“The snow, the snow, the beautiful – O, slush!” Snow, rain, and winter life in Vancouver

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This is the first post in the Winter in Canada series edited by M. Blake Butler and Ben Bradley.

The rain arrived at the worst possible time.

It was the morning of 21 January 1935, and 44cm of wet, heavy snow had just fallen on Vancouver – the most ever recorded in a 24-hour period. Overnight, “Canada’s Evergreen Playground” – a popular tourism slogan for Vancouver and coastal British Columbia – had been transformed into a winter wonderland. The snow looked beautiful, but it was a nightmare for morning commuters and caused considerable damage throughout the city. Streets and sidewalks were impassable and dozens of buildings collapsed under the weight of the snow, most notably the iconic Hastings Forum, one of the world’s largest indoor ice rinks.[1]

By mid-morning, the heavy snow gave way to torrential rain. More than 280mm fell over the next four days. With so much melting snow and slush clogging drains, trapped meltwater and rain flooded the city. Rooftop snow began leaking into buildings. The mix of rain and snowmelt inundated creeks and rivers, too. Rushing water cut a deep gorge in the sandy bluff above Spanish Banks, washing out sections of Marine Drive and leaving one of the homes on local resident Lily Lefevre’s property perched precariously on the cliff’s edge.[2]

The snow-rain mix of January 1935 was an unprecedented weather event in the City of Vancouver. It was the heaviest five-day precipitation total ever recorded in the city.[3] But the fact that rain followed the snow was not surprising. Snow-rain mixes were common on the coast. Vancouverites expected rain after snow – in fact, they often hoped for rain. In the twentieth century, Vancouverites constructed specific relationships with snow that took rain into consideration. Rain was regarded as a boon to local snow-clearing activities, for example, because it quickly washed away snow. But the city’s snow problems could worsen when no rain came or when too much of it fell on too much snow, as was the case in January 1935. In Vancouver, rain had a significant impact on the way people experienced snow.

Item: Str N315.1 – [Flooding at Ontario Street and Marine Drive after a storm] 25 January 1935, 183-D-03, Series S4 – Collected Photographs, Fonds AM54 – Major Matthews Collection, City of Vancouver Archives.

Rain is a dominant weather feature in Vancouver. It is a way of life, as journalist Donald Stainsby once wrote.[4] Moisture-rich storms from the Pacific Ocean drop between 1400-1500mm of precipitation on downtown Vancouver annually. Much of this is rain, as the moderating influence of the ocean typically keeps winter temperatures above freezing.[5] Whereas most Canadians face winter with shovels and snow boots, Vancouverites do so with umbrellas and rubber boots.

But Canada’s Evergreen Playground is not always green, for snow does fall on the coast. This happens when cold polar air from the continental interior filters through mountain valleys to the coast. Rain becomes snow when incoming storms meet these “Arctic outflows.” Snow is not a frequent occurrence, but it is a seasonal one. Snow has fallen on the City of Vancouver in all but a few winters since its incorporation in 1886. Between 1899 and 1971, an average of 64cm of snow fell annually on downtown, and snow covered the ground for an average of 12 days per year.[6] While there were some winters when snow remained for days or weeks, it typically only lasted for a day or two until warmer, rainier weather returned.

Vancouverites considered snow to be a temporary inconvenience. It was something that “comes quickly and disappears more quickly,” wrote one reporter in January 1901. “A day or two is expected to see the entire disappearance of snow,” explained another ten years later. “When the warm Pacific winds and the constant winter rains get in their work the visitor from the prairies will soon make itself scarce.” These sentiments were consistent throughout the century. The Vancouver Province’s Bruce McLean predicted that rain would “come in a day or two to cleanse our streets and driveways” after a light snowfall in February 1988.[7]

The expectation that rain would soon follow snow influenced how Vancouverites prepared for and handled snow. Few homeowners bothered to shovel their sidewalks after a snowfall, despite a municipal by-law compelling them to do so.[8] Compliance with this by-law was low throughout the century. Instead, most homeowners were “firm believer[s] in letting nature take its course.” Rain was considered Vancouver’s “100 percent street cleaner.”[9] Why bother shoveling if rain would clear the sidewalks anyway?

