Special Reports

Winter of 1919 makes a case for global warming

All the older newspapers I’ve looked at show very cold winters in the past. Low temperatures and lots of snow seemed to be the usual weather for December-January, in spite of the early attempt at growing oranges. That’s a story I’ll post next month.The overnight low the night before this story was originally published was recorded as 8 degrees below zero in Kennewick.

Cold snap is mild compared to the winter of 1919

By Jerry McRorie

Tri-City Herald reporter

Published on December 17, 1964


If you think it has been cold in the Tri-Cities during the past few days, you should have been around in December of 1919.

Last week the cold, for some, meant a call to a plumber to fix a frozen pipe, or call to a service station to start a car.

In 1919 in meant rationing of coal, fighting a fatal fire in zero weather, and cutting the number of hours businesses could use electricity in order to conserve fuel used to run electric generators.

Headlines in the Pasco Herald of Dec. 11, 1919, read: “Near Blizzard Is Record Breaker, Unprecedented Weather Prevails; Snowfall Never Before Equaled at This Season; Fuel Situation Here Serious, Fuel Stocks are Seized; McFarland Appointed City Fuel Agent; Lights Cut to Save Fuel; Disastrous Blaze Claims One Life and Entire Block.”

Ralph Reed and his wife, Dora, recall the weather which set record lows each day for the first two weeks of December. These records still stand.

The Reeds, who now live at 3602 Deschutes Place, Kennewick, owned and published the Kennewick Courier Reporter from 1910 to 1945.

“Temperature got down around 30 below,” Reed recalled. This figure was published at the time, but the official Weather Bureau records indicate 27 below was the coldest.

“The Columbia River never froze solid,” Reed said. “Broken chunks of ice would drift down and freeze together. It was too rough to drive a car across but I understand a sheep herder did manage to drive a farm wagon over the blocks of ice.”

Looking over copies of the Pasco Herald, he commented that the late O. H. Olson, managing editor, managed to make things look worse than they really were.

“I was just the opposite,” he said.

About the worst things Reed remembers of the blizzard and cold was a broken steam pipe in his print shop and the following year when no one had money because all the fruit trees froze.

Reed explained that Kennewick was an orchard community with many 10-acre plots. “We can raise the finest fruit found anywhere,” he said, “but the farmers couldn’t afford to spray frequently enough to keep the bugs off.

“R. L. Banta had a five-acre cherry orchard down by where Avenue C becomes Imnaha. The trees were 6-7 inches in diameter and they froze completely through. The odd thing was, we didn’t know about it until years later when the trees were cut down and the centers were all black. We counted back on the rings and found they were black from 1919 earlier. Out in the Highlands there was 6,0-00 acres in orchards and no fruit in 1920.

The snow, which was reported to be knee deep in Pasco, didn’t keep Reed from traveling to his paper.

Reed remembers there was concern that the coal supply at the school might run low but most places carried a month’s supply.

“All the fuel came to the lumber yards by the Northern Pacific and trains weren’t running. I don’t see how they could have helped their coal shortage in Pasco with driftwood (as some stories said). It was all buried under the snow.”

When the ice went out of the Columbia Dec. 22 it took a portion of a railroad bridge with it. Reed said dynamite was used to break up the ice to help it flow under the Oregon, Washington Railway and Navigation Co. bridge. Reed recalls the OWRN, which later was purchased by the Union Pacific Railroad, was known as the Old, Worn-out, Rotten and Nasty.

He said stories that jack rabbits were unknown in Benton county until the river froze that year weren’t correct.

“All the jack rabbits in Benton County had white tails and in Franklin County they all had black tails. After the river froze, no one ever saw any white-tailed jack rabbits,” he insists.

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