Read all about Portland’s worst winter storms

A trip down snowy memory lane through newspapers

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Illustration by Marika Van de Kamp

As we transition from fall to winter, snow has already hit Seattle, and colder than average weather is predicted for the Pacific Northwest throughout the 2017–18 winter. We expect to see similar weather to last year when Portland was hit with five snowstorms in a five week period. Whether you await this season with trepidation or excitement, let’s take a look at some of the most severe winter weather in the Portland area.

Jamon Sin/Portland State Vanguard

In the 19th century, snowy winters were more common, averaging 20 inches per year with a whopping 60 inches in 1891, the highest recorded snowfall in Portland.

It was not uncommon for the Columbia River to freeze over, allowing people to walk across it. General Ulysses S. Grant recorded this in a letter to his wife while stationed at Fort Vancouver in January 1853. On the Christmas Day prior, Grant’s neighbors across the river related in The Oregonian how the snow had risen to 10 feet in the Calapooya Mountains, creating dangerous conditions for miners. The storm delayed mail from Salem, slowing the legislature. Grant’s account confirmed, “The Columbia River is so much blocked up with ice that navigation is almost entirely prevented.”

Five years later in January 1857, The Oregonian wrote, “The roofs of several buildings have been crushed by the weight of snow upon them. Several persons narrowly escaped with their lives.”

In 1924, the Willamette River froze over, an occurrence more rare than the Columbia freezing. One December 1924 article stated, “Old timers said this was the first time the river had presented such an arctic appearance in more than 40 years.”

In January 1949, The Oregonian ran the headline, “Ice Floes Choke Columbia, Strain on Power Continues.” Ice was threatening the Bonneville Dam, which in turn threatened the city’s power. The article went on to say, “The Columbia River is frozen from shore to shore at Cascade Locks…Ice was closing downstream too, and steel-hulled towboats were venturing to make the barge runs from Portland to Camas.”

Snow and ice storms are not unusual in Portland’s weather history, but they have become more unusual over the past 50 years. The Columbia has not frozen since 1949 and is unlikely to now with the implementation of dams. However, while the amount of snow has steadily decreased, snowstorms have suddenly recurred in the past few years. Last year, Portland recorded 11.8 inches in January. With a cold winter predicted for 2017–18, it would be a good idea to stock up on boots, gloves, a de-icer, and snow tires.


Lily’s Garden is an ongoing column by Lily Hart. 

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