In the recorded history of Washington, DC the Knickerbocker storm remains unsurpassed, both for the amount of snow it produced and for its devastating toll on human life.
The collapse of the roof at the Knickerbocker Theater, which took 98 lives (many of them children), was described by the Washington Post as the “greatest disaster in Washington history”.
The storm itself was remarkable for its persevering intensity, generating snowfall rates of greater than one inch per hour over the 24-hour period from Friday afternoon January 27 to Saturday afternoon January 28. Twenty-five inches fell in that span, establishing a 24-hour snowfall record.
All told, the storm laid down 28 inches of snow, more than any other storm in more than 130 years of official Washington, DC, weather records. Subfreezing temperatures in the days preceding the storm meant every flake stuck.
The cold weather had become established by a blocking pattern, common prior to and during the Great District of Colombia snowstorms. In such a pattern, a traffic jam of sorts sets up in the atmosphere.
High pressure over Greenland backs the flow in the atmosphere resulting in a large dip in the jet stream over eastern North America. The dip in the jet stream allows Arctic air to plunge south into the Mid-Atlantic states.
An estimated 22,400 square miles (58,000 km2) of the northeast United States were affected by 20 inches (51 cm) of snow from this snowstorm. Snowfall was quite heavy in Maryland and Virginia. Richmond, Virginia recorded 19 inches (48 cm).
The measured snow depth at the main observing site in Washington, D.C. reached 28 in (71 cm) while an observer in Rock Creek Park a few miles to the north measured 33 in (84 cm) with 3.02 in (76.7 mm) of liquid equivalent.
Railroad lines between Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. were covered by at least 36 in (91 cm) of snow, with drifts as high as 16 ft (4.9 m).
This snowstorm is the biggest in the history of Washington, D.C. since official record keeping began in 1885 (although it is dwarfed by the 36 inches (91 cm) of snow in the Washington–Jefferson Storm of January 1772).
At the height of the storm, a crowd of between 300 and 1000 people had packed into the city’s newest and biggest movie house, the Knickerbocker Theater, for a showing of the silent comedy Get-Rich-Quick Wallingford.
The roof of the Knickerbocker Theater, which was designed by Reginald Wycliffe Geare and owned by Harry Crandall, was totally flat, allowing massive quantities of snow to accumulate during the storm.
Eventually, the heavy, wet snow split the roof down the middle, bringing down the balcony as well as a portion of the brick wall. Dozens were buried, 98 theatergoers were killed, and 133 were injured.
Congressman Andrew Jackson Barchfeld was among those killed in the theater. The theater’s architect, Reginald Wyckliffe Geare, and owner, Harry M. Crandall, later killed themselves.
The horror of what transpired is captured in this excerpt from the Washington Post, originally published on January 29, 1928. An eye witness to the catastrophe, a man who had just entered the theater and who barely escaped with his life, said that a hearty peal of laughter preceded the falling of the roof.
“Great God!” he exclaimed. “It was the most heart-rending thing I ever want to witness.”In the lobby of the theater, firemen and policemen and strong civilians worked as best they could in an endeavor to extricate the wounded and the dead.
It was a task that tried the souls of men. When the crash first came, it was followed by the screams of women and the shouts of men. Agonizing cries pierced the air. One woman, in particular, shouted at the top of her voice, shouted not for help, or aid, or succor; because she was probably not conscious of what happened.
Her shouts were the gasps of the dying, and the doctors said so. One mighty symposium of exquisite pain had voiced a united appeal for help, or relief when all of a sudden there was silence.
Those who shouted were those who were under the weight of a roof and a balcony. And what a weight. What a tangled mass. Standing there in the doorways that led to the lobby, the usually stoic policemen almost despaired.
The firemen, whose ordinary task is to combat fallen structures, find their way among the debris, were appalled. They seemed hopeless in the face of this duty, but they all went to work with a determination of giving every help that was in the power of mortal man.
New York Times, Jan. 29, 1922: In the Capitol grounds the snow has piled up to the level of the branches of many of the trees. Barely a quorum of Senators appeared for the roll call and only a handful of Representatives were on hand.
New York Times, Jan. 29, 1922: Hundreds of automobiles were stalled in the streets late last night and are still stuck in the snow. With few exceptions the streetcar lines in the District of Columbia were snowbound early today and suburban lines were unable to operate because of derailments.
Washington Post, January 1922: There was applause and laughter following a particularly clever comedy situation. There was a crash that struck terror into the hearts a-thrill with merriment.
There was a gust of wind, a rushing of air that blew open the closed doors of the theater – and then, after one concerted groan, there was silence – and Crandall’s Knickerbocker Theatre, previously the temple of mirth, had been transformed into a tomb.
(Photo credit: Library of Congress / Wikimedia Commons).