One Bad Blizzard
Although later many would recall that the 1950 cold wave started on Friday, January 13, the cold actually moved into the state from British Columbia during the morning hours of Thursday, January 12, 1950. It passed both Seattle and Spokane about the same time -- noon -- and temperatures in both cities fell steadily during the afternoon and night from a high of 32 degrees in Seattle and 24 degrees in Spokane. Bellingham picked up a quick seven inches of snow that day, but only light snow was reported in a few other places outside of northwestern Washington.
That all changed on the morning of Friday the 13th. Beginning about dawn in Seattle and a little later in Spokane, a blizzard set in that affected much of the state. The storm's timing turned out to be critical: The snow started early enough in Seattle that schools were closed, but in Spokane it struck after classes had already started.
In Seattle winds gusted to 40 m.p.h. with temperatures in the low teens. One man was killed in a bizarre accident when a truck skidded on a snowy road into a car. A man riding in the car was thrown into Lake Washington and drowned.
Downtown Seattle picked up an average of 10 inches of snow, but farther south Sea-Tac Airport recorded 21.4 inches, the second-greatest 24-hour snowfall ever officially recorded in the city (it was one-tenth of an inch shy of tying the record). Snow reached clear to Washington's southwest coast with heavy snow reported in Longview.
On Vashon Island, pounding waves from Puget Sound that residents said were "high as houses" (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, January 14, 1950) collapsed bulkheads under a store and meat market that sat near the water and swept the entire structure into Puget Sound.
Farther north, winds in Bellingham exceeded 60 m.p.h. and unofficially gusted to 78 m.p.h. On the coast, the fishing fleet in Gray's Harbor took a big hit. Many small boats sank at their moorings. Men trying to save the boats were sprayed with wind-driven ocean water, which froze and coated them in ice.
Eastern Washington also experienced the blizzard and faced even more extreme conditions. During the height of the storm on Friday afternoon the snow and wind were so heavy that visibilities fell to only a few hundred feet in Spokane and to near zero outside of the city. "The driving, whirling snow got everywhere. It even went into houses through keyholes or under doors" (The Spokesman Review, January 15, 1950). Temperatures during the afternoon in Spokane were near zero.
Classes had proceeded on schedule in the Spokane area that day, but once the storm's full force struck, dozens of students in communities just east of Spokane were marooned and forced to spend the night at school. Others were stranded in school buses on their way home. Many adults were also stranded in their cars or at area service stations, but county road crews eventually rescued all during the night. Some cars were reported to be completely buried in snow drifts and had to be dug out with rotary plows.
Near Ritzville (Adams County) two children died when their father picked them up from school and drove them home to their farm, 15 miles west of Ritzville. A mile from their home the car ran off the road. They tried to walk home, but soon became lost in the deep and blinding snow. The two children froze to death; the father was found four hours later, badly frostbitten.
Thirteen people died in the Puget Sound region as a result of the blizzard. Livestock was affected too -- near Ephrata (Grant County) 500 sheep were found frozen to death.
The snow moved out of Washington by Saturday, the 14th, but the cold deepened; in Ellensburg it was 21 below zero that morning with 17 inches of snow on the ground. The cold quickly began having strange effects on mechanical equipment. In Seattle, (where the morning's low was a comparatively balmy eight above zero) the Fremont Bridge was raised at one point during the day to let a tanker pass underneath. The span froze in the "up" position for more than half an hour, snarling traffic.
The snow and cold lingered for several more days, particularly east of the Cascades. On January 17, Spokane had a low of 18 below zero with 25 inches of snow on the ground. In Spokane County, two planes were equipped with skis so they could respond to requests for help from the county's rural residents. In Western Washington, famous Snoqualmie Falls (King County) east of Seattle froze into giant light-green icicles; a thin ribbon of water replaced the normal cascading rush of the falls.
A Silver Thaw
Then came an abrupt warmup that wreaked havoc west of the Cascades. A 4-to-10-inch snow in Seattle on the night of the 18th turned to rain on the 19th, and between January 20 and 22, highs in the city ranged between 45 and 48 degrees. Pipes burst in homes and businesses and rivers and creeks flooded. More steady rain in Seattle on January 21 caused mudslides to block streets in and around the city.
