Record storm, at 24.7 inches, came in '22 Flashback: Paralyzing blizzard stranded thousands of Baltimoreans.

Blizzard Of 1996

January 08, 1996|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Kate Shatzkin contributed to this article.

Hour by hour, inch by inch, the snow fell over a blustery January weekend in 1922. As it fell, hundreds of Baltimoreans trudged through the snow-laden streets trying to get home.

Many got no farther than the nearest hotel. Or club. Or railway bench. Others never left the street cars they boarded; the trolleys stranded on snowy rails. Cabs bucked along; harried dispatchers finally disconnected their phones to stop the unrelenting ringing.

That feathery snowfall, totaling 24.7 inches, holds the record this century.

Back then, the storm could only be compared to the Blizzard of 1899 when 3 feet of snow fell. Like this weekend's storm, they each charged in from the South, "the sunny South," as one newspaper reported then. The 1922 storm began about 7 p.m. on a Friday evening and didn't let up until Sunday, Jan. 29.

Washington bore the brunt of the storm, however. The 30-inch snowfall brought down the roof of a popular theater in the district, killing at least 98 moviegoers and earning the blizzard its name -- the Knickerbocker Storm.

The tragedy at the Knickerbocker, at 18th street and Columbia ** Road Northwest, occurred about 9 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 28. The weight of the snow sent the roof crashing into the theater.

No one knew how many people were watching the comedy playing that evening; the 2,000-seat theater usually played to a standing-room-only crowd. But because of the storm, about 300 to 400 people attended the movie.

Moviegoers were trapped under the theater's dome, which topped the debris. Patrons who escaped the falling steel and concrete ran into the streets. Several women fainted on the snow-covered sidewalks.

Firefighters, Marines from a nearby barracks and soldiers from Walter Reed Military Hospital rushed to the scene.

Crowds gathered for blocks to watch as rescue workers began their grim task.

The nearby Christian Science Church became a makeshift hospital for the injured. And then, a morgue.

The banner headline in The Sun on Jan. 29, 1922, alerted readers to the theater tragedy in the nation's capital.

The paralyzing blizzard "may have been worse in Washington," the newspaper noted, "but Baltimore had all it needed."

Unlike yesterday's storm in which Baltimore slumbered under a downy comforter of snow, the storm of 1922 hit on a Friday evening. Baltimoreans and suburban residents struggled to get home. Stranded in the city, they jammed telephone booths to call their families.

Walter Sondheim Jr. was among the missing.

The 87-year-old civic leader was a 14-year-old boy, trying to get home to Bolton Street.

"I was on a streetcar. It got stuck on Linden Avenue, a couple blocks south of McMechen," Mr. Sondheim recalled. "I probably walked three to four blocks. I guess I slogged through the snow. I came home to a frantic mother."

Fannie Berney Sondheim was happy to have her son home.

"She had been so worried," Mr. Sondheim said.

Louis Goldstein, the state comptroller, was 9 years old during the storm of the century. He lived in East Baltimore, on North Collington Avenue, near Patterson Park. When it snowed back then, boys like young Louie headed for the park.

"They had these big box sleighs at Patterson Park and Baltimore Street," said Mr. Goldstein, who is 82. "People used to go over there, ride one of those sleighs down [a long hill] and walk all the way back [up], and that was some kind of walk. I could do it now."

Although the snow fell "as silently as feathers" in 1922, frigid temperatures turned the down to ice. Gangs of men trudged through the streets with buckets of salt.

The United Railways, the streetcar company, called out their sweepers. But the men soon wore out their big brooms, trying to clear the tracks and switches of snow.

The storm may have stranded thousands, but it also provided jobs for the out-of-work.

"Every man, horse, cart and truck we can get," said Adolph P. Schuch, the commissioner of street cleaning. "Clear the streets at any cost!"

They did at $3.50 a day. The forces included 620 street sweepers, 300 carts, 30 trucks and 20 "double teams."

Snow shovelers marched in single file through neighborhoods singing, their shovels slung over their shoulders. By evening's end, city officials estimated that the snow provided temporary work for many as 4,000 men.

The storm of the century claimed one life during that first day. George Cook, a railroad foreman, had been trying to clear a switch when a train struck and killed him. The whirling snow had hidden Mr. Cook and his gang from the oncoming train, officials said then.

The outer harbor was like one big ice floe. Only the two city iceboats maneuvered through the frozen bay; they worked until they could work no more.

Dairy company officials couldn't be certain that the milk trains would arrive in the city from the country, leaving Baltimore

without milk and cream.

The snow kept the farmers from the city markets that Saturday. But not the housewives. They showed up with baskets to do their Sunday shopping. "And almost all of them got back somehow," according to the newspaper story of the day.

On a streetcar headed for Forest Park, passengers shared an impromptu supper of sausage, pickles and bread.

The gentlemen of the day found more hospitable surroundings. The Maryland Club's sleeping rooms were filled. The Baltimore Athletic Club housed 35 men.

About a dozen women from the Western Union Telegraph Co. didn't have the luxury of a private club. The women, chaperoned by an older woman, took refuge on the ninth floor of the Equitable Building.

They made coffee, turned on a phonograph and "danced until they were tired enough to sleep in the office chairs," The Sun reported then.

Those were the days.

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