Skagit River Journal
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1916: the mother of all snowstorms
And it smothered Sedro-Woolley and Skagit county . . . in March

By Noel V. Bourasaw, Skagit River Journal, ©2002

(South view on Metcalf street 1916)
      Here we look south on Metcalf street sometime during the great 1916 snowstorm. Snow drifted as high as five feet in some areas. Note that the cluster lights were installed by then, the ones that inspired the present cluster lights on Woolley streets. These photos were taken by Frank LaRoche, a famed Sedro-Woolley photographer who had his office in the Schneider building at the near right.

      [Updated March 2006: We only had a light dusting of snow in December 2005, but some folks are talking about a follow-up snow in March 2006, as temperatures slide back to freezing and cold winds from the north come blowing in. So, we thought we would remind you of the mother of all snowstorms since settlement county-wide, in 1916, when snow drifted at least five feet high in Sedro-Woolley and other places in the valley, and much more fell in the North Cascades.] Updated January 2012: we had a pretty good snowfall of 8-12 inches this winter. Are you ready for five feet of snow in March?
      Sustained snow in the Skagit valley surprises some folks who have not lived in Washington for long, but real old-timers will tell you that snow at the spring equinox is not that unusual, especially the closer you are to the Cascades. Of course, the snow usually does not stick; it often yields to rain and soon results in slush and mud.
      That certainly was not the case in 1916, however, when Puget sound shut down for weeks and the famous fertile soil of the Skagit valley resembled tundra. If you consult the National Weather Service (NOAA) list of Washington's ten most serious weather events, you will find that the period of January through March 1916 was the time of Seattle's greatest snowstorm. During that period, Seattle recorded its maximum snowfall ever in a 24-hour period, 21.5 inches on February 1, while other parts of western Washington received between two and four feet of snow and high winds created snow drifts as high as five feet.
      NOAA records show that the whole region was crippled and transportation was essentially halted. In Seattle alone that year the snowfall in January was 23 inches and in February was 35 for a two-month total of 58 inches. Transportation then was changing in nature. Before that decade the prevalent modes were by canoe, steamboat and train, with the electrified interurban connecting Puget sound cities in the teen years. There was an explosion of automobile sales by 1915 and concrete and macadam roads were laid out between population centers but the snow of 1916 sent road planners back to their drawing boards.
      As usual, is the best in-depth source of anecdotes about that period of the sustained storms. At this website we learn about 1916 and early storms:

      When the big snow of 1916 began to fall on a cold Monday on January 31, 1916, there may have been more cameras than shovels in the hands of amateurs. The flurry of snapshots of our second greatest snowstorm illustrate snow-stopped streetcars, closed schools, closed libraries, closed theaters, closed bridges, a clogged waterfront, collapsed roofs, and — most sensationally — the great dome of St. James Cathedral, which landed in a heap in the nave and choir of the sanctuary. (There were no injuries to persons.)
      The unusually cold January already had 23 inches of snow on the ground when, on the last day of the month, it began to fall relentlessly. Between 5 p.m. on Tuesday, February 1 and 5 p.m. on Wednesday, February 2, 21.5 inches accumulated in the Central Business District at the Weather Bureau in the Hoge Building. This remains (in 2002) a record — our largest 24-hour pile.
      The 1916 snow was a wet snow, and it came to a foul end — a mayhem of mud that mutilated bridges and carried away homes.
      The "Big Snow" of January 1880 was well described by locals, and there are at least six surviving photographs. Pioneer accounts corroborate Sayre's claim: "The five-day snowfall drifted in places to over six feet." That makes the 1880 "Big Snow" still our biggest snow 122 years later (2002). Snow began falling on January 5, 1880, immediately following Territorial Governor Elisha Ferry's State of the Territory message assuring the world that "ice and snow are almost unknown in Washington Territory."
      By one newspaper account the big snow of 1893 began on January 27 and kept up almost steadily dropping 45 inches before it stopped on the February 8, 1893. On February 3, a reading of 5 degrees below zero was claimed at Woodland Park on Phinney Ridge, while down the hill on Green Lake the ice was six inches thick.
      In his book, Seattle, long-time Post-Intelligencer contributor Nard Jones notes of the 1893 snow and cold that "it frightened a good many Seattleites nearly to death; they thought the end of the world was on its way and not in accordance with the Bible." The following autumn the world seemed to end again for the religious and secular alike with the great economic panic of 1893. Those "last days" held until 1897.

      If you want to learn everything about blizzards and big snowstorms, you can consult The National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) site. You will learn there that 1916 and 1917 were back-to-back blizzard years like the ones I can remember as Christmas wonderlands, 1949 and 1950. During the winter of 1916-1917, 789.5 inches of snow fell at Paradise Inn on Mount Rainier. In March 1917, the snow there was packed 27 feet deep.

