On March 3, 1909, the head of what would eventually become the National Weather Service personally called President-elect William Howard Taft to assure him the weather would not interfere with inaugural activities. The rain and wet snow falling on Washington the night before was expected to end by the morning. He told Taft Inauguration Day would be “ideal.”
Early the next morning, however, Washingtonians awoke to blizzard-like conditions. Heavy snow and high wind whipped the capital. Nearly 10 inches of snow accumulated in D.C. that day. But the parade — and all 20,000 marchers — went on as scheduled. The swearing-in ceremony was moved indoors to the Senate chamber.
“I always knew it would be a cold day in hell when I became president,” Taft later joked.
Nearly 108 years later, Josh Gibson’s standing eBay search for “Wilson Building” hit the jackpot. The public information officer for the D.C. Council discovered 31 photo negatives taken that snowy day in 1909, many of which include parade scenes with the District Building, now called the Wilson Building, in the background.
The likely photographer was Ambrose Swasey, an engineer who specialized in the development of astronomical instruments during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The negatives sold on eBay were from Swasey’s collection, though they could have been taken by another photographer.
But Swasey, like Taft, was from Ohio. Gibson’s theory is that Swasey traveled to Washington to watch the inauguration and to photograph the parade.
Gibson also believes the photographer set up his camera on one of the upper floors of the old Washington Post building, which would have sheltered his camera equipment from the weather and provided a good view of Pennsylvania Avenue and the parade from above the crowd.
The parade route was short that year — from the Capitol to the White House — and it was cleared of snow during the morning hours by 6,000 men with shovels. The snow was shoveled into 500 horse-drawn wagons and hauled away. In the early 20th century, snowstorms meant instant jobs for thousands of men looking for work.
When the parade started, the snow had lightened up but it was still windy and cold. The horse-drawn carriage escorted the president and the first lady, Helen Herron Taft. Gibson’s research shows it was the first time a first lady rode with the president during an inaugural parade.
In Gibson’s office at the Wilson Building, he held out one of the century-old negatives. It felt like plastic, but it was much larger than a modern negative. A camera shop near Dupont Circle successfully produced digital images and stored them on a DVD. From the image files, Gibson made large prints
The photos were unveiled in the Wilson Building on Jan. 13. The exhibit is best accessed from the D Street entrance and is open during weekday business hours, but viewings will be restricted on Inauguration Day.
Regarding the snowstorm that almost spoiled Taft’s inauguration, the Weather Bureau reported that 9.8 inches of snow fell in Washington, D.C., but snow amounts were generally heavier to the north and east. In Maryland, Laurel received 13.5 inches, Annapolis measured 14 inches and Towson reported 16.8 inches.
The snow stopped within minutes of the noontime swearing-in event and was almost completely melted three days later. Only a trace of snow remained on the ground in D.C. on March 7, 1909.