PAT NEAL: A short history of winter

As a kid, I remember the old-timers saying, “We don’t have winters like that anymore.” Referring to sometime in the distant past when things were much tougher all over. But you really don’t have to go back too far to remember a hard winter like this one.

In January 2019, the word “Snowmaggedon” was used to describe snow falling at a rate of 3 to 5 inches an hour until it was 2 feet deep or more, clear down to the beach on the North Olympic Peninsula.

That was nothing compared to the hard winter of 1880.

That’s when a storm, since referred to as the “Snow King,” rolled in.

Territorial Gov. Elisha Ferry had just given his State of the Territory report, stating, “Ice and snow are almost unknown in Washington Territory.”

Ferry would never have made it as a weatherman. He was just trying to convince some unwitting homesteaders to move here.

Days later, on Jan. 5, a storm they called the “Snow King” plowed into the mouth of the Columbia River, clobbering Oregon and southwest Washington, hitting the Peninsula with a glancing blow that dumped 48 inches of snow on Port Townsend. Which is incredible considering this is in the rain shadow of the Olympics.

The Klallam Chief Chetzemoka, also known as The Duke of York and considered to be the oldest inhabitant of Port Townsend at the time, said the snowfall was the heaviest in his memory.

We’ll take his word for that.

It makes you wonder how much snow fell on the rest of the Peninsula.

Another brutal weather report came from the winter of 1890. That was the year weather stations in Port Angeles and Tatoosh Island reported colder and wetter weather than normal, which was bad luck for the Press Expedition. They were busy pushing a leaky barge up the Elwha River.

There was 3½ feet of snow at their camp, which was located just west of the current junction of U.S. Highway 101 and state Highway 112. The snow was reported to be breast-high in places down along the Elwha River, where the water was filled with floating ice and snow.

The year 1893 brought another hard winter the old-timers called “the winter of the blue snow.” The Queets River froze over. Snow started falling in Port Angeles on Jan. 27 and fell every day through Feb. 7, until 75 inches was measured on the ground.

The temperature fell to 1 degree below zero. That was the hardest winter ever recorded in Port Angeles, which, coupled with the Panic of 1893, made it even harder.

January has always been a hard month for weather. January 1921 brought “The Big Blow.” The North Head Light House near Illwaco recorded gusts of 150 mph before the anemometer was blown away.

The Big Blow hit Grays Harbor at 9 a.m. and arrived in Forks at 6:30 p.m. — knocking down barns, killing herds of elk and blowing the lighthouse keepers bull off Tatoosh Island. Incredibly, only one person died in this disaster. An engineer working at an Aberdeen lumber mill was killed when a smokestack blew over.

Since then, we have endured many memorable storms. During the Columbus Day storm of 1962, winds of 160 mph were observed in the Willapa Hills. It was the greatest natural disaster to hit our country that year. Who can forget 1979, when an 80 mph wind took out the Hood Canal Bridge? Or the Hannukah Eve storm of 2006?

Maybe the old timers were right. The winters used to be harder. But this winter is plenty hard enough.


Pat Neal is a Hoh River fishing and rafting guide and “wilderness gossip columnist” whose column appears here every Wednesday.

He can be reached at 360-683-9867 or by email via

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