One hundred years ago, Seattle was blanketed by nearly 4 feet of snow after a cold snowy January and two days of unrelenting snowfall in early February.
THIS WEEK’S subject, snowbound Ballard Avenue, was chosen ceremonially: It celebrates the 100th anniversary of Seattle’s — and the Northwest’s — Big Snow of 1916.
In early February, the snow began an unrelenting 24-hour drop that added nearly 2 feet to the 2 feet that had accumulated through an exceptionally cold January. For many Ballardians, the fact that Prohibition began its 16-year run here at the beginning of 1916 added to the chill, especially on Ballard Avenue, celebrated for its saloons. With its rough count of Ballard Avenue bars, “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not” figured there was “one for every church in Ballard.”
The new and heavy snow of early February put on ice, and sometimes under, commuting, public entertainment, classroom education, railroads and weak roofs. The grandest disaster was on First Hill, where the St. James dome collapsed into the cathedral’s narthex. For this exceptional occasion, the bishop expressed thanks that no one was in church.
Here a neighborhood professional photographer, Fred P. Peterson, sights to the southeast with his back near what was — until Seattle annexed Ballard in 1907 — its City Hall at 22nd Avenue Northwest. Peterson has stamped in red ink at the bottom of his snapshot a claim of copyright next to a caption, which records a “record snow fall of 38 inches” accumulated on the second and third of February. At least six trolleys are stalled on Ballard Avenue, and close to Peterson a motorcar straddles the avenue and its sidewalk. The sign swinging above it suggests this might be a Studebaker stuck in its attempt to get service.
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Measured principally by depth and not by winter mayhem, Seattle’s biggest big snow blanketed the village in 1880. (This feature could not commemorate that big snow with a centennial because “Now and Then” started in the winter of 1982. I remember that it was raining.) On Sunday, Jan. 4, 1880, the rain froze. On Monday, it was all snow. Two days later, the Seattle Intelligencer purposely exaggerated the depth at 10 feet “in order to play it safe.” Pioneer promoters liked calling Puget Sound our “Mediterranean of the Pacific.” On Saturday, Jan. 10, the Seattle Intelligencer advised, “If anyone has anything to say about our Italian skies … shoot him on the spot.”
Among our pioneers were many weather watchers who kept diaries. By their authority, 6½ feet of snow was measured in the first week of January 1880, and on Jan. 12, it began to rain.