Violent windstorm rakes Western Washington on October 21, 1934.

  • By Phil Dougherty
  • Posted 1/09/2015
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 3734

On Sunday, October 21, 1934, a windstorm with gusts of at least 90 m.p.h. strikes Western Washington. Damage is widespread from the Columbia River to the Canadian border. At least 19 people (some unverified accounts claim 22) die in the storm. It's Western Washington's worst windstorm on record to that time, though it will be bumped to second place by the 1962 Columbus Day windstorm. 

Out of Thin Air 

Western Washington's weather had been unsettled on Saturday, October 20, 1934, but forecasts issued that evening called only for "fresh southerly winds" in Seattle the next day ("Beacon Hill ..."), although strong winds were predicted for the coast. However, plunging barometers that night alerted weather forecasters that a big one was on the way, and as dawn broke on Sunday, October 21, gale warnings were going up not just on the coast but on inland waters too, including Puget Sound. 

The storm first struck Southwest Washington shortly after 7 a.m. with 90 m.p.h. wind gusts. Wind-and-tide-driven water poured into downtown Aberdeen and Hoquiam, flooding both cities' downtowns with two feet of water. Half the homes in Hoquiam were flooded, while in the southern part of Aberdeen water reached six feet deep in low places. Many there were stranded on the second floor of their homes and were rescued by police using small boats. 

Though there was some localized flooding in a few other areas, for much of the rest of Western Washington the problems came from the wind. People were surprised as the storm seemed to blow up out of thin air as it moved north during the morning. At 8:30 a.m. in Seattle, winds were a paltry 3 m.p.h.; at 9:40, sustained winds were a still-unremarkable 20 m.p.h. Only half an hour later, at 10:10 a.m., sustained winds were howling at 50 m.p.h. -- and this was just the beginning.  

Crashing Chimneys and Stuck Ducks 

The storm blew down thousands of trees and signs and broke windows everywhere. Witnesses described the sound of shattering plate-glass windows in downtown Seattle storefronts as "like cannon shots" ("3 Vessels ..."). Church chimneys crashed into churches in both Seattle and Tacoma. Three girls were injured by a falling chimney at the Mason Methodist Church in Tacoma, but parishioners at Seattle's Church of the Immaculate Conception were more fortunate when its hundred-foot chimney crashed into the church sanctuary. Services had ended about 15 minutes earlier, and the hundreds in attendance had left.  

Some houses were blown off their foundations, while others were lucky to lose only their roofs. (In one instance, a metal roof yanked off by the wind sailed through the air and landed on a passing car, demolishing the vehicle but sparing its passengers.) Radio antennas broke away from roofs and hurtled through the air like spears, while power poles and lines snapped and sparked in the gale. 

In Tacoma, a radio antenna and a power line proved to be a deadly combination. Forty-two-year-old Carl Christensen was outside trying to fix his home's broken antenna when a tree crashed nearby, snapping a live power line that landed on the antenna. The shock was so intense that it froze Christensen's hands to the pole, electrocuting him so severely that his clothes caught on fire. His horrified wife and daughter ran to help him, only to have the live line whip onto them, killing the mother and injuring the daughter, 11-year-old Betty Mae Christensen. Another young girl in Olympia was severely burned when a live power line was blown against her. 

Some animals normally incapable of flight flew that day. The Seattle Star reported that a cat was picked up by the gale, sailed 25 feet through the air, and landed gently on the ground. Other animals that normally flew went nowhere against the gale, at least according to the Tacoma Times, which reported that flocks of ducks flying into the wind were stalled in midair: "Their wings were working briskly, but they could not make progress toward the south" ("Shantytown ..."). Some humans did not have much better luck trying to stand or walk in the gale, which reached peak recorded gusts of 83 m.p.h. in Tacoma and 70 m.p.h. in Seattle. 

Wild Waves and Smashing Ships 

But for all those who struggled, others saw the storm as an excuse to come out to play. Boys on bicycles with umbrellas for sails raced delightedly along 23rd Avenue N in Seattle, reaching speeds estimated at 30 m.p.h. Others came out just to watch the storm, but they may have regretted it if they went to Alki Beach. Hundreds were there that afternoon to see the crashing surf, where waves described as 20 to 30 feet high pounded the shoreline. The breaking waves shot huge jets of spray into the air -- and onto sightseers' cars, smashing windows in some and getting under the hoods of more than a dozen others, shorting out their ignitions and stalling them on the spot. This led to a two-hour traffic jam and an unrecorded number of happy tow-truck drivers who made a tidy sum towing the disabled cars away. 

Sightseers came out in force to Seattle's Westlake Avenue when 5,000 logs in fifty sections broke loose from their storage area at the southern end of Lake Union and began a slow-motion march up the lake, threatening boats, houseboats, and wharves. At least two tugs, the fireboat Snoqualmie, and other small boats struggled heroically against the mass to keep it centered in the lake and away from property. Onlookers watched with bated breath as the logs surged past boats and piers with only a few feet to spare, but the mariners saved the day. Only one small pier was lost, and the logs eventually grounded themselves on the north side of the lake.  

