San Francisco Snowstorms
San Francisco is in an area of highly diversified topography favorable to numerous microclimates, but the city's location in the
middle latitudes and right on the California coast places it in a Mediterranean climate zone characterized by moist mild winters and dry summers. Snowstorms in downtown San
Francisco are rare; in fact, during the last 150 years there have been only six documented snowfall events with one inch or more measured in that district. Snow
accumulates more frequently and to greater depths on the surrounding hills, but the inner city itself is almost always spared the winter coat of white. (The last
time San Francisco's financial district received an inch of snow was December 11, 1932.)
During the second half of the 19th century, colder weather and coastal snowfall
events were more common in California than they are today. In the days before the automobile, when urbanites walked or rode the trolley, newspaper accounts rendered a pleasing picture of appreciation for that rare
meteorological event, a real San Francisco snowstorm.
On December 30, 1856, a two and a half inch snowfall added to the city's holiday cheer. The Alta California reported; "The oldest inhabitant was about
the streets yesterday, freely expressing his opinion that he had never seen such a day before in San Francisco. For several hours together, the white
feathery flakes, such as in the Eastern States when they cover the ground with a snowy mantle, bring out the prancing horses and merry faces whose laugh
keeps time to the music of the jingling sleigh bells — just such snow, the pure and genuine article, fell yesterday in San Francisco. The thermometer, during
the day, fell very low; at one time in the afternoon, it sunk to 36 degrees, an unusual temperature for San Francisco."
Today, most scientists take global warming and climate change very seriously. In 1856, the Alta California editor presciently noted: "Are the seasons
changing with the innovations which the Anglo Saxon race has made in California? We shall begin to think so if we continue having snow storms in winter and rains in July."
Several individuals recorded temperature and precipitation in San Francisco
before the advent of the U.S. Weather Service, the most noted being Thomas Tennent from Philadelphia. Tennant, who designed nautical and mathematical
instruments, began taking daily measurements on August 14, 1849, shortly after his arrival in San Francisco. The Army Signal Service took over observations on March 1, 1871, but due to Tennent's expertise as an
instrument maker and the fact that he recorded rainfall to the nearest 100th of an inch, his data were accepted as the "official" early record. (Note: Virtually all of the original 19th century California weather records and documents were
destroyed in the 1906 quake-fire, but many were later reconstituted by incorporating previously published data from journals and newspapers.)
A snowstorm on January 12, 1868, inspired the Alta California to remark;
"Snow covered all the roofs and sidewalks even in the lower part of town, and the hills were for the first time in years completely whitened. The effect
produced upon the city was to us in California startlingly beautiful. The velvet coating of the snow on the outlines of roofs, towers, gables and steeples with
sharp distinctness, and the hills beyond the Mission Dolores, and so on all around the Bay of San Francisco were as white as the Alps in midwinter. Thus
far the winter has been a rough one throughout the State, and it is likely to be long remembered as such by everybody in California."
During the 1880s, a decade when wintry storms plagued the continental U.S., San Francisco residents experienced four winter
seasons with snow; 1882, 1884, 1887, and 1888. On New Years Eve, 1882, steady snow fell for 5 hours, reaching 3.5 inches deep in the downtown area. Large crowds of boys and girls gathered to build snowmen and
throw snowballs. Telephone and telegraph service were interrupted because of downed wires, and the flower beds and exotic gardens in Golden Gate Park were damaged by the thick blanket of ice.
A two-inch snowfall graced the city on February 7, 1884, but it was hardly noticed by the bustling metropolis. It seemed that the city's residents were
getting used to winter snowstorms. But three years later, when half of foot fell, the town went crazy.
San Francisco's all-time record snowfall occurred on February 5, 1887, when
3.7 inches were measured at the downtown weather bureau location in the financial district. At higher elevations in the western portion of the city, the snow
was 7 inches deep. The snowdepth at California Street and Central Avenue was measured at just over 6 inches. The San Francisco Chronicle devoted
five full columns to accounts of the historic storm. The newspaper waxed poetically on the bucolic scene; "The first broad flakes came softly down a few
minutes before 3 o'clock yesterday morning and settled as lightly as swan's down on the dark earth. People from the East saw again the Christmas of their
youth, and the little ones went wild to find that their experience of snow was not to be confined to storybooks."
The Chronicle noted the excitement of little children with the novel appearance
of snow: "There was an especial poetry about the joys of the little ones. There was not one who could toddle who did not rush into the streets to romp in the
white, and even the sick children were carried to the windows, that they might see how bravely Mother Goose was shaking the feathers down." But it was not total bliss throughout the city. The Chronicle reported "…the street-car men
journeyed up and down their lines, running the gauntlet of hundreds of men and boys who did not content themselves with snowballs, but flung hard, sharp ice,
and acted as maliciously as fiends. The streetcars were pelted with snowballs without mercy, and much glass was broken. By noon, however, the small boys
had been confined to the house to dry his clothes and the trainmen were less annoyed."
The paper also mentioned; "A number of former residents of Albany, New York
, made a large toboggan and named it the 'Major Macfarlane,' after the editor of the Albany Press. Yesterday morning Thomas Doolan was elected Captain
and Judge Pennie steersman, and a trial run was made down Haight Street hill. This is probably the first toboggan club organized in California, and the
members send greetings to the coasting clubs of New York State!"