Longtime Speaker of the House in the U.S. Congress, Thomas “Tip” O’Neill’s famous reduction “All politics is local” is true for snow as well. On January 9, 1980, eight inches of fresh snow was measured on the ground at SeaTac airport at 4 a.m. By then the international airport was the primary weather base for the Seattle area. The obvious reason for this move from downtown was that the meteorological needs of jets were greater than those of citizen commuters. Had the Weather Service still been measuring snow at the old Federal Building at First and Madison, it piled half as high as at SeaTac.

Lower Queen Anne resident Frank Shaw took another walk with his Hasselblad and recorded the two Seattle Center snowscapes printed here. The snow clings to the 750-lb bronze statue Le Corsair when this dancer was still almost hovering beside the Opera House. Apparently unpopular for its sexual ambiguity it has since been put in storage; that is, censored. Another of Shaw’s snaps reveals a smiling snowman under, we may imagine, the patriarchal protection of sculptor Toni Smith’s Moses. Had by some miracle of Winter Wonderland the little snowman managed to keep from melting it may have needed to be separated from the older man.



Remembering, perhaps, the black-ice slides of 1968, the Seattle Freeway was closed briefly on the morning of January 9.  To the north, Bellingham got six inches and Anacortes ten.  But it was to the south that our locally restrained snow got deeper the farther one traveled – or called ahead.  When SeaTac measured its eight inches early in the morning, Olympia’s snowfall was already thirteen inches deep.  Farther south, in the Columbia River Gorge, the wind-driven snow had elevated effects, with 14-foot drifts measured near Multnomah Falls.  But now writing about windy snow at Multnomah Falls shivers my knees and leads me to another snowbound digression.

In 1957 – or perhaps ’58 – when returning with two classmates from Christmas in Spokane to college in Portland, we drove into a blizzard that was blowing east through the Columbia River Gorge.  Had it been during the day, the effect might have resembled the white-out that is sometimes described in a “near-death experience” except that the VW we were riding in came with a noisy muffler, and it was dark.

Soon after the snow began driving into us we noticed that no car headlights were coming towards us on the eastbound left side of what was then still the landmark two-lane highway.  That was both uncanny and unsettling enough for us to vigorously discuss pulling over while quietly considering prayer.  Certainly every motorist on that scenic route who was not a blithe novice was profoundly worried about keeping to the road, which could no longer be seen except by implication.  Traffic slowed to a brisk walk.  I felt we should be crawling.

Seeing only the taillights of the car in front of us, we decided to stop but could not with any confidence determine where. Soon we passed cars off the shoulder on the right that had either slid away or been directed there by drivers whose heroic decisions were some mix of careful and impetuous. Before a dozen or so others could make this decision to break from the highway, they left it anyway, by following the mistakes of the drivers in front of them.

With an important wrinkle, that is what happened to us: three ministerial students in a VW Bug headed for Concordia College.  By extraordinary luck, our leader, the also near-blind driver in the car whose tail lights we carefully clung to, felt his or her way gradually but noticeably to the right and thereby – oh wonderful! – directly onto the Multnomah Falls exit, where we ran onto no 14-foot drifts, only a shoulder wide enough for parking.

Although blinding, our blizzard was another example of local weather.  It soon slipped through the Gorge, and after an hour or so we resumed our trip to Portland.  Since there was surely no way in hell nor heaven that night and in that acute storm to read any sign – lighted or reflected – directing the driver in front of us onto that exit, we considered that it may have been a guardian angel behind the wheel leading us through a religious experience.  But this we soon dismissed, for we were all then students of theology and knew better.  It was all too purgatorial, and we were Lutherans from birth.


Click to enlarge

I include this small panorama of two Wallingford residences on Eastern Avenue as another marker for all those little snows that have visited us and spread their snowscapes when opportunity allowed.  But almost as rapidly as these sorts of snows sneak into town they melt away.  This one is marked in my negatives simply as “Snow of 1984-85,” which is good enough.


As small snows would have it, another visited in November of 1985.   Since I’d planned that day to visit Jim and Anne Faber in their Madrona home I ventured onto the ridge above Lake Washington and on the way passed the little Denny Blaine park.  I paused there and snapped this look west across its pond.  Later I found a much earlier but undated view from nearly the same prospect, a scene also touched by snow.  The shelter constructed in 1901 as a real estate office for the Denny Blaine addition was later converted into a combined park shelter and covered waiting station for the trolley.

That afternoon I also coaxed Jim to pause for the camera when he greeted me near the front door.  Jim Faber was a friend with a wonderful wit and kindness.  Among other achievements he was the first press officer for Century 21 when it was being planned.  The famously good-humored “Mo” Udall, then the head of Lyndon Johnson’s Department of the Interior, hired Jim away to the other Washington to act as press officer for Udall’s department.


Returning to check my mail box in the University District P.O. I recorded “The Ave” with tire-pounded snow still holding to it.



