A century ago, Colorado's Front Range was paralyzed by record snowfall
One hundred years ago this week, a record snowstorm buried a big swath of the state. The Blizzard of 1913 stretched from Trinidad to Cheyenne and remains the most widespread snow in state history. The Front Range was a blanket of white 4 to 6 feet deep.
Georgetown, in the foothills west of Denver, was the hardest hit. When the storm was over, the community had recorded a record 86 inches of snow, just over seven feet.
Tom Elliott is a retired judge and volunteer weather watcher in Georgetown. From his home, he looks out his front window and points up the mountain a bit. That’s where his late mother, Veronica, lived during the epic storm. She was 8-years-old at the time.
"They got so much snow there that her dad, my grandfather, actually had to plow a tunnel to the outhouse," Elliott explains with a laugh. "We heard all about that for many years."
The Georgetown Courier on December 6, 1913, got into the spirit of things. Two pages of the newspaper were left blank, intentionally -- as white as the landscape.
"There was no news," Elliott said. "They couldn’t get any news from anywhere. It was a four-page paper and the only pages that were printed were pages one and four."
The trains that often brought the news to places like Georgetown were one casualty of the storm. The deep, wet snow stopped them in their tracks. Back then, people traveled by train across the Front Range and by streetcar in Denver. But both were overwhelmed by the storm. That's why some people, according to state climatologist Nolan Doesken, labeled the storm The Snow Blockade.
"[There were] Twenty to 50 foot drifts in windblown areas near the Wyoming border," Doesken said. "No one was moving anywhere and many people -- just like now, people would be stranded at the airport -- [back then] they were stranded at train stations and in trains."
Despite the storm’s severity, only a few deaths were recorded. Relief efforts tried to get food and coal to people in need. Denver police officers cared for abandoned horses as best they could. A few thousand men were employed to shovel at double the normal wage.
In Denver, the 45.7 inches of snow -- still a record from one storm -- was piled onto horse-drawn wagons that were unloaded at Civic Center Park. It took weeks to clear the roads.
"It was an incredible endeavor to get Denver cleared out," Doesken said.
Most people made the best of it. Passengers on one stranded Denver streetcar reportedly organized a variety show of sorts to pass the time. Another newspaper account recalls how the snow kept Denver firefighters from reaching a house fire.
But it didn’t matter. The family carried in snow to douse the flames.
Fires weren’t the only danger. Dozens of buildings collapsed under the weight of the snow.
"The biggest lesson from 1913, critical to the subsequent construction of buildings throughout Colorado, and that was the recognition of a concept called snow load," Doesken said.
Doesken says the state organization of structural engineers developed maps showing the snow load buildings might need to withstand. "It really upped the whole idea of engineering structures for future large storms," he said.
Doesken recalls more recent devastation from a Colorado snowstorm in 2003, which caused upward of 100 buildings to partially collapse. He says that figure would have been much higher without lessons learned from its predecessor in 1913.
But despite improved construction standards, Doesken worries about what would happen if a storm like the one a century ago slammed the Front Range today.
"I am concerned a repeat of this would be problematic for the state just because we pretty darn well feel like we deserve to get around wherever we want," he said.
In 1913, life eventually returned to normal, glacially. Since the snow fell in December, it didn’t melt quickly, like a spring storm would have. In fact, the last of all of the snow that was piled in Denver's Civic Center Park reportedly didn’t melt until after the Fourth of July.