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Victoria's Groundhog Day Snowstorm of 1916

In Victoria, British Columbia, Groundhog Day is not considered a day when a fuzzy rodent comes out to check for a shadow which will to determine how long before Spring arrives, Instead, it usually denotes the start of spring blooms as the first cherry blossoms burst out along the shoreline streets and spring bulbs push forth from the never-frozen soil. That is, except for the year 1916.

Victoria is famed for its lack of snow and wintry weather but that does not mean it is completely absent, for three times in the city's official weather history, the Victoria "Snow-Free Zone" has been buried under 24-hour snowfalls exceeding fifty centimetres (20 inches), the only Canadian city west of the Great Lakes to be so heavily whitened in so short a time. The first big snow fell on 2 February 1916: a 53.3-cm accumulation. The next large snowfall next hit Victoria on Valentine's Day 14 February 1923 when 50.8 centimetres of snow fell. The biggest was yet to come, however, in 1996, when an 80-cm accumulation downtown (64.5 cm at the airport) fell during the Christmas holidays. (Is there something about special days that brings snow to Victoria?) David Phillips reports in his book Blame It on the Weather that before official records and uniform observing techniques were introduced in 1898, Victoria snowfalls of 61 cm (1880) and an incredible 91 cm (1887) had been reported—though there was no mention as to whether these were daily or multi-day totals in the newspaper accounts he found.

The first official BIG snow on Groundhog Day 1916 came in an unusual Victoria winter. During the Winter of 1915–16, the total snowfall of 196 cm made it the snowiest Victoria season on record, and twenty-four consecutive days failed to rise above the freezing mark. Most years do not total that many in Victoria today, the current annual "normal" is fourteen days. The January 1916 mean temperature was the coldest January experienced until 1950.

The Groundhog Day storm resulted in a combination of factors. An intense high-pressure ridge forced cold arctic air through the interior mountain ranges and off the coast toward Vancouver Island. At the same time, a deep storm cell to the south hovered off the US Pacific coast pumping moist air into California, Oregon, Washington, and the interior western states. Victoria was not the only city in the region hit by snow. Seattle recorded its greatest 24-hour snowfall, 54.6 cm (21.5 inches) on 1 February. The snow's weight caused the collapse of the ornate dome of St. James Cathedral in the Emerald City dropping it into the nave and choir of the sanctuary. Other areas of western Washington received between 60 and 120 cm (2 to 4 feet) of snow with drifts as high as 1.5 m (5 feet). In the high Cascade Mountains of Oregon, Government Camp, reported 218 cm (85.7 inches) in total snowfall from the storm, about 100 cm (40 inches) of that total falling in a 24-hour span.

Snow at the corner of 1st Avenue and Pike Street, Seattle WA, February 1916
from contemporary postcard.

Victoria and southern Vancouver Island, as they would be 80 years later, were caught between the cold and moist air streams. Where the two streams collided, the moisture from the southern stream was wrung out and fell as snow. The snow commenced just before dawn (5 am) Tuesday morning, 1 February. For the next 38 hours, it continued to fall, whipped by strong, bitter northerly winds into three-metre drifts. By storm's end, 78.3 centimetres covered the city. 53.3 centimetres of which fell during twenty-four hours of Groundhog Day.

Victoria and environs came to a standstill. Streetcars and personal automobiles in the city laid buried beneath the white mantle. The city hired one hundred fifty men to dig out the city streets, paying forty cents per hour, but they could only find a hundred snow shovels. Main streets in the city and the railway tracks were cleared by hand. Pressure hoses cut trails in the snow banks. The city's single snowplow faced the gargantuan task of trying to remove the heavy, wet snow. Along the streets it cleaned, the snow was piled 3.5-metres high. The city blacksmith shop was quickly commissioned to fashion steel plow-blades to be drawn by horses to combat the snow.

And it was combat. Eight hundred to a thousand military officers and soldiers from nearby Willow Camp were enlisted in "the battle of the snow." In one surreal scene, a team of fifty strapping soldiers pulled a wooden snowplow down a main thoroughfare. The weather fought back vainly at the military might, however; the Willow Camp mess hall roof collapsed under the heavy snow burden.

The strong northerly winds drifted snow across roads and rail lines. The Esquimalt & Nanaimo Railroad train was stymied by 1.75-metre drifts lying across the tracks and could not enter the city. Snowdrifting over the Saanich Peninsula placed five-metre high, sixty-metre long obstacles in the path of those attempting to move by road or rail. The British Columbia Electric Railway Company line that ran up the Saanich Peninsula shut down and remained so for five days.

With surface transportation halted, some residents used the open waterways to row downtown. Some medical doctors brought out horses; others snowshoed to visit patients. Local dairymen strapped milk cans on their animals like frontier pack horses to bring milk into town. However, most of the daily milking remained undelivered and froze outside the barns. One local baker pulled four thousand bread loaves from the ovens but could not deliver them to customers.

Despite pleas from residents for home delivery, the local coal companies could not keep up with demand. The Victoria Colonist reported one company spokesman advised: "The only way people can get coal is to take it home on their backs." The unusually cold winter had already put a burden on the local coal supplies for both the distributor and the consumer. With coal delivery cut off, residents took to chopping down trees and tearing apart fences, old houses, and outbuildings for fuel. Those along the shore collected driftwood to burn.

Most residents stayed at home, and thus schools and many businesses suspended operations. Those retail shops that did open their doors found many potential customers calling in orders and demanding home delivery. Shops selling winter outerwear did brisk business. A familiar scene in the city core was a single-file line of pedestrians, in an odd assortment of protective clothing, streaming down the few shovelled pathways. One woman was seen wearing a red jacket and blue trousers. She attracted such attention that the Colonist reported " . . . it is unlikely she will again make a public appearance in male attire."

The phone company called in extra telephone operators in to handle the deluge of calls being placed: a record 160,000 in one day, three times the normal daily traffic. The postal service was able to deliver the mail on the day following the storm but did not resume its usual twice-daily service for a week. Seeing the opportunity to earn some good money, several delivery drivers converted their delivery wagons to sleighs to negociate the snow-packed streets.

Downtown hotels and restaurants reaped the downfall of the snowfall. Many did booming business at noontime as few downtown workers wanted to brave the walk home for lunch. A number of downtown workers decided to take a hotel room rather than attempt the return trip home. Other Victoria residents moved out of the discomfort of their cold homes and into hotels hoping to ride out the storm and its aftermath in comparative luxury.

By some miracle, no deaths or injuries were ascribed to the storm. Ironically, the storm did not warrant the Colonist's banner headline during the week. Was it too obvious?

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Written by
Keith C. Heidorn, PhD, THE WEATHER DOCTOR,
February 1, 2007

Victoria's Groundhog Day Snowstorm of 1916 ©2007, Keith C. Heidorn, PhD. All Rights Reserved.
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