Pardon the Winterruption of 1949–1950

Posted January 1, 2020 at 5:47 am by

Here’s this month’s his­to­ry col­umn from the San Juan His­tor­i­cal Soci­ety and Muse­um

When this edi­to­r­i­al car­toon appeared in the Novem­ber 24, 1949 issue of the Fri­day Har­bor Jour­nal, no one could have fore­seen what was to come. It her­ald­ed the begin­ning of one doozy of a severe win­ter from Old Man Win­ter or more sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly, a his­toric series of arc­tic blasts of snow and wind.

By Decem­ber, snow­fall and freez­ing roads had caused the post­pone­ment of some island events. When school let out for the Christ­mas hol­i­day, it was the begin­ning of sev­er­al weeks of extend­ed clo­sure as each new storm clob­bered the islands. A New Year’s Day bliz­zard spread to most of north­west­ern Wash­ing­ton, while on San Juan Island it was the start of week after week of tem­per­a­tures stuck in the twen­ties, dip­ping down into the teens and below overnight.

This mem­o­rable win­ter was brought up dur­ing the “Old Islanders Tell It All” event at the San Juan Island Library recent­ly. Mary Jane Ander­son remem­bered that school was closed for near­ly two months by snow storms and impass­able roads. Ponds froze over, invit­ing fun slid­ing or skat­ing, and a few adven­ture­some dri­vers took cars for a spin atop the ice.

“Oh, the weath­er out­side is fright­ful…” (Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Lyrics by Sam­my Cahn)

Jan­u­ary 13, 1950 – Fri­day the 13th – went down as one of the worst days for extreme weath­er in west­ern Wash­ing­ton his­to­ry. The San Juans were not spared from the blizzard’s fury. It seems no place in Wash­ing­ton state was. Hur­ri­cane force winds were record­ed in sev­er­al areas of the region and the snow just kept falling…and blow­ing. Fri­day Har­bor record­ed an offi­cial low of eight degrees on that day, although some inte­ri­or loca­tions on the island report­ed lows of zero degrees.

As report­ed in the Jan­u­ary 19 edi­tion of the Fri­day Har­bor Jour­nal, the bliz­zard caused exten­sive dam­age on the island. At least nine small boats sank in Fri­day Har­bor. Pow­er and tele­phone lines were downed by falling trees. Almost every­one expe­ri­enced frozen pipes. In some homes, frozen water pipes forced bath­room fix­tures from the walls. It was one of the worst bliz­zards to strike San Juan Island in its record­ed his­to­ry. Yet the fer­ries still ran, although under­stand­ably off sched­ule, mail was faith­ful­ly deliv­ered by boats and planes, and line­man braved the ele­ments to restore pow­er to homes and businesses. 

“How I hate going out in the storm…”

What made these par­tic­u­lar storms of 1950 so severe? It was a rare com­bi­na­tion of arc­tic winds howl­ing down through the Fras­er Riv­er Val­ley, push­ing through British Colum­bia to the U.S. and then col­lid­ing with a sep­a­rate wet storm blow­ing in on a path from the Pacif­ic Ocean and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. It was a fierce bat­tle of weath­er forces over land and sea. Tim­ing is every­thing in weath­er. A per­fect storm of storms, one might say. 

“It doesn’t show signs of stopping…”

Jan­u­ary was a month marked by snow drifts, iced over roads, and wind. A warm front promised the state for Jan­u­ary 29 did not hap­pen when the front went off­shore. But the San Juans did thaw a bit and island schools were able to open on Mon­day, Jan­u­ary 30 after an unsuc­cess­ful attempt to open the pre­vi­ous Mon­day. As report­ed in the Feb­ru­ary 2 issue of the Fri­day Har­bor Jour­nal, “The chil­dren as well as the adults are tired of the win­ter and many of the stu­dents expressed the desire to return to their school work.” The Seat­tle Times report­ed in the same week that “Last month appar­ent­ly was designed to make the old set­tlers for­get all about the big win­ters of 1916 and 1893.” Then it snowed much of February.

As we would say today, “It was epic!”. We did not have a good pho­to to go with this sto­ry, so if you have snow pho­tos tak­en on the island dur­ing the win­ter of 1949–1950, please let us know at the San Juan His­tor­i­cal Muse­um. We can dig­i­tize them for our archives and illus­trate this his­toric winter.

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Categories: History

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