5 feet of snow in Seattle? It happened 137 years ago today

Cherry Street in over five feet of snow, 1880. Over five feet of snow fell on Seattle in early January 1880. The city wasn't used to such heavy snow. Schools closed, trains didn't run, and the city's activities ground to a halt. This photo was taken on January 10th, 1880 after the great snow. It shows the view up Cherry Street from First Avenue towards First Hill. (Photographer: Peterson Brothers via Museum of History & Industry. Photograph Collection: PEMCO Webster & Stevens Collection)

The meteorological history of the Pacific Northwest is fraught with tremendous snowstorms and incredible wind storms. But 137 years ago Monday, our region managed to somehow experience both on the same day.

January 9, 1880 is when the infamous "Storm King" struck the Northwest, bringing feet of snow to the Seattle area and damaging winds to Oregon.

"If cyclones competed for 'strongest Storm on Record,' the final round would probably be between the windstorm of January 9, 1880, and the Columbus Day storm of 1962," noted local windstorm researcher Wolf Read wrote in his research of the storm.

The challenge in the comparisons is that weather observations from 1880 were very sporadic so it's difficult to really map out exactly what happened. Read's research goes into great detail on what he was able to determine based on the few observations he had and, combined with some old newspaper clippings and good old-fashioned sleuthing using clues about damage reports, he was able to paint a pretty decent picture of what happened. And just like most storms around here -- some places got slammed with severe weather, while other places hardly had anything.

But what makes the Storm King unique was that it came on the heels of a major snow event in Washington in the days before. There was already at least two feet of snow around the Puget Sound area when the Storm King made landfall as an estimated 955 mb monster around Astoria (about on par with some of our greatest wind storms to have since hit the region). With the strongest winds out of the south on the southern side of the low, Oregon was blasted with what Read estimates are at least 60-75 mph gusts, with perhaps some even higher gusts based on the amount of trees that were felled in the storm.

Yet the north side of the storm will bring northerly winds to feed the low center. Much like we have this week, a deep pool of arctic air was parked in British Columbia, and this storm sucked a lot of it back into Western Washington, then dumped what would normally have been 1-2 inches of rain on top of the cold air, making for what were near-record short-term durations of snowfall around the Puget Sound area, Read says. Some spots around Seattle got two feet of snow in short order making for 4-5 feet of total snow in the city. This photo from the Museum of History and Industry shows 5 feet, 4 inches of snow at Yesler Wharf. But Seattle did not get any wind damage.

"Seattle reported no wind-related damage, even though the barometer fell as low as 28.41 (inches) at Port Townsend to the north," Read wrote. "The entire Puget Lowlands was spared a severe blow, but suffered a tremendous snowstorm instead."

This does speak to how hard pressed it would be here to get a wind storm and snow storm together in the same location, although some of the Oregon locations did get some snow after the storm passed during the Storm King.

Read figures the storm tracked into Astoria, then across southwestern Washington and perhaps over Mt. St. Helens area into Eastern Washington. Those in the path of the storm, ironically, didn't have much of the storm at all -- unlike a hurricane eye wall, weather is generally calmer near the center of a mid-latitude low pressure storm because the pressure differences are lower. (I surmise the people of the time in that region probably grabbed their quill and ink and penned off a letter to the Weather Bureau admonishing them for hyping the storm with extra loud dots and dashes on the telegraphed forecast, despite the chaos just a few miles to their north and south.)

But once the storm passed, the snow reached down into southwestern Washington and Oregon as well.

"Kalama... mentioned four inches of snow on the ground there, two to three feet between Winlock and Tenino, and three to five feet between Tenino and Tacoma," Read wrote. "According to the Kalama train that arrived on the 11th, the snow at Tacoma was 35 inches deep early Friday, and this figure had jumped to 54 inches by Monday afternoon. Snow loading caused problems all over the affected region. Olympia reported severe damage to structures. Sheds and barns collapsed at Port Townsend. In Seattle, on the 8th, flakes accumulated at the rate of 1.5" an hour with temperatures just above freezing, making for a heavy, wet blanket. The weight of the snow base had reached 52 pounds per square foot, causing roofs to fail; with four feet 'on the level,' it was said to be the heaviest snowfall since at least 1852."

Some of the other notes from the storm, via Read's research:

  • Seattle had light winds, but 2 feet of new snow with 4-6 feet on the ground by the end of the storm.
  • Port Townsend had 4 feet of total snow accumulation.
  • Tacoma: 19" of new snow; 54" on the ground
  • Olympia: 30" of snow
  • Astoria (OR): Light damage, but just down the road at Ft. Clatsop, "terrific west wind" knocks over several snow-laden trees
  • Kalama, Wash. -- A gale breeze out of northwest; 4" of snow
  • Forest Grove, Oregon (under track of storm:) No damage
  • Vancouver, Wash. -- 25% of trees blown down
  • Portland: South gusts of 60-70 mph; 100 structures damaged, all time record low barometer reading of 28.56"
  • Salem, OR: Southerly winds damage roof of State House, many trees down, then 7" of snow.
  • Coos Bay, Ore: "Violent storm" -- schooner dragged ashore.

Here is his complete map of notes:

Of course, had a storm of that magnitude struck today, you can imagine the damage and chaos to the region. To try to think of an even worse case scenario, if we brought in another great warm, Pineapple Express storm on this kind of storm's heels, that would be about the worst it could get around here, I'd wager with another widespread snow event changing to heavy rains on top of 4-6 feet of snow accumulations causing massive collapses of weak structures.

Let's just not try to find out for sure...

close video ad
Unmutetoggle ad audio on off