1955 CRASH and ABANDON
An unannounced snow that begins to fall during a work day may make mayhem on city streets as workers leave early but still too late. Such a snow visited Seattle mid-Thursday afternoon of November 17, 1955. More than 1000 vehicles had accidents alone or together. Twice six cars were involved in one crash. The fury of the storm surprised both the commuters and the Weather Bureau, and the latter was shamed for having only forecast flurries. Cars were abandoned and the drivers then either searched for hotels or braved a walk home sometimes arriving at their front door well past midnight. Seattle’s UFO fantasist-opportunists were not surprised to read that earlier this day one J. A Mapes saw 12 round, flat objects, silver on top and dark on the bottom, fly in 4-deep formation over St. Louis. Omen or coincidence, they wondered aloud. Before the snow a five day freeze, beginning Nov. 15, destroyed thousands of trees and shrubs.
1960 SLIPPERY SLOPES
This winter’s only noticeable snow came unusually late on the third of March. It began falling with the first morning light, around 6 am, and by noon had dropped about three inches. Municipal buses were pulled over and outfitted with chains. The worst traffic jams occurred on what were then the city’s two speedways: Aurora and the floating bridge to Mercer Island where spin-outs were frequent. Other “slippery slopes” of the year included the shooting down of U-2 spy Francis Gary Powers over the Soviet Union, the Food and Drug Administration approval of the first birth control pill as safe for use, and a congressional hearing exposing a disk jockey payola scandal. Other sensations this year include Elvis joins the army, John Kennedy narrowly defeats Nixon, and University of California students are hosed and gassed as they protest the House Un- American Activities Committee (HUAC) hearings in San Francisco.
1964-65 WINTER WONDERLANDS
Other snows – the lesser ones — are tonic for child’s play. When a child wakes to a fresh snow of any depth it is like the Milky Way landed at night. Trees and bushes in the back yard sparkle and like stars are suggestive. A morning snow also brings the hope that school might not open. An adult revival of the child’s winter imagination is the picturesque prose that a morning snow may inspire. A good example is the description that accompanies Seattle Times’ photographer Josef Scaylea’s snowscape on the cover of the Northwest Pictorial for Nov. 24, 1963. It reads in part: “A fresh snowfall also brings a subtle change to the music of the woods . . . Now all sounds are muted, as if nature stands in awe of the great changes it has brought to the land. This is a time for the nature-lover to read the diary of the forest, for the snow is a page on which each passing animal inscribes its message.” That last line about animals writing is especially nice. In 1963 the peaks of the “Cascade curtain” as seen from Seattle turned suddenly white with the early storm of October 21.
More often newspaper reporting of Seattle snows is humdrum. However, when hopes are aroused by more than a dusting of fat flakes, a reporter may buckle his galoshes and sing “The sky became a seething mass of gray-black clouds, traffic was in a snarl, and by mid-afternoon the blizzard had tightened its grip over most of Western Washington.” These familiar phrases were used in a Seattle Times story on the snows of 1916 and 1950. It appeared as historical filler on the afternoon of one of the several December snows of 1964. High above, near this essay’s part on “Cherries of Many Sorts,” I described the first snow of 1964. It fell on Thanksgiving night. Through the rest of the year and into the first week of January Seattle was washed repeatedly by alternating snowfall and rain. In a Jan. 6, 1965 report a Times writer predicted “Years from now they will be telling tales about the past 27 days or so as the ‘winter of the big snow’ here.” Well they have not. The snow of 64-65 was like a bird with a chirp but no warble. It sang no big song. It was more a gargle. There was too much rain.
1967 SNOWBALLS & BARRICADES
Following the snow of January 5, 1967, police erected barricades on Queen Anne Hill, although residents kept sneaking around them, sometimes at their own peril. The youth of Renton raised their own barricade of snow, six feet high and three feet thick across southeast 88th Street, and another teen construction was piled in the center of the 4000 block of N.E. 85th Street. Slowed by the snarl, motorists were easy marks for snowballs citywide. For some reason incidents of snowball artillery proliferate in reports from the 1960s and ’70s. The favorite targets were city buses whose windows were easily penetrated by snowballs packed with nasty rock nuclei.
