A Community Responds: Groundhog Day Blizzard of 1916

I live in a city known for its softer, milder winters. By Groundhog Day, the cherry blossoms are ready to burst open along the shorelines. The roar of lawn mowers echoes through the neighbourhoods. The cafes along Oak Bay Road open their sidewalk tables for business.

Blistering snow storms are rare.

Everyone living today in Victoria British Columbia remembers or has heard about the snow storm of 1996. No one mentions the previous record-breaking blizzard that crippled the town. How could they? It belongs to the annals of ‘This Week in History’ and the city archives.

A few days from now we celebrate the one hundred year anniversary of the said snowmagedden. Two days of bitter cold winds and swirling blinding snow had people running for cover. Cars stalled on the roads. Streetcars and railways ground to a halt.

On February 3, 1916, the city and surrounding areas awoke under a heavy white mantle with unscalable drifts everywhere. Their world was at a standstill.

For the first time in 29 years in the dairy business, the George Rogers Dairy Farm could not deliver milk to its many customers in the city. Other farmers faced the same dilemma, their daily milking left to freeze outside the barns. The coal distributors could not get sacks of coals to their freezing customers.

One farmer living in the rural outskirts of Victoria instinctively rigged up a snow-plow of sorts and carved a path to his barn. He then continued over to three of his neighbours and did the same for them. Other farmers built similar contraptions and together they opened up the rural roadways. It took several days.

‘The Daily Colonist’ wrote about a heroic nurse and the party of young men that accompanied her on a treacherous mile and half journey. The lads walked and dug out both the nurse and her mount each time they got stuck in the snow drifts. They persevered; the life of a seriously ill patient was at stake.

The city of Victoria aldermen and engineers faced different challenges. There were mountains of wet and heavy snow to clear. They had one snow-plow. Where was it safe to dump the snow? What if they had a flash thaw and flooding ensued? And the all-important question: how much was it going to cost?

One hundred and fifty men were hired. Clean-up was slow. There were three army battalions in the area waiting for their orders to join the battlefields of Europe. The city engaged them. Over eight hundred military officers and soldiers joined in the snow removal efforts. They all shovelled the snow by hand.

Neighbours helped clear sidewalks and paths to doorways. Horses, snowshoes and makeshift sleds were used to keep essential services mobile. And in the city, the daily newspaper was printed and the mail delivered.

Communities respond. Neighbours work together.

Charli Mills penned a spellbinding story about her community’s response to an SUV accident. “It’s what a community does,” she wrote.

Respond. It’s clearly what folks living in Victoria and the farmers did after the blizzard of 1916. They did not have satellite technology to forewarn them of the storm. They did not have an army of diesel snow-plows to clear the roads. They did not have snowmobiles or 4×4 trucks to travel around. They didn’t have snow blowers to clear their paths. Yet they responded and survived, stronger and more bonded having experienced it all. It’s what a community does. It does not seek accolades. It does not seek headlines. It just responds.

***

Sources:

Saanich Archives including ‘The Daily Colonist’ – February 5, 1916 edition.

Weather Events: Victoria’s Groundhog Day Snowstorm of 1916 

Royal BC Museum post: Victoria’s “Big Snow”, February 1916

 

15 thoughts on “A Community Responds: Groundhog Day Blizzard of 1916

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  1. Whoa! That is a lot of snow for anywhere. It was interesting to see the problems they faced with this unusual amount of snow, things that I never would have thought of. It certainly sounds like they were an organized and hard-working bunch to deal with it in the way they did.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Indeed they did. There was a story from the 1916 blizzard where people ending up wearing an odd assortment of protective clothing to keep warm. One woman was caught wearing a man’s red jacket and blue trousers – it made the news! Thanks for dropping in and reading my story.

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  2. Yes Ma’am. Folks respond to each other like flies to honey. Expecting nothing sweeter than a smile of thanks.

    When my children were younger we had an odd situation. No snow. But it was so bitter cold that the children couldn’t wait outside even for a few minutes for school buses. School was closed for a week. I think some business were too. We’re in for another cold spell the end of this week. I hope it is not a repeat of bitter, bitter cold.

    Thanks for the history. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. What an incredible story of adversity. And the timing of it — just as soldiers were going overseas. And the make-shift snow removal equipment shows how creative we can get faced with problems. It takes a community to respond.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I was a bit surprised when the last lines in one of the contemporary pieces on the storm noted that the newspaper front page headlines were not all about the storm. I’m sure today’s media would certainly handle it differently. Yet back in 1916, news of our men oversees weighed more heavily in the hearts of people; responding to the storm was just something they did. I still believe that in most cases, we respond to events without expectation of media fame. Human resiliency and creativity at times of adversity is amazing.

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  4. Great article Kate. It reminds me of the Chicago 1967 blizzard that kept my sister who was born the night it began in the hospital for a week because there was no way to get her and my mother home through the snow – and yes, when there’s a crippling event of any sort, we respond. I’m always amazed by human resiliency and ingenuity the the face of adversity!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow – that is one birthday everyone will remember! I remember as a child I liked blizzards – it always meant we got a snow day! Shoveling the driveway was a small price to pay. I’m so glad you dropped by Anita!

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