Deadly Knickerbocker Storm struck 89 years ago
As punishing as Wednesday's Rush Hour Storm was for thousands of Maryland commuters, road and utility crews, nothing Marylanders have suffered in winter can compare with the 1922 Knickerbocker Storm that began 89 years ago today. It will always be remembered as the deadliest in the region's winter history.
Over three days, the storm piled up 24.7 inches in Baltimore, a mark that remained the local record until 2003. It began on a Friday evening, at rush hour. Commuters sought shelter in hotels and clubs, or remained trapped in their stranded streetcars.
The late Walter Sondheim, Jr., was among the stranded that weekend. He told The Sun in a 1996 interview that he was 14 back then, trying to get home on Bolton Street.
"I was on a streetcar. It got stuck on Linden Avenue, a couple of blocks south of McMechen," he recalled. "I probably walked three to four blocks. I guess I slogged through the snow. I came home to a frantic mother."
Former Maryland Comptroller, the late Louis Goldstein was 9 that weekend, and he took the storm as an invitation to head for Patterson Park. "They had these big box sleighs at Patterson Park and Baltimore Street," he recalled in 1996. "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."
The streetcar company called for sweepers and shovelers to clear their tracks. As many as 4,000 found work at $3.50 a day.
Kathryn Bradley recalled the storm in a Sun interview in 2003. She was 97, living at the Oak Crest Retirement Community. "We didn't think anything of it at the time," she insisted. "It was before the age of automobiles, and I do remember riding a buggy. Nobody cleaned the streets. The streets were just left the way they were. There wasn't that much traffic. I just envied anybody with a horse and sleigh. At least they could get around, when nobody could get around in a car. Cars weren't made for snow in those days."
As bad as it became in Baltimore, it was worse in Washington, which recorded 30 inches of heavy, wet snow. The burden proved too much for the roof of the capital's Knickerbocker Theater. It gave way during a Saturday evening movie show, and after the body counts were finally reconciled and made official, authorities said 98 people had been crushed to death. Another 135 were injured and more were trapped. The tragedy gave the storm its name.
Bill Bowles was 94 in 2003 when he spoke to The Sun at Oak Crest about the storm, which he experienced in Alexandria, Va. "The snow was so deep my brother and I dug tunnels through it and crawled around through and made a house under the snow," he said.
He remembered hearing of the theater disaster across the Potomac, and being amazed at the toll. "Why people were watching a movie during a storm like that, I've never been able to figure out," he said.
Thanks to Sun Librarian Paul McCardell