The Knickerbocker Snowstorm: Inside insights on D.C.’s deadliest disaster


Knickerbocker storm snowfall totals (Kevin Ambrose)

Capital Weather Gang’s Kevin Ambrose recently completed a book on the catastrophe: The Knickerbocker Snowstorm (Images of America), released January 14 (this year). The photo-documentary tells the story of the tragic storm, from the meteorology to the human toll.

What follows is a question and answer with Ambrose about the storm and the book effort...

Jason Samenow: What motivated you to the write the book?

Kevin Ambrose: Since I was a kid, I heard about the Knickerbocker Snowstorm in reference to historic snowstorms of Washington, D.C. It’s always been the largest snowstorm on record.

Several years ago, I started gathering photos and information for a book on the subject.


View Photo Gallery: In January 1922, a blizzard hit the Washington area, dropping more than two feet of snow on the city. It became known as the Knickerbocker Storm, named after a tragic event at a movie house by the same name.

In May of last year, Arcadia Publishing approached me to write a book on the storm, well before I was done with my book and ready to approach a publisher. I happily agreed and I finished the book last November. Having a book contract dramatically sped up my efforts. The book was released January 14.


Kevin Ambrose, author of The Knickerbocker Snowstorm, at a book signing in Bethesda, Md.

KA: Several fascinating and tragic family stories have emerged from my research, stories that have been passed down through word-of-mouth for two generations by Washington-area families impacted by the disaster.

I have included pieces of the stories in the book and I have also written follow-up articles for the Capital Weather Gang (CWG) to document the stories in additional detail. The CWG articles are below:

* Knickerbocker snowstorm: The story of David H. Lyman, Jr. and his family
* Knickerbocker snowstorm: Miss Agnes Mellon and her date to the theater
* Knickerbocker snowstorm: The final performance

JS: What set the storm apart meteorologically?

KA: The Knickerbocker Snowstorm was a moisture-laden storm system that originated in the southeast US and moved slowly up the coast from Georgia. Much like with Snowmageddon, there was a blocking pattern to the north which slowed the storm and blocked it from moving up the coast past Washington, D.C. Instead, the storm briefly stalled near Cape Hatteras and then moved slowly east-northeast out to sea.

The heaviest precipitation with the storm was centered over the Washington, D.C. area. The storm dropped 28 inches of snow on the city which was measured at 24th and M Streets, NW, a record which still stands today.

JS: Any idea what impact the storm and disaster at the Knickbocker Theatre had on the city’s psyche?

KA: Immediately following the disaster, all theaters in the District were closed. There was a worry about the architectural integrity of large buildings weighed down by snow. Inspections of buildings were conducted and building codes were updated. It was noted that for many years, people remembered and mentioned the Knickerbocker Theatre disaster every time there was a large snowfall in the Washington region.

JS: You mention none of the families of the victims were paid a cent as litigation failed despite flaws in the Knickerbocker Theatre roof design. Did victims or their families receive any charitable assistance in the wake of the disaster?

KA: The victims were primarily assisted by family and friends. The most interesting story of assistance that I researched was for a violin player in the Knickerbocker Theatre’s orchestra named Oreste Natiello. He lost an arm in the disaster and could no longer play the violin so a group of vaudeville entertainers held a show in Louisville, Kentucky called the Natiello Benefit Performance. The goal of the show was to raise money to help Oreste become financially established within the community so he could start a new life without his violin. The performance drew a large audience and raised a significant amount of money for Oreste.

JS: Did the disaster at the Knickberbocker motivate any changes to DC’s building codes?

The building codes were updated to include the use of steel I-beams and better supports for the roofs. The Knickerbocker Theatre was built rather hastily and with sloppy construction. The steel roof beams were only laid on top of the theater’s brick walls, in some instances, they were only put 4 inches into the walls. With the roof weighed down with snow, the beams easily broke free from the walls and the roof fell as one large, flat surface: a worst case scenario for the moviegoers below.

JS: Can you share a significant excerpt from the book?

KA: To complement a photo of the remains of the theater’s curtain after the roof collapsed (page 56), I included this excerpt that a reporter from the Washington Post wrote: There was applause and laughter following a particularly clever comedy situation. There was a crash that struck terror into the hearts a-thrill with merriment. There was a gust of wind, a rushing of air that blew open the closed doors of the theater – and then, after one concerted groan, there was silence – and Crandall’s Knickerbocker theatre, previously the temple of mirth, had been transformed into a tomb.

JS: What photo from the book is your favorite and/or most meaningful and why? Can you share it?


The Knickerbocker Theatre orchestra pit, before and after the theater roof collapsed. (Library of Congress)

KA: At the top of page 50, I did a photo comparison of the orchestra pit before and after the disaster. The theater’s door, stage, and piano are visible in both photos as reference points. The amount of amount of roof plaster, ceiling fans, and steel beams that crashed down into the orchestra pit is horrendous. Six of the 11 orchestra members died in the roof crash. During the book effort, I spoke with a family of a surviving orchestra member. The story of the orchestra motivated me to put together the photo comparison of the orchestra pit.

Related:

The Great Knickerbocker Snowstorm of 1922

Your favorite Knickerbocker snowstorm photo?

Jason is currently the Washington Post’s weather editor. A native Washingtonian, Jason has been a weather enthusiast since age 10.

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