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Snow collapses church dome in Seattle and stops rail service in Western Washington on February 2, 1916.

HistoryLink.org Essay 2872 : Printer-Friendly Format

On February 2, 1916, heavy snows in Western Washington stop most transcontinental railroad service and the dome of St. James Cathedral in Seattle collapses. In Everett, 23 Shetland ponies die when their barn collapses under the snow.

Preceded by 27 Hours of Snow

Snow began falling on the morning of January 31, and continued unabated until more than three feet had accumulated on level land. Schools closed, streetcars halted in their tracks, and the Humane Society spread the alarm to protect domestic animals and wildlife. At 3:13 p.m. on February 2, 1916, after two days of heavy snow, the ornate dome of St. James Cathedral, at 9th Avenue and Marion Street on First Hill, crashed 120 feet into the nave below. Miraculously, no one was injured by falling debris and 15 tons of wet snow.

A snow slide closed the western portal of the Northern Pacific's Stampede Tunnel, suspending rail service over the Cascades. The railroad loaded 300 miners from its mines in Roslyn onto a train and took them to the tunnel to remove the snow.

Warming temperatures did not help as building roofs creaked under the load of tons of wet snow. In Seattle, the first to give was the West Seattle Christian Church, at 1:30 on the afternoon of February 2, 1916. One hour and 43 minutes later, the dome of First Hill's St. James Cathedral gave up the ghost. The pressure wave created by falling snow and stone also popped most of its windows.

New Home for Northwest Catholics

Bishop Edward John O'Dea (1856-1932) commissioned St. James Cathedral after he decided in 1903 to move the headquarters of the original Nisqually Diocese from Vancouver, Washington, to Seattle. The cathedral's name intentionally honors James Douglas, a chief factor of the Hudson's Bay Company who assisted the region's first Catholic missionaries.

The New York firm of Heins & LaFarge was retained to design the new center for Pacific Northwest Catholics. It dispatched architects W. Marbury Somervell (1872-1939) and Joseph S. Coté, who went on to establish a thriving practice in their new home town. The Italian Renaissance structure, which featured two tall spires (still First Hill landmarks) and a large central cupola, was dedicated on December 22, 1907.

More than a year passed after the dome implosion before services resumed in St. James. The dome was not rebuilt, but its memory is now evoked by a smaller oculus installed over a new central altar in a major 1994 remodel.

Fr. Wilfred P. Schoenberg, S.J., A History of the Catholic Church in the Pacific Northwest, 1743-1983 (Washington, D.C.: The Pastoral Press, 1987); Paul Dorpat, Seattle Now & Then Second Edition (Seattle: Tartu Press, 1994); Walt Crowley, National Trust Guide: Seattle (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1998); "More Snow," The Tacoma Daily News, February 3, 1916, p. 1.
Note: This essay was updated on September 14, 2004, and corrected on January 20, 2011.

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St. James Cathedral (Heins & LaFarge, 1907), before February 2, 1916
Courtesy Paul Dorpat

Wreckage of the dome on the floor of St. James Cathedral after its collapse on February 2, 1916
Courtesy Paul Dorpat

Snow bank on Seattle's 1st Avenue, February 3, 1916
Postcard courtesy Patt Cranage

Vault of St. James Cathedral, with oculus, in 1998
Courtesy Paul Dorpat

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