February 1916 in Duncan, after record snowfall. (T.W. Paterson collection)

T.W. Paterson column: Relax! It doesn’t snow like it used to

So I wrote, years ago, in one of the earliest Chronicles of the ‘Great Snow’ of 1916.

So I wrote, years ago, in one of the earliest Chronicles of the ‘Great Snow’ of 1916.

It’s been a week since our latest dump of white and already it’s melted away. The challenges of winter driving are almost forgotten — until the next time.

We’ve had a few notable winters since 1916, of course, the most recent, in terms of general inconvenience and memory, being 1968, when it began snowing on Boxing Day, and the New Year’s Day, 1996, double-punch of heavy snowfall capped by pineapple express temperatures and heavy rains which precipitated rapid melt-down and flooding.

But neither were anything like 1916, the mother of all snowfalls.

It began innocently enough, at December’s end; by mid-January it was reported that sleighing parties prevailed over an all-white landscape but schools (note!) remained open. Within a week, more than a foot was on the ground in downtown Duncan (considerably deeper in the hills), traffic was slowing and business was beginning to feel the pinch. Duncan oldtimers wistfully recalled the snowfalls of ‘84 and 1910. (“Why, when I was a boy…”)

Another week passed with more snowfall and intense cold, prompting a variation of a song then popular because of the raging world war. Instead of singing, “Keep the home fires burning,” Valley residents were adlibbing, “Keep the home taps running.”

Lake Cowichan (surprise) felt it more and, in the second week of the siege, had to suspend classes. Village sidewalks made to look all the deeper by snows piled aside were likened to the frontline trenches of France and Belgium.

On the Malahat, the northbound E&N was delayed but managed to battle through the drifts for another week.

For all of the challenges to transit (this was still, for the most part, the horse and buggy age, remember — no snow plows or all terrain vehicles), Cobble Hill school attendance remained high. The same couldn’t be said for Duncan where the schools had been closed for several days, and a bemused Cowichan Leader journalist wrote, “What’s all this white stuff lying around here, anyway? Is this Vancouver Island or Vladivostock?”

Horace Davie’s barn at Somenos collapsed under the weight of snow. “Yesterday morning,” noted the Leader, “will be remembered for the time it took to get to business or even outside the house [he’s referring to outdoor plumbing—TW]. Fully three feet of snow lies on Duncan streets and there is between four and five feet in some places in the district.” (How would the city handle this today — and enforce property owners’ shovelling of sidewalks?)

A further two feet fell through the night of Jan. 31-Feb. 1. The following Sunday it was reported that there were more snow shovels in the hands of churchgoers than prayer books. A news account wryly noted that one-eighth of the new year had already passed — all of it white — but not to worry, Valentine’s Day was nigh.

By this time train service had become sporadic and Valley residents had to be content with three-day-old newspapers. This was more of a hardship than apparent at first glance as Victoria newspapers were the source of most war news — a matter of crucial interest to those with family members and friends serving overseas.

Cowichan Station settler R. Mearns reported that he’d measured eight feet, 7.5 inches of snow there, a subtle reminder to Duncan residents that they’d had it much easier than those living in outlying areas. Proof of this was the incredible story of Maris Hales of Deerholme, who was forced to abandon his home and hike into town. It took him nine hours to navigate the eight-foot-deep drifts. His situation, and that of others in need, prompted. Lieut. Finlayson to lead a 15-man detachment of the 88th Battalion (bivouacked in the Cowichan Armouries) to help those they could.

Because school attendance had fallen below 50 per cent [!], Duncan schools were closed until further notice.

The end of the siege came suddenly and dramatically. On Feb. 14 — Valentine’s Day — with rising temperatures, it began to rain — rain so hard that rivers surged over their banks and dirt roads, so recently the domain of horse-drawn sleighs, became instant quagmires.

Hopes that the worst was over were placed on hold at month-end (the 29th, as 1916 was a Leap Year) when it again began to snow.

This proved to be a last gasp, however, and residents finally were able to turn to cleaning up.

There are no underwriters’ evaluations of the total property loss, but we do know that the official record for snowfall for January-February 1916, as measured at Tzouhalem, is 8.5 feet. This pales against that of Glenora where recorder W. Vaux measured nine feet, 2.5 inches. Chemainus historian W.H. Olsen wrote that snow started to fall there on Dec. 30, 1915 — and kept falling for 47 days straight days — and the Chemainus River froze over for the first time in recorded history. Chemainus also lays claim, unofficially, to 10 feet of snow.

The 1916 temperatures, it should be noted, never fell below 22 degrees F (-5.5 C), a far cry from the cold snaps of 1875, ’87 and ’93 when Horseshoe Bay iced over during sub-Arctic weather.

The Great Snow of 1916 was long ago. But its legend endures in the form of dramatic photos which show soldiers then awaiting their overseas postings being pressed into service to clear Victoria streets and sidewalks. This is somewhat ironic as, 20 years or so ago, a call for military assistance by a snowed-in Toronto sparked nationwide scorn.

One hundred and four years ago, human snow plows in uniform were the order of the day — and a welcomed one at that.



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