This winter was nothing compared to what Columbia County residents were enduring a little over a century ago. The winter of 1916 was one for the record books, with a storm that lasted 37 days and left 63 inches of snow on the ground.
The flakes began falling on New Year’s Eve, and by the next morning there was five inches of snow on the ground. Many found the scene picturesque and took the opportunity to take their sleighs and sleds out of retirement. All over the countryside the sound of jingling bells could be heard, and where regular bells could not be obtained, cowbells sufficed.
Few could have imagined that the wintry weather would persist for over a month. The sawmill and shipyard were forced to close, and ships were finding it harder to navigate with the ice that was beginning to clog the Columbia. Few were brave enough to skate on the frozen river, but many young people enjoyed the pastime at Scappoose Bay into the early morning hours.
The snow continued to fall, piling up to fourteen inches in town, and over three feet in the foothills. Temperatures reached 18° below zero, and many were anticipating warmer weather. Instead the cold weather continued, the ice grew thicker, and there were many frozen pipes to prove it. School was dismissed on account of low pressure in the heating facilities.
Near blizzard conditions on the evening of January 25th raised the snowfall for the month to almost two feet and just when some of it began to melt, another flurry moved in. Area creeks were on the rampage and landslides were occurring all over the county. Among the hardest hit were the many birds and animals that inhabited the backwoods, many of which were dying for lack of sustenance. The county game warden and area volunteers traveled all over the county to distribute grain for the animal population.
The worst possible scenario took place at the end of the month when, after a considerable snowfall, freezing rain fell and created a silver thaw. It wreaked havoc on the phone and electric lines, and nearly every line in town was hanging to the ground. Many trees fell over roadways, and others were shorn of their limbs. The business district in downtown St. Helens was in darkness for two nights.
Wood was a hot commodity during this time, as were candles. Many exhausted their supply and resorted to using their coal oil lamps. Snow continued to fall in the days that followed, reaching a depth of twenty inches. Nearly every awning in town was destroyed, and roofs began to cave in under the immense weight. Trains were unable to keep their schedules, the milkman had a difficult time filling orders, and even the courthouse clock had had enough and refused to move.
Just when area residents thought the snow would never leave, on February 6th the precipitation turned to rain, and slowly but surely the icicles began to drip, and the streets filled with slush. By the end of what the local newspaper coined “an historic storm,” 63 inches of snow had fallen in just over a month’s time. Locals began cleaning up, and area hotels quickly filled with linemen who had come to repair the electric and phone lines.
It would take some time before things got back to normal, and just getting around proved to be difficult. It was reported that there were 54 trees blocking the road between St. Helens and Trenholm alone. Slowly but surely things improved, and nearly everyone was grateful when spring finally made its appearance. The Winter of 1916 proved to be one for the record books – not only for the amount of snow, but also the amount of time that it stuck around.