with the Gas Works in silhouette is printed here. Most likely it was from the 1916 freeze.
Through the first 30 unusually cold days of January, 23 inches of snow had fallen on Seattle. January 30th was a Sunday, and for this “day of rest” an estimated 3000 skaters and their admirers descended on Green Lake. Many stayed well into the night, encouraged by the Seattle Park Department, which lit several bonfires along the shores. On Monday the 31st snow began to fall again, lightly at first, but steadily. About seven inches accumulated by 5 in the afternoon. That was enough to “kill the skating.”
Then 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 at the Hogue Building offices of the Weather Bureau in the Central Business District. This is still a record – our largest 24-hour pile. The Humane Society recommended that citizens feed the birds and urged teamsters to sharpshod their horses to prevent slipping. On Wednesday the Times noted, “railroads have thrown up their hands and quit the unequal battle with the snow.” No doubt they remembered the Wellington tragedy of only six years earlier. For its editorial the newspaper inserted some suggestive relief. “When every other topic goes stale it’s always possible to talk about the weather. Some of the conversations heard this morning while Seattle was marching through snowdrifts to its work was of a kind that threatened to produce a thaw in the immediate vicinity of the speaker.”
At its end the 1916 snow was a wet one, and like the more recent storm of late December 1996 it came to a foul conclusion; that is, the week of the Big Snow was followed by a week of big slides. On Saturday Feb. 5 it began to rain as Seattle got its first mail from the east in five days. Then on Sunday, nineteen snow-stalled trains reached the city – carefully – and by Monday all the city’s streetcars were again running on schedule. Soon, however, in many of the more vulnerable places, like the bluffs of Magnolia, West Seattle, Sunset Hill, and Queen Anne Hill, earth doubly hydrated by rain and melting snow slid away taking homes and much else with it.
The city’s total snowfall in February that year was 35.4 inches and the total for January and February together was 58.7 inches. By year’s end the Big Snow of 1916 was not forgotten and joined lists of important events with the opening of the Lake Washington Ship Canal – not the official opening but the practical one with the lowering of Lake Washington to the level of Lake Union and their joining through the Montlake Cut – and the testing of Bill Boeing’s B& W, his company’s first plane.
Several selections from the “Most Photographed” 1916 snow: