On Wednesday, November became the wettest month on record in Seattle's rain-sodden history. Still, when it comes to really wet, it's hard...
On Wednesday, November became the wettest month on record in Seattle’s rain-sodden history.
Still, when it comes to really wet, it’s hard to beat the old record, set in December 1933.
That month opened with a different kind of wet: the repeal of Prohibition on Dec. 5.
As cases of whiskey and beer were being carted in, then-Gov. Clarence Martin cautioned revelers against “breaking windows, smashing tables and chairs or poking your fists into someone’s physiognomy.”
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But the “Repeal Parties” fizzled under a heavy downpour. And it kept raining.
By the month’s end, the Pacific Northwest faced catastrophic floods. Fifteen people died, and dozens of families had to be rescued from attics or rooftops of flooded homes. Towns from Kent to Aberdeen could be traversed by rowboat. Rail traffic ceased when embankments collapsed.
And then it snowed.
Watching the rain
Last week, November 2006 became the wettest month at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport since the National Weather Service began measuring Seattle rainfall there in 1945. Rainfall had previously been measured at the Federal Building downtown since the 1890s. The record there had been 15.33 inches in December 1933. Sea-Tac Airport reported a monthly total of 15.37 inches late Wednesday.
The Seattle of 1933 had about 365,000 people — about 200,000 fewer than today — and was caught unaware by the winter torrent. The Depression still ruled, with long unemployment lines. Martin had closed banks for a day earlier in the year because of financial instability. Adolf Hitler was consolidating power, and Japan had left the League of Nations.
The booze helped ease the anxiety.
On the day of repeal, Utah became the 36th state to ratify the 21st Amendment. The City Council wanted Seattle to get into the liquor-sales business, but Seattle Mayor James F. Dore rejected the idea because of the potential for graft.
“There would be too much temptation to use bottled goods for skid grease around election time,” he told the Seattle Daily Times.
Rainier Beer sold for 10 cents a glass, and whiskey for $1.50 a quart. Out-of-practice bartenders kept mixology books behind the bar as cheat sheets.
In Olympia, legislators debated imposing “blue laws,” which would have outlawed drinking in public. The Times, unabashedly pro-wet, ridiculed the proposals under the headline “The Demon Rum Law.”
Lawmakers declined to join the repeal parties in part because of a one-day rainfall total of 2.6 inches in Olympia, according to the Times.
By midmonth, seven consecutive days of showers had pushed rivers above their banks and collapsed bulkheads from West Seattle to Golden Gardens. The largest building in Aberdeen had 6 inches of water in its lobby, and Kent and Auburn were nearly impassable. A Seattle engineer reported seeing a 50-foot bridge floating down the Duwamish River.
Mudslides became endemic, with 33 slides reported on one day. The owner of an apartment building near Leschi Park awoke early to hear the foundation cracking, and got his six renters out before the building slid 15 feet and came to rest at a sharp angle.
As Christmas neared, rail traffic virtually stopped because of eroded embankments. Nearly 6 feet of water covered Orillia Road in South King County. Bellingham’s harbor was closed because of storm debris.
Fledgling airlines were suddenly vital. United Airlines pilot Bert Ball, flying a load of people and orchids up from Portland, reported that Western Washington looked like “an inland sea.”
“From Portland to Kelso, the land looks like a lake,” he told the Times. “From Tacoma to Seattle is one continuous canal, through which the tops of railroad embankments are showing. Kent and Auburn and other valley towns are under water.”
At Martin’s request, the newly formed federal Civil Works Administration hired 3,000 men to rebuild dikes and bridges. The Legislature took a break from deliberations on blue laws to zip through $250,000 in emergency funding. Despite the devastation, downtown Seattle tried to stay festive. Muskrat fur coats sold for $98, and a new department store, Proctor’s, opened with flourish.
On Christmas Eve, a sold-out crowd at Seattle’s Metropolitan Theatre had to wait for a performance by actress Katherine Cornell when her troupe, including a 17-year-old Orson Welles, was delayed by flooding, according to Historylink.org, an encyclopedia of Washington history.
Cornell arrived at 11:20 p.m., nearly three hours after the scheduled start. The three-hour show started at 1 a.m.
The next day, it rained again.
Jonathan Martin: 206-464-2605 or firstname.lastname@example.org