This nearly completes the list of the oversized snows and other oddities that have been dumped here since the Denny Party first distributed itself on Alki Beach in the fall of 1851. To the 19th century winters of 1861-62, 1880, and 1893 we have added the 20th century “Big Snows” of 1916 and 1950. Without the wind we would have dropped 1950 from the “big list” too. But now, somewhat timidly, or I confess for sentimental reasons, we will add to this list the snow of 1969 – or 1968-69, for the snow that earnestly fell upon the diapered baby sent on the first day of 1969, a Wednesday, covered snow left by the old man of 1968 when with the last swing of his scythe he first combed the ice from his beard and then fell over the hoary horizon late Tuesday night.
1968-69 PENULTIMATE BIG ONE, POLITICS, MORE SNOWBALLS
The 1968-69 winter season’s serious “episodes” began with a dangerous tease. On December 18, a Wednesday, the highest points of West Seattle got three inches of snowfall by 9 a.m. Downtown, however, it rained, and seriously. Through a 90-minute period in the early morning, .40 of an inch was measured. As of 8 a.m., the Seattle Times reported, “Seattle’s rainfall total stood at 44.63 inches, only 2.32 inches from 1950’s record 46.63 inches.” And there was more to come in ’68. The short days of December flirted with freezing and so made fools of drivers – fools and synchronized stunt men.
At one spot of black ice on the Seattle Freeway’s express lane, 10 vehicles went into a simultaneous slide. Through the night of December 18-19, where a tunnel opens to Mercer Street off the southbound side of 1-5, drivers hit ice. State troopers estimated that at least one of every three vehicles “fishtailed” against the guardrail. Early Thursday morning the Evergreen Point Floating Bridge was described as a “skating rink” waiting for Eastside commuters. That morning there was a five-degree difference in the temperatures registered at SeaTac and the Weather Service’s thermometer atop the old Federal Office Building at First and Madison. When the Times closed the paper’s weather door to new data for the Thursday edition, it was 27 at SeaTac, but downtown it was only 32 degrees. Still, that was the first freezing temperature recorded in the business district since January 30 of 1968. For the most part it had been another Mediterranean year.
It is generally appreciated that our bigger snows are especially useful for story telling and malingering. But all snows, especially the big ones, are also political. Of course, slush and snow do not divide along party lines, nor does the National Weather Service, for instance under a Republican administration, have a “southern strategy” that might use an early frost on the Blue Ridge Parkway in Kentucky to play upon inexperienced citizens’ fear of black ice and so keep them off the highways and perhaps also away from polling booths. We will agree that a low-pressure front off the coast may have foreign relations with a high-pressure system out of Canada, but the ordinary politics of snow is a mix of public service and resentment. Snows are good for complaining, much of it thrown at authorities. With any “act of god,” like a big snow, the buck it seems never reaches the divine but it will often make it to the mayor.
We will use Mayor James d’Orma “Dorm” Braman as an example. This Republican was elected mayor in a more-or-less Democratic town in 1965. By the time drivers got in line to fishtail into guardrails, as described above, Braman was bi-partisan. With the power of his office, he both made and helped make big things happen, like the first federal Model Cities grant directed to any city, and the local bond issues of Forward Thrust, a grand civic improvement initiative that perhaps only a Democrat could have named. Forward Thrust went after federal money for both cleaning up Lake Washington and building rapid transit through the city. That voters rejected the latter when asked to raise only 25 percent of the total bill was a great disappointment to Braman, whose ideology by then was more about progress than parsimony. With the voters’ moronic rejection, the financing went to Atlanta instead, and that was a southern strategy.
Rising on the morning of December 27, 1968, Braman felt the arctic front that had moved into town during the night. He probably shuddered with thoughts of what might be coming, and, indeed, soon learned that Seattle was almost surrounded. That morning it was snowing in both Hoquiam near the coast and in Bellingham. The Weather Service described what we know is the one-two punch behind most of Puget Sound’s big snows: arctic air from Canada mixing it up with a low-pressure center moving in from the coast. As TV’s Mr. Science explained it, drops released by moist air riding over cold air turn to snow. For two days cold prevailed over snow. The low temperature for the 29th was 13 degrees. More remarkably, the high temperature of 19 degrees was lower than the previous record low for that date: 21 degrees in 1927.