SINCE 2005, WHEN I began contributing photos to this column, whenever flakes of snow begin to fall, I pack a camera bag and hit the slippery Seattle streets, clutching a sheaf of old photos to repeat. However, in those 15 years, I’ve repeatedly failed to capture snow blanketing First and Cherry, as shown in this week’s classic “Then” photo from 1880. The Captain Ahab in me calls it my “white whale.”
Longtime Seattleites might recall wistfully the rare blizzards of 2018, 1996, 1969 and 1950 (whose 20-inch blitz set the latter-day record for greatest one-day snowfall).
Their effects were dwarfed by Seattle’s second-biggest snow, beginning Feb. 1, 1916, when 21.5 inches nearly KO’d the young city. On Groundhog Day afternoon at 3:13, the dome of St. James Cathedral collapsed under the extra load, only hours after a morning Mass attended by a group of schoolgirls from Holy Names Academy. My grandmother Dorothy later recalled that as a girl of 10, she joined thousands of skaters on frozen Green Lake in the cold snap preceding the snow.
But the king of snows in the Queen City was crowned the same year that Seattle, its population having grown to 3,500, overtook Walla Walla as the region’s largest town.
In a “state of the territory” address published Sunday, Jan. 4, 1880, in the Seattle Intelligencer, territorial Gov. Elisha P. Ferry warmly promoted our region’s temperate, near-Mediterranean climate. “Ice and snow,” he wrote, “are of rare occurrence and almost unknown in Western Washington.”
That same evening, the weather gods replied with a vengeance. Bitterly cold winds invaded homes “through cracks not before known to exist,” the paper reported. The next day, snow began to fall and continued through the week, collapsing awnings and threatening buildings across town.
Yesler’s Hall, used for dances, concerts and theatricals, was “in danger of wrecking; the walls cracking and opening from the enormous weight upon [its] roof.” Only the quick action of men who were paid an exorbitant $1 an hour to shovel off the snow averted disaster.
At week’s end, the Intelligencer projected the snow “would average a depth of six feet on the townsite of Seattle.” In a petulant potshot (take cover, Elisha), it continued, “If any one has anything to say of our Italian skies and climate, shoot him on the spot.”
On Jan. 12, 1880, the Seattle Fin-Back, a free weekly rag, polled elderly natives on “the snow question.” Chief Seattle’s daughter Kikisoblu, known as Princess Angeline, said she “had never seen so much snow at any one time.” Old Ned, however, who lived at the foot of Battery Street, was less impressed. He boasted that he had “seen snow 50 years ago over seven feet deep” when Angeline was a mere child.