This Week Then: Looking Back on the PNW's Worst Snowstorms

Our recent winter weather has nothing on the Big Snow of 1880
| Updated: February 14, 2019

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Snowy Display

This week, as most of Washington experiences the snowiest February in decades, HistoryLink invites you to curl up next to the warm glow of your tablet, smartphone, or computer screen as we take a look back at some of the region's worst snowstorms.

Some of our state's most inclement winter weather hit during 1861-1862, when Seattle and Olympia were covered for weeks with two feet of snow, and temperatures fell below zero. Ten years later another record snowfall came down. A cold snap froze rivers in 1875, and a really big snow hit Puget Sound beginning on January 5, 1880, just days after Territorial Governor Elisha Ferry assured the world that "ice and snow are are almost unknown in Washington Territory."

Large amounts of the white stuff fell from the skies in 1884 and 1893, but so much snow piled up in 1916 that it collapsed the dome of St. James Cathedral in Seattle. And a melting snowpack near Stevens Pass in 1910 wiped out two trains, killing 96 people in one the nation's worst train disasters. Wartime production froze when a snowstorm paralyzed Puget Sound in 1943, record low temperatures lasted for three weeks in 1950, and some of you may remember the two weeks of wicked winter weather that struck Western Washington in 2008.

But even with all this cold and snow, there have been some benefits. If it weren't for snow in the mountains, Eddie Bauer might not have invented the down parka, Bill Kirschner might not have invented a fiberglass ski, C. C. Filson might not have invented the Cruiser shirt, and Jim Whittaker -- a future CEO of REI -- might not have conquered the highest mountain in the world. 

Presidents' Day

This week HistoryLink marks Presidents' Day with a look at the three U.S. presidents who briefly called Washington their home before making their way to the White House. We begin with Ulysses S. Grant, who in 1852 arrived at Columbia Barracks on the Columbia River in what is now Clark County. The future president served 15 months there as camp quartermaster, and it was here in the Northwest that Grant grew his beard, which he kept for the remainder of his life.

In 1940 Lieutenant Colonel Dwight D. Eisenhower reported for duty at Fort Lewis, near Tacoma. His wife Mamie preceded him to establish their home, which still stands and is marked with a plaque. Their son John attended Stadium High School, and the Eisenhowers had a very active social life. While stationed at Fort Lewis, Ike was promoted to colonel before he and his family left for Fort Sam Houston, Texas, in 1941. Following that, Ike went to war, rose to the rank of five-star general, and commanded Allied troops in Europe. In 1952 he was elected president, and he returned to Washington several times while in office.

President Barack Obama's mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, was a teenager when she moved to Seattle with her family in 1955, living in Columbia City, then Wedgwood, and finally on Mercer Island. After graduating from high school, Dunham enrolled in the University of Hawaii, where she met and married Barack Obama. Their son, Barack Hussein Obama, was born on August 4, 1961. Shortly after, baby and mother moved  to Seattle, where Dunham enrolled in the University of Washington. Mother and son lived in the Capitol Hill neighborhood for less than a year before returning to Hawaii, probably in the late summer of 1962. Although Obama's stay in Seattle was brief, it does mark the beginning of his journey from this Washington's Capitol Hill to the other one.


Coughing Cessation

On February 15, 1909, concerned citizens founded the Anti-Tuberculosis League of King County. The league later received some of the profits from the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, which helped fund a municipal tuberculosis hospital -- later renamed Firland Sanatorium -- near Shoreline.


On February 19, 1909, Local 174 of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters was chartered in Seattle. In the 1920s Dave Beck rose from the ranks of laundry-truck drivers to control the entire Teamsters International, aided for many decades by Local 174 chief Frank Brewster. But in the 1950s Beck ran afoul of federal law and became a resident of McNeil Island Penitentiary in 1962. After his release in 1964 he retired to Seattle, while George Cavano rebuilt and recharged Local 174.

Boat Transformation

On February 17, 1928, tragedy struck aboard the ferry Peralta in San Francisco, when five passengers drowned after the bow flooded. Five years later, the jinxed boat burned to the hull, which was saved and used to build the ferry Kalakala. The streamlined vessel went on to achieved such fame that it was awarded the world's first-ever commercial marine-radar set, which went into use on February 14, 1946.

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