“Fine weather tomorrow,” said the Evening Star. “Ideal March weather,” promised the Weather Bureau, for the inauguration of William Howard Taft on March 4, 1909. The day began, however, with heavy snow and near-white out conditions in Washington. The weather was anything but fine.
The day before the inauguration, on March 3, 1909, Washington swelled with dignitaries and visitors eagerly anticipating the inaugural festivities. Despite the forecast for good weather the day before the event, heavy rain fell during the afternoon, accompanied by lightning and thunder. Much to everyone’s surprise, the rain changed to snow during the evening of March 3 and the snow continued into the night.
When the rain turned to snow, the wind direction in Washington changed from east to west indicating that the storm center had passed to the north of the D.C. area. The chief of the Weather Bureau personally called President-elect Taft at Midnight on March 4 to inform him that the snow would soon be over. He reiterated his promise that the weather would not interfere with Inauguration Day.
During the predawn hours of March 4, however, the snow increased in intensity and by early morning a near whiteout was in progress in D.C. with a howling northwest wind. The storm center had rapidly intensified over southern New Jersey giving Washington an unusual wraparound snow event. The explanation later given by the Weather Bureau regarding the busted forecast was that the snow had unexpectedly “flared back” from southern Pennsylvania over Washington D.C. after the storm center had passed to the north of the area.
To combat the snow on the roads, an army of 6,000 shovelers worked tirelessly trying to clear the parade route as snow continued to fall. The stands along Pennsylvania Avenue were virtually deserted. One congressman described the scene as “the worst weather on the face of the earth.”
Due to the inclement weather, President Taft moved the “oath of office” ceremony to inside the Senate chamber. Taft joked, “I always knew it would be a cold day in hell when I became President.”
The snow stopped within minutes of the noontime swearing-in event. For a while, there was question whether there would be any parade at all, but despite the strong winds, 20,000 marchers braved the elements and trudged down the snowy parade route in the afternoon. Dozens of trains destined for the inaugural festivities were delayed due to the weather and many spectators did not arrive until the parade was well underway.
The Weather Bureau reported that 9.8 inches of snow fell in Washington, D.C. during the storm. Snow amounts were generally heavier to the north and east: Laurel, Md., received 13.5 inches, Annapolis, Md., saw 14 inches, and Towson, Md., reported 16.8 inches.