Thursday, November 6, 2014

Historic Snowstorms of Owens Valley

January 1933 Downtown Bishop
Courtesy Loyola Marymount University
On a Sunday night in Bishop in 1933, 6-year-old Don Marcellin went to sleep with snow lightly falling outside his window.  He woke up next morning to one of the biggest snowstorms in Bishop’s history. It marked the beginning a lifetime quest to understand Owens Valley weather, a pivotal time in the life of Bishop’s ‘ol weather buff.  As with Don, these historic snowstorms embedded a point in people’s lives by which all other events were related- “ know, the time before the storm of ’33.”
The last impressive snowstorm came in 1969. Although it dropped 3 feet of heavy wet snow, damage was limited. But the further back in time, the more vulnerable people and animals were to the impacts of these events.  These are the big snowstorms of the 19th and 20th centuries that created milestones in the lives of people of Owens Valley.

January 1933 Big Pine
Sheep looking for safer grounds.
 Courtesy Branson Collection

There was little precipitation that summer, and only a light snow to usher in the winter of ‘32/’33.  Skies were clear for weeks and offered no hint as to what was to come. Then on a Sunday afternoon January 15th it began. Waves of heavy wet snow descended on the Valley and persisted beyond Monday.  People began to realize this was no ordinary storm and became concerned about the weight that was accumulating on their roofs. By Tuesday afternoon the snow had ended, but the challenges had just begun.  Everything was shut down under the weight of 3-and-a-half feet of heavy snow.

Almost immediately after the storm ended, all available “laborers” were rounded up to shovel snow. It was the middle of the great depression and no one could afford any losses. The workers efforts saved many homes and businesses from collapse.  Still, a few didn’t make it including Carrier’s Top Shop, Crawford’s Garage, blacksmith shops, and numerous sheds.
Telephone service was lost and roads were closed. On a hill near Big Pine, a large oil tanker became a barricade after it lost control causing other vehicles to pile up, closing the highway for two days.  Mail couldn’t get to Bishop for 5 days, and the “State Patrol” halted all traffic north of Bishop. Temperatures plummeted, and according to the Inyo Register, hit “‘a new low’ a la stock market” at 8 degrees below zero.

For days, people were snowbound in their homes; some couldn’t get to town and their supplies began to run low.  Blacks’ Cash Store in Bishop felt compelled to help, so J.D. Black began delivering groceries by sled to those who couldn’t make it to his store, and stocked his own shelves the same way.
Teenager Alice Booth, living at Keough’s place just ½ mile north of Keough’s Hot Springs recalled, “ had to walk out the lane.  We could not drive in and out the lane for a month...the snow stayed on the streets until June.” As the weeks went by, the snow that was shoveled to the center of streets and heaped on corners eventually melted away, and life returned to normal.

Although this storm may have been memorable, its 1916 rival was a menace with far more impacts to both people and animals. 


January 1916, The Inyo Register headlines read, “STORM EQUALS WORST IN VALLEY’S HISTORY,” “HEAVY SNOW WRECKS STRUCTURES:” in the Big Pine Citizen, “WORST STORM IN YEARS IN THE OWENS VALLEY;” The Owens Valley Herald, “BUSY STORM KING BREAKS ALL RECORDS,” ” BIG SHEEP BAND IS SNOW BOUND.”  One sub-headline exclaimed, “HALL AT BIG PINE DESTROYED - JOHNSON’S STORE SMASHED – AND OLD PLACES FINISHED.” It was the biggest storm since 1873.
An innocent snow began falling Friday January 14th and continued through most of the weekend.   Then Sunday night it turned heavy and unrelenting.  At noon Monday heavy snow turned to heavy rain, no doubt raising hopes it would wash away the burdensome snow.  But it didn’t, it turned back to heavy snow.  By Tuesday afternoon nearly 3 feet of rain saturated snow covered streets, cars, buildings, cattle and sheep!  

