Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Great Knickerbocker Storm

I've been planning on running home from my next stop for DAYS now. DAYS, I tell you. But on Friday I ate some questionable seafood, which made for an...interesting...Saturday. Sunday I could pretend was tainted with further food poisoning, but really it was around 12 degrees outside and I had imbibed a few too many litres at the Biergarten Haus the night before. By the time the temperature warmed up to reasonable, it was Tuesday. I decided to wake up yesterday morning and git 'er done, as it were. I woke up to an inch of snow. And sleet coming down out of the sky. For anyone who doesn't live in Washington (and even then, if you haven't watched the news all day), we just had a fairly epic snowstorm. Epic not because we got an insurmountable amount of snow, but because we definitely experienced the phenomenon known as THUNDERSNOW and because the snow (as it usually does) has caused mass chaos in the entire DC metro area.
You can't really see what's going on in this picture, but it's a sort of stalemate between three buses. Two of them are going up the hill, or were trying to, and the third is going down. Really no one's moving anywhere, and the DC DOT trucks are blocking the entire street. This is a really positive situation.
I know from personal experience that all major snowstorms in DC cause some sort of problem, from power outages to Metro being shut down to stranded cars and closed bridges from VA to MD and DC (see: Snowmageddon, Snowpocalypse, etc). What you don't hear much about is the history of storms in our area, and what sort of havoc these storms wreaked in times past. I've been reading a lot of Capital Weather Gang recently, due to the recent snowstorm in all of its glory. (For what it's worth, the CWG guys were right on the money with their forecast of this storm.) It was while reading one of their storm-related blog posts that I saw a reference to something I had never heard of before: the Great Knickerbocker Storm.

The title of the storm alone raises questions. What did the storm have to do with a basketball team from New York? Nothing, of course. In 1922, DC had a storm that for all intents and purposes developed much like the one that hit the region even hit on almost the same days of the year. However, this one ended quite differently: it was the largest single-day snowfall in DC history, at 28 inches. It also did a lot more than snarl up traffic and leave people without electricity (not that those would have been major problems in 1922). It caused one of the worst disasters in Washington history, which I doubt many Washingtonians even know about. The Knickerbocker Theater, then located at 18th St and Columbia Ave (where there is a bank now, across the street from the worst McDonald's in history), was a shiny new movie house with an unfortunately flat roof. During a screening of a movie on January 28, 1922, the roof collapsed, weighed down by the feet of snow that had accumulated during the storm. In all, 133 people were injured and 98 killed, including a congressman. The architect and the owner of the theater both later committed suicide, no doubt blaming themselves in some way for the incident.

This story, while terrible in its own right, has also made me realize the potential shortcomings of my project. Even on a run that crossed 18th and Columbia, I would never have photographed the nondescript bank that stands where the Knickerbocker once stood, and likely wouldn't have discovered this story if it weren't for my obsessive weather-checking habits. DC isn't even a very old city in the world scheme, but there are still so many pieces of its history and character that I may not uncover, even in a decade of exploration. Sad face. But I'm not discouraged...I'm only one person and I just set out to see things I'd never seen before and learn a little along the way, so that will have to be enough.


  1. I just want to add that Biergarten Haus is a stupid name. Which is it, a Beer Garden or a House? Make up your mind, Biergarten Haus.

  2. Did a double-take reading this, I was fairly certain I was the only one who had heard of the Knickerbocker... I ran across a reference a few years ago.

    I get the feeling that it was a lot like last year's storm, with cold temperatures and a lot of snowfall, rather than this storm with higher temperatures and really weighty snow. I was listening to tree limbs crack Wednesday night, and Thursday I found entire healthy trees that had snapped in half. I find it fascinating that these storms came in back-to-back years, considering a lot of vegetation that sustained through last year didn't this year.