After the five inches over five days in January 1971, nothing even hinting of “big” dropped on Seattle until 1996. The snows of 1980 and 1984-85 were about two-day incidents.  But the snow-rain of 1996-97 was frightful.  This “test tube” example of concentrated mayhem on our “Mediterranean shores” may be best viewed from the rear, for after its picturesque beginning, the five days of winter in late December 1969 ended on the last day of the year spouting much human misery.

The effects continued well into 1970.  At that time many locals, myself included, were suffering from yet another pang: the flu.  Almost all I saw of this snow was through the front window of a Wallingford bungalow from my improvised sick bed in the front room beside the fireplace, which comforted me to keep stoked.  I also stepped briefly on the front porch for a direct but brief witness to history, but obviously held no camera for I got not pictures of this fast big snow.

On Monday December 30, 1996, the Seattle Times reported, “This one will go down in history … Carports, awnings, boats and sections of buildings toppled under the weight . . . mounds of soggy snow turned into rivers, rushing down city streets, clogging gutters and seeping into homes . . . Routes across the Cascades remain closed.”  Al Braun, operations manager for Bellevue’s streets and surface-water division, and 30 years in that service, was quoted:  “The combination of so much snow, and rain right afterward, was something we had never seen before.”  Rainfall totals, in inches, for a 24-hour period ending Monday morning, were generally drenching: 1.64 at SeaTac, 2.90 at Sand Point in Seattle, 3.85 at Elma, and 3.04 at Ocean Shores.

The Times’ long list of casualties that Monday included a few of the bigger collapses among the dozens of fallen roofs.  Big holes opened above the Aurora K-Mart; the Lynnwood Drug Emporium; the state’s liquor store in Ballard; Crossroads’ Blockbuster Music, where piles of snow and air-condition units fell onto the racks of CDs; and at Snohomish, where the metal roof of a hangar at Harvey Field crashed to a dozen planes beneath it.  In Duvall, a barn roof collapse buried 21 cows – temporarily.  They were rescued.

At Westlake Park, Seattle’s holiday carousel folded under the weight of the snow.  The park’s guard described the sound:  “Boom. Just a big, loud crash.” Apartment-house carports routinely caved in, damaging the cars beneath them.  The lightly constructed covers of many marinas in the area fell on the boats they were meant to protect.  About 60 percent of the 1,200 boats moored at the Port of Edmonds marina were damaged, sinking about 300 of them.

Here the “politics of snow” was almost exclusively expressed as anger from the boat owners towards the Port.  In Portage Bay, an 80-foot yacht went under.  Nearly 150,000 homes lost power.  In Federal Way, fires started in two houses after the power was restored; the residents had left their appliances on.  Area hospitals were filled with fractures.  A nursing supervisor at Evergreen Hospital in Kirkland explained, “The emergency room is full. Every critical care bed is full . . . We had a few babies born in the car along the way to the hospital . . . and we can’t get nurses in to work.”  Edmonds police traded their patrol cars for snowmobiles.  Also in Edmonds, two fire trucks heading for two different alarms got stuck in the same intersection.

Lots of snow followed by a very fast melt were the causes.  There was some consolation for retailers that the snowfall began after Christmas and not before. Still, after-Christmas sales took a hit, but there were also very few returns.  Between Thursday the 26th and Monday the 30th, 17.9 inches fell at Sand Point, a foot of it by Friday evening.  One dispatcher in Kitsap evoked the driving: “The roads are just an atrocious mess.  We’ve had accidents on top of accidents.”

Many of the skiers who helped set attendance records at Cascade ski resorts on Christmas Day were stranded and reduced to a day-after Christmas Boxing Day of eating, drinking, playing cards and living like snow bunnies. For those who wished to attempt a return to Seattle, the Department of Transportation led a convoy down from Snoqualmie Pass.  At North Bend, the Red Cross opened a shelter for worn-out and stranded drivers.  At 11:30 a.m. on the 26th, Metro bus driver Susan Beatty gave up and pulled her bus over on Eastlake Avenue E.  The bus was empty anyway.  The Monorail stopped running at 2:30 for fear of ice on the cables. The malls closed early.

On Sunday the 29th, evening temperatures began to rise, the freeze was over, and too suddenly.  Sodden roofs began their collapse. In Hoquiam, the thermometer jumped 15 marks in one hour, from 35 to 50 degrees.  In Seattle, where for days it had huddled around 30, the temperature rose quickly to 49 degrees, with the results catalogued just above.  On Tuesday, the last day of 1996, the wind also began to howl, the rivers swell, and bluffs slide away.  Snow slides stopped most of the trains over the passes.  Power remained off for thousands.

In the end, the story of the 1996 snow was more about the roiling mud of 1997 – the roads and bridges that were closed by it and the homes that were carried away.  Only reluctantly by adding mud to snow may we join 1996 to 1969, 1950, 1916, 1893, 1880, and 1861-62 for our nearly complete list of the intemperate “Big Snows” that have temporarily whipped up our ordinarily sober, steadfast, and demure Mediterranean of the Pacific. And now, because of another pressured meeting between a Canadian high and a Pacific Coast low, we may also add our very own Big Snow of 2008.

(continue to Part 10)

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