1916 local events

(Bruner Mills Confectionery 1916)
      Bruner Mills owned this confectionery shop in a wooden building that is no longer standing. It was located on what are now the lots of Holland Drugs on the west side of the 800 block of Metcalf street. Judging from the snow drifts we assume that this photo was taken sometime in February 1916. Stella Devener, daughter of the undertaker, A.M. Devener, stands in the doorway. Marilyn Hyldahl Thompson, wife of long-time forester Dale Thompson is a descendant of the Mills family and has supplied us much of their history. The present city attorney, Pat Hayden, is also a descendant of the family. Mr. Mills had bought an existing confectionery business sometime after 1900. In 1918, Marion Gampp and family bought the business and in 1947, Bob Magnuson and Pete Hansen bought it and turned it into Pete & Bob's Café. You can read about all those owners at this website. These LaRoche photos are courtesy of Alcina Harwood, one of the few surviving teachers from the early Central school and other districts in Skagit County. She was a longtime member of the Territorial Daughters. She qualified by being a descendant of the L.A. Boyd family of Birdsview, who settled there in 1882. She was also a descendant of the Hoyt family who had the most notable mill in the Prairie district. [Sadly, Alcina passed away on November 26, 2005. R.I.P..]

      Locally, the snow that year was just one more bit of bad news. The year had started with a nasty hangover for local lovers of spirits and liquor. Washington had been one of the earliest states to climb on the Prohibition wagon and actually voted in 1914 for statewide prohibition against alcohol. Liquor interests didn't take that lying down, however, and tied up the bill in courts. But on Jan. 1, 1916, statewide prohibition took effect, exactly three years before Nebraska ratified the eighteenth amendment so that the national version became the rule of the land.
      Also early that year, E.G. "Dad" Abbott opened his Chevy dealership in Woolley where the Marketplace Grocery stands in 2002 on the north side of State street. His was the first dealership in the state and was the ancestor of today's Countryside Chevrolet. Over in Burlington, work began on the new one-half mile horseracing track at the Skagit County fairgrounds, located where Fred Meyers stands today. Also in Burlington, the Skagit County Dairymen's Association established the Darigold brand, which would eventually become the dominant force in dairies throughout the northwest counties. And Pacific Telephone extended its monopoly over telephone service in the county about ten years after it organized here. In March that year, Mrs. F. R. Gibboney opened the Valley Hospital on East Ferry street at the former home of Dr. J. F. Mills [the house that still has the very large boulder in front of it in 2002, on the north side a block east from the Catholic church].
      One local road that was disrupted greatly by the snow was the Chuckanut Highway, which had opened with great fanfare on October 23, 1915. At that time, it was part of the only north-south state highway and would remain the primary arterial until the Pacific Coast Highway was excavated nearly 20 years later. What was then known as the Wickersham-Arlington Highway opened on March 8, about two months after the snow began melting. That is what we now call Highway 9.
      Besides the snow drifts on Metcalf street that often stood five feet high, the most obvious result of the sustained cold was the sheet of ice over the Skagit River, the first time it had frozen that thick since 1880. Although freight companies cursed the ice that ended the sternwheeler traffic, local children and the young at heart took great joy from the skating, dancing and improvised hockey games played between the new auto and pedestrian bridge at the foot of Third street and the Northern Pacific railroad trestle that still stands today in 2002 east of the present Clear Lake bridge. After the snow and ice shut down travel, the new Carnegie library became quite a social center. It opened just months before in October 1915. The Dream Theatre, owned by Dad Abbott's son, Ben, posted its highest attention records since it opened during Christmas week of 1913. At that time there were two other theatres, the Myrtle on State street and the Princess in the Knights of Pythias building on Metcalf. Even though the film choices were limited by when new films could be delivered, people did not seem to care.
      For the handful of families who had lived here since the very earliest pioneer days, memories of the 1880 snow must have still been sharp. Joseph Hart and others noted years afterwards that they found stumps upriver along Ruby creek that were 20 feet high or more, remnants of logging during the 1880 snow. Loggers had felled the trees, not knowing just how deep the snow was packed that winter. When the snow pack of 1880 melted after a warm Chinook wind, the resulting runoff from the mountains soon brought the river to flood stage. For the rest of that spring and summer season, the Skagit River was so abnormally deep that sternwheelers had enough draft to steam all the way up to Goodell's Creek near present-day Newhalem and the Portage. That was the first and last time boats made it that far up the river. The timing was propitious because that was the year that thousands of argonauts wanted passage up the river to strike it rich during the short-lived Ruby Creek gold rush. For first hand memories of the great 1916 snow, we share with you the following story by Sedro-Woolley's famed historian Ray Jordan.

