By Beth Dodd
Colorado was hit with the biggest snow storm in state history in December 1913. The storm brought life on the Front Range to a screeching halt with frigid temperatures, howling wind, and snow drifts of epic size. Many of the snowfall records set then still hold today, a century later.
The storm started slowly on Thursday, December 4. It came from the north and dumped incredible amounts of snow from Cheyenne to Trinidad over the next three days. 45.7 inches of wet heavy snow had buried Denver by the evening of Saturday, December 6. Hundreds of people were caught off guard by the weather and were unable to get home. The city’s hotels and boarding houses filled to overflowing, and hundreds slept in the police stations and in the city auditorium.
Snow removal in the city was a tremendous challenge. Denver’s Mayor Perkins called for all the citizens to help dig out, and thousands helped to clear the streets and sidewalks. The open space in front of the state capitol building, now Civic Center Park, was rapidly filled with hundreds and hundreds of horse-drawn wagonloads of snow, which had to be shoveled in and out of the wagons by hand. Every open space was piled high. In fact, the snow at Civic Center Park was stacked so deep that it wouldn’t melt until after the Fourth of July.
Everything was closed while the city dug out. There were no trains or taxis, no school, no food or fuel deliveries. Coal, the main source of heat back then, was limited to supplies on hand and people worried about the poor freezing to death. The Denver Post, which had large stockpiles of coal, sold or gave it all away as wagon drivers made emergency deliveries to needy families.
The electric street cars in Denver stopped running for two days, with 210 cars marooned around the city. Many automobiles, which were just starting to become popular, were abandoned in the streets as everyone relied on horses, mules, or their own two feet to struggle through the snow. Although no fatalities were reported in Denver, several people went missing. By December 10, most of the trains were running again, schools had re-opened, and dairy and grocery deliveries had resumed.
In the mountain towns, the situation was even more difficult. The telegraph wires west of Denver went down, cutting off communication with buried mountain communities like Central City. They were clobbered with five feet of new snow. A photograph taken at the corner of Main and Eureka Streets shows shoulder deep piles of snow along the sidewalks, and a single tunnel-like lane in the middle of the street with the packed snow higher than the bellies of the horses.
Georgetown was the hardest hit with a staggering seven feet, four inches of new snow. The Georgetown newspaper, cut off from all news with the train tracks blocked and telegraph services inoperable, printed only four pages on December 6. Pages two and three on the inside of the paper were left completely blank and white like the all-encompassing snow. It was weeks before some of the mountain transportation routes could be reopened.
Further west of Denver, the edge of the storm was clearly evident between Sulphur Springs and Parshall. In fact, the area around Steamboat Springs in Routt County got no snow at all, although they had some wind. A passenger train headed from Steamboat to Denver, its crew completely unaware of the blizzard conditions ahead, got stuck in drifts 25 miles west of Denver.
On the eastern plains, the heavy snowfall and fierce winds buried farmhouses, barns, roads, trains, streets, doorways and vehicles. In Fort Collins, Greeley, and Longmont between 30 and 48 inches accumulated, blowing into enormous drifts. There were reports of 20 to 50 foot drifts along the Wyoming border. Ranchers struggled to keep their stock alive, but thousands of cattle died.
In Colorado Springs, 45.5 inches of snow were recorded at Colorado College, while other parts of the city claimed up to 6 feet. In Calhan three feet drifted down. Monument got four feet. Cascade received a massive blanket of five feet of fresh snow. The snow was 20 feet deep at the Gayler homestead on top of Bald Mountain above Woodland Park. Out east, there were reports of 30 mph winds and 30 foot snow drifts.
The residents of Colorado Springs struggled to get their city moving again. A crew on the Sante Fe Railroad helped out locals desperate to keep warm by shoveling coal off their tenders for the people to take home. A mule train headed for the mining camps in the San Juans was used to bring emergency food supplies to the 200 invalids at the Woodmen TB Sanitorium instead. At the Antlers Hotel, the roof of the stables collapsed and 11 of the 26 horses inside were killed. Street cars did not resume operations until Sunday, December 7.
Cripple Creek got 42.4 inches in the big storm, and drifts 10 to 20 feet deep paralyzed the district. A Midland Terminal passenger train got stranded at the top of Victor Pass just outside of Goldfield. 25 passengers had to fight their way through the snow on foot to make it to the safety of the town. It took five days to dig out the train tracks in the district. An 11 foot tall rotary snowplow (a special engine with a snow removal machine on the front) took 24 hours to travel from Victor to Cripple Creek.
Further south the snow was not as deep, but the impact of the storm was still felt. Two feet of snow piled up in Salida, while in the San Luis Valley at Del Norte and Monte Vista only 14 inches fell. A passenger train bound for Del Norte was delayed for 12 hours due to heavy snow drifts blocking the tracks in Palmer Lake. Across the state at least 20 different trains were stalled on the tracks and had to be dug out.
The 1913 blizzard had a tremendous impact all across Colorado. In addition to the physical damage done to buildings, transportation routes, communication networks, and electrical lines, thousands of people lost wages because they could not work. Some lucky men made up the difference by shoveling snow at twice their normal pay. Buildings collapsed all over the state, and engineers began to calculate snow loading into their future construction projects. However, farmers predicted a great wheat crop for the summer of 1914 when the melting snow would irrigate their thirsty fields.