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Towering snowdrifts? No milk? Is it 2010 or 1899?

By John Kelly
Sunday, February 14, 2010; C03

The Washington Post recently reported that from the Civil War to 1941, official weather readings for Washington, D.C., were taken in Georgetown, but the article does not specify where. Can you enlighten me as to the exact location of the Georgetown weather station and which agency or government department was in charge of it?

-- Joseph N. Grano, Washington

The Weather Bureau was established in 1890 by order of President Benjamin Harrison and was located administratively within the Department of Agriculture. (It moved to Commerce in 1940.) What was known as the City Office Weather Station was at 24th and M streets NW, which, if you want to be a stickler, is more Foggy Bottom than Georgetown. It was from inside a handsome, crenellated building that the "weather prophets," as 19th-century newspapers liked to call them, made their predictions.

Then, as now, they were occasionally false prophets. They missed a storm that from Feb. 5-7, 1899, dropped almost 13 inches on Washington. It was the most snow since 1895, and it was part of what was the snowiest winter in the city's history -- until this year.

Answer Man finds the parallels between the two winters striking. The storm that started Feb. 5, 1899, although it caused its share of bruised bottoms and broken ankles, was seen as delightful. Children sledded. The streetcars continued to run. But then Feb. 13 rolled around, and things weren't quite so fun. Here is the first paragraph from The Post's lead story Feb. 14:

"From Greenland's icy mountains, from the shores of Labrador, and the plains of the Dakotas the snow king swept down upon Washington yesterday. He was accompanied by his brother, the frigid storm king, and the two held a wonderful carnival in the Capital City. They toyed with the elements and played with petty humanity, roaring and laughing and shaking their grizzly locks until the masses of snowflakes flew through the air and fell as they had never fallen before."

Streetcars which had operated during the previous storm ground to a halt when snow filled the conduits that ran in the streets and disrupted the electric current. Police fanned out to rescue pedestrians from drifts up to 10 feet high. A young woman named McDonald was pulled from a drift at Third and East Capitol. According to The Post: "Only the feathers of the woman's hat could be seen sticking out of the snow."

The city's department stores -- then clustered along F Street NW -- locked their doors. At the telephone exchange, The Post reported, "many of the girls remained overnight." Only five of the 17 clerks in the Recorder of Deeds office made it to work, and only one judge got to the city's criminal court: Justice Cole.

Most of the city's theaters closed, although at the National, Julia Arthur went on in "A Lady of Quality." She told The Post: "It would be a breach of the commonest courtesy to disappoint those purchasers of tickets who flattered me by braving the storm just for the sake of an evening's entertainment."

With the city cut off, residents worried about food. The paper noted brisk demand for all provisions, "with the exception of ice cream." There was plenty of bread, but eggs were scarce and milk nonexistent. "But a few gallons of the lacteal fluid reached town yesterday," wrote The Post, "and there will be absolutely none to-day."

The Feb. 13-14 blizzard dropped 20 inches of snow on Washington, and once it ended, attention turned to cleanup. Congress hurriedly appropriated $20,000 to clear the streets and sidewalks. Word went out that 2,000 laborers were needed to shovel. "No man in Washington able to work need be without work during the next few days," wrote The Post. All they needed to do was report to Daggett & Dugan, the street-sweeping contractors, at 12th and V streets NW.

As it turned out, only 700 men showed up. The streetcar companies were offering up to 50 cents an hour to clear their tracks, a lot more than the $1.25 a day the District was paying.

Eventually the snow melted, as snow always does. By the time the winter of 1899 ended, 54.4 inches of snow had fallen on Washington, a record that would stand for 111 years.

They don't call him Answer Man for nothing. Write answerman@washpost.com.

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