One of Seattle's biggest storm-related stories happened on Elliott Bay. The trans-Pacific passenger ship SS President Madison was moored near the end of Pier 41 when its lines snapped. The 15,000-ton liner swung around and, broadside to a strong incoming tide, washed into the slip between Piers 40 and 41. The ship first struck the freighter Alaskan Native, then smashed and sank another freighter, the Harvester (its 20-man crew frantically leapt to safety shortly before the crash), before careening into the North Haven docked at Pier 40. Sweeping the three freighters before it like an enormous battering ram, and crashing into everything it encountered, the Madison eventually grounded itself in a tangle of wreckage. 

There was a near-disaster on the other side of Puget Sound. Shortly after 11 a.m. the passenger steamer Virginia V, carrying more than 20 passengers, was backing away from the dock after a stop at Olalla in Kitsap County. The high winds caught the steamer and slammed it back into a corner of the dock with such force that it broke all the windows on one side of the passenger compartment. Wind blew in through the breaches and flung candy from the candy counter around the passenger deck. About the same time, the boat struck a beam on the dock that punched through the vessel and smashed into a steam pipe in the engine room, releasing a cascade of live steam. Mercifully, the boat soon jammed against the dock. This allowed several men to rig a gangplank from the upper deck to shore, and the near-hysterical passengers edged their way along it to safety while the board shuddered beneath their feet. 

Northbound at a High Rate of Speed 

There was not as happy an ending to the story in the waters off Port Townsend. The fishing boat Agnes, with seven men on board, foundered in the wind and waves and began sinking. By a stroke of luck the Coast Guard cutter Haida was nearby and moved in to help, but by the time it arrived four men were already dead. A fifth was so exhausted he let go of the rescue rope thrown to him and drowned in front of his rescuers. However, the two remaining men, Oscar Benson and Jimmie de Coursey, both of Ballard, were rescued from the boat's rigging just as it sank. 

The storm peaked in Seattle in the early afternoon, though sustained gale-force winds lashed the city until 4:30 p.m. The storm actually weakened slightly as it moved north, but this wasn't apparent on the ground. Bellingham reported sustained winds of 75 m.p.h. with gusts to 80. Wind-whipped whitecaps on Bellingham Bay turned into spray that "blew across the water like drifting snow, with streaks hundreds of yards long, white as milk" ("Bellingham's Bay ..."). The storm then moved into Canada, causing substantial damage in British Columbia's Lower Mainland.


Sources:

"Five Drown as Seiner Agnes Sinks in Storm," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 22, 1934, p. 1; "Liner Hits 3 Vessels; Sound Steamer Sinks," Ibid., October 22, 1934, p. A; "Gale Drives Sound Ship into Wharf," Ibid., October 22, 1934, p. 2; "Grays Harbor Cities Flooded," Ibid., October 22, 1934, p. 2; "Wind Sends Brick Stack Through Roof of Church," Ibid., October 22, 1934, p. 2; "Runaway Logs Peril Homes," Ibid., October 22, 1934, p. 3; "3 Vessels Sink, Property Loss Totals Million," The Seattle Star, October 22, 1934, pp. 1, 14; "Oddities of the Storm," Ibid., October 22, 1934, p. 1; "'Minor Damage' of Storm Will Total Immense Sum," Ibid., October 22, 1934, p. 2; "Storm Breaks Big Log Booms," Ibid., October 22, 1934, p. 3; "President Madison Is Pulled Free After Sinking Steamer," Ibid., October 22, 1934, p. 4; "Beacon Hill House Struck by Lightning," The Seattle Times, October 21, 1934, p. 1; "Worst Gale in History Is Cause of Vast Damage," Ibid., October 22, 1934, pp. 1, 11; "Liner Madison Is Pulled Out of Wreckage," Ibid., October 22, 1934, p. 8; "Strolling Around the Town," Ibid., October 22, 1934, p. 8; "Pacific Highway Is Strewn with Debris of Storm," Ibid., October 22, 1934, p. 9; "Early Warning Signals Told of Whole Gale," Ibid., October 22, 1934, p. 11; "Tacoma Couple Is Electrocuted at Height of Storm," The Tacoma Times, October 22, 1934, p. 1; "Bellingham's Bay Like Drifting Snow," Ibid., October 22, 1934, p. 3; "Two Are Hurt," Ibid., October 22, 1934, p. 3; "Shantytown on Tide Flats Survives Wind," Ibid., October 22, 1934, p. 10; Wolf Read, "The Major Windstorm of October 21, 1934," Office of Washington State Climatologist website accessed November 28, 2014 (http://www.climate.washington.edu/stormking/October1934.html).
Note: This essay replaces a previous essay on the same subject.


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