Feb. 2, 1916: Seattle's epic blizzard that left 3+ feet on the ground

    Exhilarated snowman seen during Seattle's record 21.5" snowfall on Feb. 2, 1916. (Photo courtesy: Paul Dorpat / PaulDorpat.com)

    It's not only the groundhog's day to shine and the official halfway mark of astronomical winter, but did you know February 2 holds another special place in Seattle's weather history?

    Friday marks the 102-year anniversary of Seattle's greatest one-day measured snow storm when 21.5 inches fell in Seattle on Feb. 2, 1916. That's pretty crazy to think of on its own, but that was just a part of that particular three-day snow event -- and it came when there was already some snow on the ground.

    According to local historian Paul Dorpat, January had already been a pretty cold and snowy month with a monthly tally of 23 inches.

    Dorpat said Jan. 30, the day before the storm hit, was a Sunday, and about 3,000 skaters descended on a frozen Green Lake as part of a fun "day of rest" event that lasted well into the evening with bonfires along the shores.

    That Monday, the snow began -- lightly at first, but became heavy during the afternoon with about 7 new inches by evening. It was enough to "kill the skating," Dorpat wrote.

    Then the blizzard hit on the evening of Feb. 1 just as people were leaving work and 24 hours later, Seattle had nearly two feet of new snow. Overall, the three-day storm totaled 29" when all was said and done.

    "Cameras were nearly as commonplace as shovels," Dorpat wrote. Photos show snow-stopped streetcars, a clogged waterfront, closed schools and libraries, and closed bridges. It was the one time your great-great grandfather's seemingly exaggerated stories about walking in the snow (uphill both ways while carrying an ox!) probably had some shreds of truth.

    In an interesting case of perhaps history repeating itself, an article in the Seattle Times, quoted through Seattle's Museum of History and Industry, said snowplows had difficulty keeping the street car tracks clear and passing cars pushed the snow back into cleared spaces. Once that froze, it created giant snowballs that caused "the absolute ruination of tires and tempers," according to MOHAI, quoting the Times. Sounds a bit like 2008's snow storm around here.

    Photo courtesy: Paul Dorpat / PaulDorpat.com.

    But perhaps the greatest calling card from the storm was the collapse of the great dome atop St. James Cathedral on Feb. 2, triggered by the weight of three feet of snow (estimated at 15 tons). Luckily, no one was hurt, but the air pressure caused by the collapse blew out many of the cathedral's windows and tossed pews as far as the front entrance, according to MOHAI.

    The collapse left a 50-foot hole in the ceiling and did so much interior damage that the building was closed for over a year. The dome became too expensive to rebuild and was replaced by a vaulted ceiling, MOHAI said.

    Photo from inside St. James Cathedral whose dome collapsed on Feb. 2, 1916 under 15 tons of snow. (Photo courtesy: Paul Dorpat / PaulDorpat.com)

    Here is a story KOMO News did on the 70 year anniversary of the storm in 1986 with more photos and video:

    Some of the other notes from the storm, as posted in the Feb. 3, 1916 edition of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer:

    • A laborer was killed when he fell through a skylight of the Satori Building on Second Avenue
    • Roof of West Seattle Christian Church collapsed
    • All street car and interurban traffic was suspended, and all public schools were closed indefinitely
    • More than 1,500 city workers were sent to clear snow
    • All telephone and telegraph wires leading into the city were down except one wire to Chicago and a telegraph wire to Spokane
    • Depth of snow at 10 p.m. on Feb. 2: 30 inches

    I'm having a difficult time picturing this for modern day Seattle, as the city has had nothing even close to this amount in any recent years. The snow record has only seriously been challenged one time since: Jan. 13, 1950 when 20.0 inches fell at Sea-Tac Airport -- which stands as Seattle's current record for one day snow since official measurements were moved to Sea-Tac in 1945

    There have been some big snows in the city in 1990, 1996 and 2008 that some places in the city had near to just over a foot, but certainly not two-three feet. If three feet of snow fell in Seattle these days, it might have Amazon consider moving its HQ to Minneapolis to escape winter.

    Seattle Regular Winter Returned...With a Vengenacne!

    So, picture this 2-4 feet of snow around town, and then, how about tossing a Pineapple Express into the mix? In the days that followed the blizzard, temperatures warmed into the upper 30s with a few more inches of snow.

    Ominously there was also a note in that Seattle P-I edition titled: "Floods are the New Peril"

    "County Engineer Arthur P. Denton said last night that there was no immediate danger of a flood, but that he would not hazard an opinion as to the damage which would result if the present storm were to be followed by exceptionally warm winds. 'High water everywhere is bound to accompany the present heavy fall of snow,' said Mr. Denton. 'but no damage unless a chinook wind reaches our mountains. "

    Unfortunately, the "chinook" (warm wind) came. A Pineapple Express arrived. On Feb. 7, the temp warmed to 46 with 1.01" of rain. A brief dip to 40 degrees on the 8th brought a rain and snow mix but mostly rain at 0.78 inches. Another inch of rain would fall over the next two days as the highs reached 50 degrees for a total of 3 inches of (mostly) rain in Seattle on the heels of all that snow. Snow depth went from 18 inches on Feb. 6 to just 3 inches on Feb. 10th.

    With the heavy rains came several mudslides along Magnolia, West Seattle and Queen Anne Hill, Dorpat wrote. But the silver lining was that the first mail from the east in five days arrived on Feb. 7, Dorpat said, and then the next day, 19 snow-stalled trains finally make it to town. And on Monday, streetcar service was back to normal.

    By Valentine's Day, it would be 58 degrees in the city, matched again on the 15th. Feb. 18 would see nearly 60 degrees in the region -- two weeks after the town was buried in feet of snow.

    Special Thanks to Paul Dorpat, who has an amazing blog detailing Seattle's past, for sharing his knowledge and photographs of this amazing storm, and to Seattle's Museum of History and Industry for allowing use of their storm photos from their amazing archives.

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