Southwestern Washington suffered a "silver thaw," a phenomenon caused by an abrupt warmup after a severe cold snap in which warm, damp air condenses on frozen ground and objects, covering everything in a sheet of ice. Vancouver, Washington, and the surrounding area was particularly hard hit. Trees and power lines collapsed and roads were blocked. The Red Cross declared all of southwestern Washington a disaster area.
Major damage also occurred in Whatcom County. On January 22, an ice jam, reportedly three miles long, formed in the Nooksack River near Ferndale and began drifting south. "With irresistible force, the massive floe of ice took huge bites out of the river bank, toppling trees and sweeping tons of debris downstream ... Floe ice, reported more than 1 foot thick, crawled like a giant caterpillar over the fixed ice, forming a bulwark that forced river water over both banks" (Seattle P-I, January 23, 1950). The ice briefly jammed near Marietta (Whatcom County), causing the river to back up and flood the main street of the town and forcing 200 people living along the riverbank just north of town to evacuate.
There were brief worries that further thawing would cause more flooding, but this turned out not be an issue. On January 23, an even colder air mass than the one that had struck 11 days earlier swept into the state. By the 25th the low in Seattle was 7 degrees above zero. Outlying areas such as Bothell in Seattle's north end reported an unofficial reading of 10 below zero, and Pine Lake, just east of Lake Sammamish, reported an unofficial reading of 11 below zero.
Even southwestern Washington was not spared the sub-zero temperatures: Toledo (Lewis County) reported an official low of 8 below zero. Meanwhile, Spokane shivered with a reading of 22 below zero, its coldest temperature in 60 years. On January 26 the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported that a 50-mile stretch on the Columbia River between Bonneville, Oregon, and Celilo Canal, Oregon, was jammed with ice floes and impassable in places.
Then it got even colder. On January 29 Spokane dropped to 24 below zero, its coldest morning since 1888. On January 30 unofficial temperature readings in the Spokane Valley ranged between 35 and 40 below zero, with Chattaroy (Spokane County) reporting an unofficial low of 42 below zero. The next day, January 31, Seattle recorded its official all-time low of zero degrees at SeaTac Airport. (In his book Pioneer Days on Puget Sound, Seattle founding father Arthur Denny (1822-1899) writes that during the "big winter" of 1861-1862 he recorded a temperature of 2 below zero in Seattle.)
In Elliott Bay in Seattle sheets of ice formed around the slips between the piers, puzzling seagulls looking for a place to land. East of Seattle, Lake Washington partially froze and Lake Sammamish almost completely froze (in some places up to a depth of five inches), delighting ice skaters and ice hockey players, who gleefully ignored gentle admonishments from the police to not go out on the ice. Perhaps the revelers took to heart a banner headline in the February 1 edition of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer: "Let's Forget Weather and Get Back To Normal!"
The extreme cold east of the Cascades caused a different set of problems. Car batteries and engines stalled in the frigid air. In Spokane a firefighter fighting a fire in a temperature of 10 below zero explained that the firemen could not turn off the fire hoses for even a few seconds, or the hoses would freeze. And frostbite was a problem: One man taking a smoke outside in zero degrees had his cigarette freeze to his upper lip. When he pulled the cigarette off his lip, he took a piece of skin with it, and not just a little piece -- it was serious enough to send him to the emergency room for treatment.
One For The Record Books
At last the cold began to fade. On Saturday, February 4, temperatures climbed into the low 40s in Seattle; the next day, temperatures in Spokane rose above freezing and below zero readings had all but disappeared from the state.
The cold wave went down as one of the worst of the twentieth century in Washington state. In the 24 days between January 12 and February 4, 1950, Seattle recorded nine days in which the low temperature dropped below 10 degrees. During the same time Spokane recorded 17 days of below zero lows, with 11 consecutive days of lows below zero between January 24 and February 3. Numerous weather records set at various locations in Washington state during this cold wave still stand over half a century later.