The Big Snow of 1916

From Yarns of the Skagit Country, by Ray Jordan, p. 231, written March 3, 1971

Sedro-Woolley Courier-Times "80 years ago column," 1996, re: 1916: "Ice skating, a sport seldom enjoyed in Skagit County, had claimed many devotees. The small lakes and ponds had been frozen for five days, and each day and evening had seen crowds of merrymakers on the ice." The river froze over at least two times before that, in the monster blizzard of 1879-80 and in 1982. Can any of you guess why the river has not completely frozen again since the 1920s?

      Sitting by our picture window watching the kids have fun in the white stuff while my snow shovel cools off, reminds me of a snow that was pistol pocket deep.
      Late in the January of 1916, Dad and I had been hauling gravel on the county road the day before the sky fell on us. It was cold that day with a fine, powdery snow sifting down on the frozen ground.
      When we quit that night, Dad gazed around at the clean, white expanse and predicted that if Mother Nature took a notion to pick her geese on that icy crust we would be wading snow until spring. It was not an overstatement.
      Next morning when we rolled out of the warm soogans [a quilt in a cowboy's bedroll] at 5 a.m. to do the milking there was a foot of it to greet us and more coming down.
      We were juicing about 25 cows and feeding 100 head of young stock on the A.A. (Ollie) Moody ranch at Belfast that winter, and if this spell lasted it meant that the cattle would have to practically live in the barn for the duration. Any rancher knows of the extra work brought on by a deep snow and cold snap when handling livestock.
      It snowed almost continuously for the next two or three days. When we weren't shoveling hay or straw we were scooping snow out of the way. By working from five in the morning until after dark we managed to keep on top.
      It was quite an experience. You can imagine what the roads were like. For two or three days all traffic stopped — no visitors, no milk wagon or mail rig, or bean wagon, just a vast, white silence in which nothing seemed to move.

Thermometer hovered near zero a long time
      At last it stopped snowing and turned cold, and for about a month the thermometer registered a monotonous zero, to two or three below.
      During the rush of work while the storm was on, we hadn't taken time to measure the snow depth. When we did get around to it, there was 30 inches of firmly packed snow on the level, which meant there could easily have been 36 inches or more before settling. We heard of other places where it was deeper. In drifted areas it covered the tops of fence posts.
      After the freeze, the situation eased quite a bit. The roads packed, which made traveling much better, but nevertheless, all the visitors we had for about six weeks were neighbors who lived within walking distance. Meantime the Belfast kids had a ball coasting on Bow Hill. With our full root cellars and home-cured meat we humans were doing all right. Our chief worry was whether we had enough hay to last us through.
      Things settled down to a routine until about the last of February or a little later when The Big Thaw started with a Chinook wind. In a day or two the bottom literally fell out of the roads. The mail stopped. So did the grocery and milk wagons. The mud was about as deep as the snow had been.
      It was several days before even heroes tried the highways. Our clean, white world was gone. One day Dad took a look around at the dirty mess and said, "Hell ain't half a mile from here."
      The only sad thoughts I have of that bitter winter are of the hungry cattle, and the wild life that perished from starvation. One day we happened to see some Chinese pheasants weakly staggering about looking for food. This gave us a jolt, so we tramped out a large spot in the snow in a brushy protected place and carried grain there every day until the thaw came.

Bob White quail nearly went extinct
      Up until this time there had been hundreds of Bob White quail on the place, but rarely was there one strong enough to stagger to the feeding place. Quite a few Chinks survived, but it was fifteen years before I ever saw a single Bob White again. We were too late with our help and I've felt badly about it ever since. That hard winter saw the virtual extinction of one of our most charming birds. How I would like to see one sitting on a fence post again greeting the world with his friendly whistle.
      It was a late spring that year. The snow melted slowly on the higher ground, and in the woods, even in the bottoms, there was still a foot of it as late as April. It was July before our hill pasture began to turn green. All the hay and straw in the county had been fed out and some stock hadn't had enough to survive. We made it by the skin of our teeth, but hauled many loads of straw from the Lee Moody place at Burlington to do so. I hope I never see the likes again.

Click on the thumbnail photos above to see the full-sized photo
(Metcalf street 600 block February 1916)
Metcalf street 600 block
February 1916.

(Metcalf street snow March 1916)
Metcalf street snow March 1916
Far left: This scene is looking east at the 600 block of Metcalf street. The Ramsay Sheet Metal business in the present Schooner Tavern building. At the right is the relatively new Wixson Hotel, now the Gateway. Between those buildings is the Wilson Saloon. James Wilson lost his son, Melvin, in the crossfire of the famous 1914 robbery of the First National Bank in the Wixson building.
Middle: Looking south on Metcalf street again, but this time at night, probably in March of 1916 because the snow has begun to melt and is turning into slush and mud mixed with what the horses leave behind them.

Story posted on March 21, 2002, last updated on March 10, 2006, moved to this domain Jan. 29, 2012
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