The ‘Big Snow of 1880’ is still the biggest Seattle has ever seen

Jan 2, 2019, 8:01 AM | Updated: Dec 30, 2021, 11:37 am
Looking north on Commercial Street (First Avenue South) from Main Street during The Big Snow of 1880. (Courtesy Paul Dorpat.) View of Yesler Wharf from the rear of the Peterson Bros Photography studio at the foot of Cherry Street during The Big Snow of 1880. (Courtesy Paul Dorpat.) Looking east on Cherry Street from Front Street (First Avenue) during The Big Snow of 1880. (Courtesy Paul Dorpat.)

As we heard from Nick Allard of KIRO 7 TV on Thursday, Dec. 30, 2021, the forecast for Seattle for the next few days is “the usual” for early January around Puget Sound: cold and rain.

But this wasn’t the case 139 years ago this week, when “The Big Snow of 1880” paralyzed the Seattle area with several feet of the frozen white stuff.

There’s no official weather data for Seattle from January 1880, so specifics about the Big Snow are a little hard to come by. Volunteer observations began in the 1870s, but the first U.S. Weather Bureau office didn’t open in Seattle until 1893.

However, there is some pretty decent anecdotal information from books written long ago, and a handful of incredible historic images first brought to light by local historian and photographer Paul Dorpat. He’s author of the “Seattle Now & Then” blog — the long-running column of the same name for the Seattle Times — and of several “Now & Then” books.

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Dorpat first wrote about “The Big Snow of 1880” nearly 40 years ago. Earlier this week, he described how it began to snow on the first Sunday of the New Year back in January 1880, and then it didn’t really let up.

“It came down for about week, from the 4th of January,” Dorpat said. “And started piling up and crashing through roofs and knocking over sheds with its weight, and just basically making a mess of things.”

The heavy snow made nearly all travel difficult or impossible, and the weight of accumulated snow and ice caused multiple wooden buildings to collapse. Schools were closed, and many businesses shut down for several days.

“It was the biggest snow in the history of the city,” Dorpat said. “It lasted for about a week, and then it started to melt, as we know from our own time and with our more modern snows.”

“That was called the ‘Big Snow’ because really it was larger than anything they had had [or] we’ve had since, and there’s nothing really, even, that compares to it,” he said.

The actual snowfall total is a matter of some speculation, but there’s no doubt that it was a massive amount that came down that week that dwarfs any subsequent snow event in Seattle, including big snows of 1916 and 1950.

Arthur Denny was one of the very earliest European settlers, and a leader of the group from Illinois known as The Denny Party, who are credited with founding Seattle in the early 1850s. Denny wrote a reminiscence of Seattle’s pioneer days that was published in 1888, just a few years after the Big Snow.

“The deepest snow ever known here was in January, 1880, measuring 4 feet and a half after it had settled, and would have measured much more as it fell,” Denny wrote. “I made inquiry of the Indians, and could get no account of anything like it before, and it may therefore safely be called unusual, as the like has not been known to the white inhabitants except in this instance.”

In 1903, Washington historian and author William Prosser estimated that a total of five feet of snow lay on the ground in Seattle when the storm was over, and this was after it had compressed under its own weight. Seattle historian Clarence Bagley, writing in 1914, estimated that a total of close to seven feet fell during the Big Snow. A timeline of The Big Snow of 1880, based on Bagley’s account, follows below.

More recently, Wolf Read compiled research about a sizable wind event in January 1880 known to weather geeks as “Storm King.” It hit the Willamette Valley and parts of southwest Washington on January 9, 1880, and is thought to have contributed to heavy snowfall that day around Puget Sound, though wind wasn’t a factor in this area. Read also estimated a total six feet of snow in Seattle that week.

Whatever the precise total amount, it’s safe to say that “The Big Snow of 1880” was a singular event in the region’s weather history.

And apart from the weather that year, 1880 was also a pivotal year for Seattle on its rise to become premier city of the Pacific Northwest. That snowy January was also the start of a decade that would see the most rapid growth in the city’s history, before or since.

In 1903, William Prosser wrote that Seattle “was only a struggling sawmill village for many years, and was long without a school house, courthouse or a jail, and it was only about 1880 that it began a wonderful growth and expansion that have since continued without interruption” other than during the Panic of 1893.

What was living in Seattle like for the average person back in 1880, on the cusp of one of the city’s most dynamic eras?

“Well, it was the largest town [and] you had certain amount of pride,” Dorpat said. “That year the census revealed that it was [about to become] the largest town in the Territory. Walla Walla had been the largest town before that, so you were living now in the town that had the most citizens.”

“And [Seattle] never gave that up,” Dorpat said.

About that phenomenal growth: the population of Seattle grew from about 3,500 in 1880 to more than 42,000 by 1890. That’s an annual growth rate of more than 28 percent. By comparison, Walla Walla also had about 3,500 people in 1880, and then grew to just 4,709 in 1890.

And even way back in that pivotal year of 1880, Paul Dorpat says, Seattle wasn’t actually too different from now in terms of infrastructure – especially when it came to public transportation.

“It still didn’t have any mass transit, [it] didn’t even have a common carrier,” Dorpat said. “[It] didn’t get that until 1884 when there was horse trolley that was built that went up Second Avenue up to Belltown.”

But, Seattle did have a lot of other amenities by 1880 that were ready to serve the booming population that lay just ahead.

“It did have sewers, it had running water, it had the telephone,” Dorpat said. “And electricity was going to become commonplace pretty quickly, so it had a lot of things, actually, that you and I now take sort of for granted.”

Dorpat says the novelty of the snow in Seattle 139 years ago afforded people rare opportunities to have fun with sleigh rides and snowball fights, and that many young men made extra money shoveling snow.

And maybe that small but growing 1880 town wasn’t quite taking itself so seriously yet. Maybe, rather than being a nuisance, “The Big Snow of 1880” was actually kind of fun?

“That’s it, that’s it,” Dorpat said. “It was to the greater good of the citizens that they had all that snow drop on them.”

“They enjoyed it,” he said. “They had a good time.”

Paul Dorpat’s new book, co-written with Jean Sherrard, is called “Seattle Now & Then: The Historic Hundred.”

Big Snow of 1880 Timeline

Adapted from Clarence Bagley’s “History of Seattle, Volume I” published in 1916

Monday, January 5, 1880

“It snowed steadily.”

Tuesday, January 6, 1880

It “snowed . . . all day” and snow “had fallen to the depth of about two feet, though a thaw had reduced the quantity to about six inches.”

Wednesday, January 7, 1880

“It continued to snow all day … and by night it lay four feet deep on the level and the end was not yet.”

Thursday, January 8, 1880

“It continued to snow … but in desultory fashion. It was claimed that if there had been no thawing, no settling and no packing, the depth of the snow by the night of [Thursday, January 8, 1880] would have been six feet.”

(Note: Prosser writes, in “Puget Sound Country,” published in 1903, that the snow didn’t begin until January 8, 1880 and then continued “without any abatement for a week.”)

Friday, January 9, 1880

“[F]ully eight inches more fell, but about the same went off in a thaw.”

This was also the day of the so-called “Storm King” windstorm that struck Oregon and parts of Washington, but spared Seattle any wind damage.

Saturday, January 10, 1880

“[O]ne inch fell.”

Sunday, January 11, 1880

“More snow fell . . . but then came a steady rain that rapidly melted it.”

Friday, January 16, 1880

“[T]he snow had nearly all disappeared.”

Monday, January 12, 1880

“All schools reopened.”

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The ‘Big Snow of 1880’ is still the biggest Seattle has ever seen