The perfect storms of 1916

By PATRICIA SANDERS

The Oregon Daily Journal, January 1, 1916 Source: Historic Oregon Newspapers

Did you think January 10, 2017 was a big snow day in Portland? It was but a mere 6.5 feet compared to our highest snowfall (19.2 feet) on January 21, 1943. Then there was Portland’s number one biggest snowstorm in 1893, bringing 31.8 feet of snow over 14 days.

Arguably, even worse than either of these record events were those at the beginning of 1916, when snowstorms, blizzards, and ice storms hit Portland one after the other almost without respite. Since Portland’s two major newspapers, The Oregonian and The Oregon Journal, managed to run several articles each day describing the storms and their impacts, and through those newspaper reports and headlines it has been possible to recreate the story of this momentous period in Portland’s— and Montavilla’s— history.

“Snow Begins to Cover Portland”

(The Oregonian – Saturday, January 1, 1916)

Snow begins falling at 6 pm New Year’s Eve— the night, by the way, before Oregon’s Prohibition law kicks into effect. Waking children can hardly wait to get outdoors.

It’s the first real snow since 1913 and everyone is delighted. Portland’s newspapers document in stories and photographs children and adults at play— sledding, sleighing, having snowball fights, building snowmen, and ice skating on frozen ponds.

Journalists also wax poetic about the snow-covered city. Here’s an example in The Oregon Journal of January 7: “The ermine mantle bedecked alike mansion and lowly roof; unsightly gullies were transformed into places of beauty.” 

Inconveniences seem minor and by January 9, the snowstorm is over.

A second storm begins

(Tuesday, January 11, 1916)

On the night of January 11, the temperature drops to 18 degrees, Portland’s lowest temperature since 1909. Morning comes with a new blanket of snow and a howling east wind. Here, on Portland’s eastern boundary, the wind hits especially hard. The tracks of the Montavilla streetcar line, needed for the morning commute, are especially hard to clear, so hard that cars stand stranded at the line’s end on East Glisan Street.

By 7 pm, January 12, snow is at least 8 inches deep in the suburbs, with drifts mounting to six feet. Streetcars have been running all night in hopes of keeping the rails clear. But still, throughout the day some 1,200 men as well as mechanical snow brooms and scrapers are needed to keep the streetcars operating. 

The Oregonian, January 13, 1916 Source: Historic Oregon Newspapers

By January 13, the recent snowstorms have beaten all records since 1893: 16 inches of snow have fallen since January 1. The snow is fine and dry, the kind that blows into houses through cracks around doors and windows.

Homes are getting cold. Water pipes are freezing. Fire Chief B.F. Dowell warns residents not to thaw those pipes with blow torches; one man did this and burned down his house. Many have run low on fuel, since it is hard for wood and coal dealers to make the usual home deliveries. Somehow, though, postmen are managing to get through and some appreciative housewives will offer them warming cups of soup or coffee.

On January 18, the thermometer reads 34 degrees at noon. It is the first time since New Year’s Day that the temperature is above freezing. On January 20, unseasonably warm Chinook winds arrive and there is a new danger: falling icicles, some estimated to weigh up 20 or even 50 pounds. 

A third storm begins

(Monday, January 24, 1916)

The warming spell is short-lived— snow returns on January 24. Four days later a near-blizzard blows in from the east. The weatherman says no relief is in sight. For the entire month of January, on only five days will temperatures have risen above freezing and a total of 32.9 feet of snow will have fallen. 

Humans are not the only ones at risk during this record cold. Numerous notices appear in the press asking people to put out food for the birds, who would otherwise starve. The Oregon Fish and Game Commission provides grain to Montavilla and other areas with large pheasant populations. Fortunately school children, Boy Scout troops, Audubon Society members, and others heed this appeal and only a few birds are lost.

The first Silver Thaw begins 

(Tuesday, February 1, 1916)

The night of February 1 – 2, warm rain falls on frozen surfaces, encasing everything in ice. This is the dreaded Silver Thaw or ice storm— so beautiful, jewel-like, but also dangerous. It will do more damage than any other Silver Thaw on record and last longer than the one of 1907.

“Sea of Slush Hinders Traffic on Streets…”

(The Oregon Journal – Wednesday, February 2, 1916)

Early in the morning, the severe effects of the thaw become apparent. Snow and ice weigh heavily on trees, branches, utility poles, and wires, which come crashing down. Impassable barricades are created. Electrical, telephone, and telegraph services are lost. Schools close, for safety’s sake. People are advised to stay home.

Some downed lines. The Oregonian, February 3, 1916 Source: Historic Oregon Newspapers

The poles carrying the mainlines from the East 60th substation break at ground level and electrical power is lost in Montavilla and nearby neighborhoods. It will days before service returns. The unprepared will deplete stores’ supplies of candles and oil lanterns. With electrical lines out all over the city and emergency repairs needed, City utility damages are estimated at $100,000. 

When utility wires fall onto trolley wires, they put the electrically-powered streetcars out of service. By 5 pm, all rail systems are paralyzed from lack of power or the inability of cars to plow through deep snow. Montavillans and other east side residents who went to work today, will walk home into the biting east wind.

