08 Feb 2010

Lost Capitol Hill: The Knickerbocker Storm

I was going to write about yet another boarding house that used to be on the Hill, but then another storm came along, one that has drawn many comparisons to the Knickerbocker storm of 1922, so it would behoove me to write today about that storm.

The two storms do have some things in common, including 20+ inches of snow, as well as their striking on a Saturday, and therefore giving the citizens of DC all of Sunday to dig out, there are also some major differences. Where this weekend’s storm has resulted mainly in sledding opportunities followed by mugs of hot chocolate, the Knickerbocker Storm was a far more dangerous affair. The main loss of life occurred in the Knickerbocker Theater, whose roof collapsed, killing 98 people, but even those unaffected by the roof collapse found it tough going. The New York Times reported on the scene of destruction that greeted the citizens of the city the next morning:

Washington, as the center of the storm area, and the center of the storm’s strength, suffered most severely. Even aside from the Knickerbocker Theater disaster, the capital was hard hit, and although snow stopped falling a few hours after midnight, it was not until long after day had dawned that the full effect was seen. Daybreak found the city without any sort of street car service, and the streets blocked to impassibility with snow, the suburbs completely cut off, deliveries of bread, milk and other perishable foodstuffs greatly curtailed and many buildings endangered by the load of snow.


Daybreak was welcomed by the city firemen and police, who described the preceding hours as “a night of horror.” Fires were reported in nearly half a dozen widely separated sections last night after practically all the fire-fighting apparatus had been sent to the Knickerbocker Theater.

Capitol Hill was not free from the effects of the storm. At the Capitol, while the House of Representatives failed to have a quorum present, the Senate managed to get 49 Senators – just barely enough for a quorum – to be present. However, their struggles to appear at work ended up for naught, as the floor leaders almost immediately ordered an adjournment. There was just enough time for a heated argument on the merits of the Foreign Debt Refunding Bill, but without more Senators – most of whom were snowbound in the suburbs – present, there was no way that the planned vote would happen.

The view up Pennsylvania Avenue towards the Capitol yesterday around noon.

Just north of the Capitol, Union Station was also dealing with the storm. Due to the large number of trains stopped by the storm, hundreds of people found themselves stranded in the District’s main train station. They were helped out by the War Department, which sent over enough cots for all to sleep on.

Even as the city dug out, and normal train and street car service returned, the city once again had to brace for another snow storm – much like what we are looking forward to on Tuesday and Wednesday.

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  • katherine grincewich

    Any word about roof collapses in rowhouses then or now?

  • Elizabeth Festa

    Present Day: Lisa B. near 12th and Pennsylvania SE said I could share this posting with with Hill is Home: “Since the snow there was a crack in the ceiling below the Kingpin which holds most of the weight of the roof. ( flat roof)….. I asked the Fire Dept if I should be worried and they came over ….They chopped out the sagging ceiling only to see the beams sagging and cracking as they watched.The are getting some T- beams to hold up my roof until we can get a professional. My roof was completely replaced 9 years ago but I have a flat roof and the Kingpin had some damage and was not properly repaired
    according to the firemen.”
    Some of the Firemen ran out of my room as the beams cracked so no
    laughing matter.
    Call the Fire dept. if you think your roof is at risk and your
    ceiling shows signs of collapsing.

  • Kyra Deblaker-Gebhard

    Great and timely post.

    Where was the Knickerbocker and what stands there now?

  • The Knickerbocker was at 18th and Columbia, in what is now. Adams-Morgan.
    I have also heard of one alley dweller who was worried about his roof, and was there last night making sure it didn’t collapse.

  • The article in the Post last Sunday was great. Such a sad story. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/01/21/AR2009012101298.html

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