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Photos: 100-year anniversary of Seattle's greatest one-day snowstorm

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

Sure, many of you are celebrating Punxsutawney Phil's annual day to shine in the spotlight, but did you know February 2 holds another special place in Seattle's weather history?

Tuesday marks the 100-year anniversary of Seattle's greatest one-day snow storm, which was actually a three-day snowstorm. A can-you-image-what-would-happen-today, jaw-dropping 21.5 inches of snow fell in the heart of Seattle on Feb. 2, 1916, which still stands as Seattle's official largest one-day snow total.

(It's believed that the great snowstorm of 1880 actually had more snow overall -- Arthur Denny reported a depth over 4 feet -- and is generally considered the worst snowstorm in Seattle's history, but specific official daily records weren't kept then.)

According to local historian Paul Dorpat, January had already been a pretty cold and snowy month with 23 inches of snow on the ground already as the storm approached.

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" 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.

"Cameras were nearly as commonplace as shovels," Dorpat wrote. Photos show snow-stopped streetcars, a clogged waterfront, closed schools and libraries, and closed bridges.

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.

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.

Overall the storm totaled 29" when all was said and done.

The heavy snow was followed by warm, heavy rains (remember December 1996, anyone?) But with the melting rains came the first mail from the east in five days on Saturday, 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.

But with the heavy rains cams several mudslides along Magnolia, West Seattle and Queen Anne Hill, Dorpat wrote.

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


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.

It's amazing to think of that much snow back then. Seattle hasn't officially had more than 3 inches of snow in a day since our big snow and ice storm in Jan. 2012. The last time Sea-Tac Airport has officially measured snowfall on the ground was Feb. 8, 2014.

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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