All day the temperature have been steadily dropping. Morning began with 33 degrees, but by 8 pm it is down to 24.

Hundreds Hike to their Work, Many Car Lines Blocked”

(The Oregon Journal – Thursday, February 3)

During the night, a fierce blizzard blows snow back onto tracks almost as fast as the army of workers can clear them. Somehow the men manage to open four lines by morning. All others are out of service, forcing many to hike to work or stay home. Montavilla residents must walk to East 37th Street to catch the trolley and then it will take them only as far as Grand Avenue (that era’s Portland trolly map). From there it is a walk to wherever they work.

Since foot-power is now the only consistently-reliable transport for most, understandably citizens are complaining about Portland’s failure to clear streets before the thaw came, turning snow to bone-chilling slush. No one is surprised to hear that department stores are running out of leggings and rubber boots.

Cartoon, The Oregonian, February 2, 1916 Source: Historic Oregon Newspapers

Finally, today the City hires some of Portland’s many unemployed men to work alongside regular City workers and load trucks with snow and ice. They work all day, all night, and into the next day in various parts of Portland. The Oregonian quips that “The Man with the Hoe” (referring to the famous Millet painting) has been supplanted by the man with the shovel.

Men clearing Portland streets, The Oregonian, February 4, 1916 Source: Oregon Historical Newspapers

Communications on February 3 are negligible. Wire services are still completely cut off, although later in the day some telegraph service will be restored and The Oregon Journal will receive wireless dispatches from San Francisco. Overnight the blizzard took out many telephone lines, and approximately 5,000 telephones are now out of service. Between Portland and St. Helens only 18 poles are left standing. Telephone repairmen from throughout the state are summoned to Portland.

The Oregonian, February 4, 1916 Source: Historic Oregon Newspapers

The fire department has lost alarm and telephone communications. Firemen must innovate to avert disasters. On the east side, they move fire equipment to buildings that still have telephone service. The enterprising Montavilla fire company at 82nd Avenue and Burnside Street fashions sleds to carry the heavy equipment.

On February 3, many streets in Montavilla are impassable. Some deliveries are made by sled or automobile. Postmen carry shovels to clear the way for automobiles and when motor cars can’t get through, they continue on foot. Amazingly, newspaper boys are delivering to nearly all parts of the city.

The Oregonian, February 4, 1916 Source: Historic Oregon Newspapers

“City Recovers as Storm Loses Vigor”

(The Oregonian – Friday, February 4)

What a relief! Almost all streets are again passable. Streetcar service is partially restored. The Montavilla line is now open to 41st. Telegraph and electrical services are mostly working. The City has purchased snowplows to add power to the street clearing effort. Schools will stay closed until Monday. 

“Portland Is Getting Back into Normal Shape Once Again”

(The Oregon Journal – Saturday, February 5)

Portland is still covered in ice and snow, but work continues day and night. 

“New Sleet Storm Sweeps over City”

(The Oregonian – Sunday, February 6)

Just as Portland seemed to be recovering from the first Silver Thaw, overnight rain begins, then temperatures dropped, again coating everything with ice. Electric lines all over the city are damaged. More utility poles collapse, plunging the entire east side into darkness. 

“Rain Breaks Icy Clutch in City”

(The Oregonian – Monday, February 7)

With telephone, telegraphs, and electrical wires all entangled, there is, says The Oregon Journal, “confusion unprecedented.” But temperatures are rising and rain is replacing snow. The city’s coal supply is practically exhausted, but streetcars are running, including the Montavilla line which is now open to 80th. Milk deliveries resume. Schools reopen.

Rain and warmer temperatures

(Tuesday, February 8, 1916)

“Flood Probability Greatly Increased”

(The Oregonian – Wednesday, February 9)

Rain and melting snow are filling rivers and creeks. Mud slides hamper west and south Portland.

Flooding continues

Thursday, February 10, 1916

The Willamette is up 18.8 feet by 5 pm.

“Litter Being Swept”

(The Oregonian – Sunday, February 13)

The danger of flooding has passed, but snow removal will continue for three or four more days. Automobile street flushing machines are putting men out of work.

Some final remarks

What an amazing six weeks Montavilla— and all of Portland— experienced in January and February, 1916. There were certainly many hardships, although the press reported few deaths due to the weather. There were unnamed heroes and heroines aplenty, I’m sure— those who helped needy neighbors, those who braved the elements to feed their families and clear snow, the hundreds who worked at 25 cents an hour to clear snow, the postmen, newsboys, and wood deliverymen who reached snow-bound homes, the firemen who put out fires under Arctic conditions, the people who fed the birds.

What tales the hardy survivors must have told their children and grandchildren, for most recent Portland snowstorms have been mild by comparison. Even the last big storm of January, 1980 brought a mere 16.3 inches of snow. 

That hardly compares with 41.1 inches of snow that fell in January and February, 1916.

***

Historical story ideas? Questions about Montavilla’s past? Also share a love for neighborhood history? 

Comment on the article at the link in the heading. Or you can reach out to Pat Sanders at pat.montavilla.history@gmail.com.

Read all of the “Montavilla Memories” articles by Patricia Sanders here


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