In Big Pine, structures groaned under the weight of over 4 feet of heavy wet snow.  Tuesday at noon, roofs began to sag. Then at 6 pm one of the largest buildings in the Owens Valley and the center piece of community life collapsed.  According to The Big Pine Citizen, the two-story “Hall’s Hall,” an opera house, dance hall and lodge worth over a quarter of a million in today’s dollars, “…gave way and crumpled to the ground, a complete wreck.”  At 8 pm the former Red Front Saloon caved in. And, “…many of the best built buildings in the town began to crack under the strain...” 
People had no choice but to take their lives in their own hands by shoveling off the roofs of buildings whose walls were bowing outward under the enormous weight. In Bishop, a man was shoveling snow off a large wooden awning on a downtown building when it suddenly collapsed beneath him; as the jumble of broken wood and snow plummeted to the ground he managed to save himself by grabbing a nearby telephone pole.  Johnson’s Furniture Shop, numerous blacksmith shops, businesses, and some homes collapsed. Travel was nearly impossible and train service was frozen in its tracks.

According the Owens Valley Herald, W.A. Trickey left Mina Nevada on a 3 engine plow train carrying 75 shovelers bound for Bishop.  They battled deep snow and 7 foot snowdrifts a quarter-mile long.  Even with all those shovelers, they barely made it to Montgomery Pass just 45 miles from Bishop. At the time of the newspaper report, they were still waiting to make it home.
The misery index went up Wednesday night as the temperature dropped to 3 degrees, and Thursday even lower at 10 degrees below zero.  News reports stated, “…this being the lowest record in the memory of white men for the valley.”  Thoughts then turned to people’s livelihood… livestock.

According to The Owens Valley Herald there a good stockpile of hay at the time in the Valley for cows. Cattle were considered tough, “… so stockmen believed that loss to herds will be slight…”  Sheep owners were much less optimistic.
In the southern White Mountains above Black Canyon east of Bishop, 2,500 sheep were snowbound. Nearly all the ewes were getting ready to lamb and Raphael Rossi feared they would all perish.  It was not a small thing since in today’s currency, according to the Owens Valley Herald they were reportedly worth half a million dollars. Just 18 hours after the storm, Rossi and his employees set out to save his sheep and with great effort broke a trail to the herd. But the effort wasn’t enough to bring them out.  The next day, in a last ditch effort, they piled hay and grain onto a huge sled and trudged up the canyon to the herd. At the time of the news article, it wasn’t known if they made it or not.

Game hunting was vital to the economy of the Valley and the unprecedented snows cut off food supplies to the local quail population numbering in the thousands.  Private funds used to feed the birds ran out, so the State Board of Control stepped in and authorized the local Fish and Game Commission to use their funds to continue feeding the starving population. 

Independence apparently got off relatively easily, reportedly loosing just one building from 2 feet of snow. The 1916 storm was the best documented in terms of local newspaper coverage.  But records of earlier snowstorms do exist; each hailed as the “record breaker.”  There surely are untold stories of challenges faced by an emerging society back 150 years ago.

Ten years before the Laws Railroad depot existed, and barely a year after the great Owens Valley earthquake, came the record breaker of 1873, “the big snow” referred to by old-timers. The December 3rd storm, called “the kingpin of them all,” began Wednesday afternoon and continued non-stop for 30 hours.  The further north up the Valley, the greater the snow depth - from over 2 feet in Lone Pine, to nearly 3 feet at Camp Independence, to 4 feet at Fish Springs.  With lack of timely information, newspapers could only speculate that Bishop’s total was even higher.

But for total liquid precipitation (rain & snow), one has to go back to the birth of Inyo County to find a winter that beats them all. In the winter of 1867/68, records show a total of 19.46 inches:  over one foot of mostly rain in December alone, then another half foot the following month.  In this “land of little rain” where the average annual rainfall is just 5 inches, Mother Nature definitely offered too much of a good thing.

There are similarities in the notable snowstorms of Owens Valley: each seemed to drop an average of around 3 to 4 feet, and each was just on the edge of turning to rain.  Heavy wet snows hint of a tropical origin and suggest a “pineapple-connection” where a river of moisture is transported from south of Hawaii to the West Coast.  It’s been 45 years since the last big Owens Valley snowstorm so we may be due. But forecasting snow for the Owens Valley is a fool’s errand...and predicting it usually a guaranteed no-show.

Copyright © 2014 Ted Williams. All Rights Reserved

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