The Province’s P.W. Luce captured this sentiment in a 1933 satirical piece. Having spent hours shoveling – “getting high praise for my energy from neighbours who had not cleaned their own sidewalks, and had no intention of doing so” – Luce was disheartened when a thaw returned and “the snow started to move without human agency. Had I been a bit more patient, I could have saved myself much work, plenty of trouble, and a mighty good chance of a cold in the head.”[10]

These attitudes extended to municipal officials. In January 1920, City Engineer Frederick L. Fellowes rejected an appeal from the Milk Drivers & Dairy Employees Union to salt snowy streets, arguing that it would be “useless…. to take care of these extraordinary conditions and later on to have the same deleted.” Many of his successors considered rain to be the solution to their snow problems, too. “A light rain with warmer temperatures” was, in City Engineer John Oliver’s opinion, “the ideal answer to the problem of quick snow removal” following heavy snow in January 1950. And as City Engineer Bill Curtis explained in 1982, “we’re counting on the rain to wash most of [the snow] away.”[11]

Len Norris cartoon. Vancouver Sun 8 January 1953

These officials developed snow-clearing policies that cheaply mitigated and managed snow’s impact until the rain returned. After a snowfall, City Engineers directed their crews to clear drains, gutters, and catch basins in preparation for the inevitable thaw. By keeping drains open, rain became an ally in the fight against snow. In the second half of the twentieth century, City Engineers relied on salt to keep car traffic flowing after it snowed. Salt was an effective snow- and ice-fighting tool; it was also cheaper to salt snow than to plow it.[12] Officials were reluctant to engage in large-scale snow-clearing activities. As City Engineer Ran Martin explained in 1962, if snow fell but the forecast called for rain, “the department doesn’t bother… sanding and salting streets. It just cleans out catch basins so the water can run off.”[13]

There was a delicate balance to this relationship between snow, rain, and people. Snow problems worsened when no rain came or when too much fell on a deep snowpack. Streets and sidewalks were in disarray for long periods when cold, snowy weather persisted and rain failed to return. Vancouverites’ motivation to shovel did not improve the longer snow stayed. Uncleared sidewalks were a hotly contested topic when snow coated the ground for over 30 days in January and February 1937. Without the rain, municipal snow-clearing costs ballooned as crews had to tackle snow on their own.

While Vancouverites hoped for rain to alleviate their snow problems, too much of it on too much snow could be disastrous. Flooding was one serious concern. Warm rain turned snow to slush, which clogged drains and prevented water from escaping to the sewage system and nearby waterways. In December 1922, heavy rain on a deep snowpack turned streets into canals, flooded basements, and caused extensive damage.[14] The city faced similar rain-on-snow flooding events in January 1907, January 1935, and December 1996.

Officials removed snow to lessen the flood risk. This meant dumping it into Burrard Inlet and False Creek, a narrow inlet separating downtown from the southern suburbs. Officials only did this following heavy snowstorms. In December 1937, crews dumped so much snow into False Creek that slushy icebergs clogged the waterway and blocked drainage outlets, actually increasing the risk of flooding. The city hired a local tugboat operator to clear the slushy icebergs. A tugboat was brought in a second time when slush blocked the waterway again in January 1954.[15]

A tugboat removing snow and slush from False Creek. “Winter goes down the drain,” Vancouver Province 26 January 1954.

Rain-on-snow events damaged buildings, too. Wet snow is heavier than dry snow and puts greater strain on roofs. Rain-soaked snow destroyed dozens of buildings in the city’s early history. Countless others were damaged by wet, heavy snow. Melting snow and rain also leaked into buildings, creating other problems. At the University of British Columbia, “a sweating group of students” saved hundreds of books from a soggy fate when water seeped through the library’s roof in January 1935. In February 1986, Expo ’86 organizers were horrified to find melting snow leaking through the roofs of the pavilion buildings just a few months before the big event.[16]

Vancouverites developed unique relationships with snow and rain in the twentieth century. But these relationships were finely balanced; under optimal conditions, rain helped with the city’s snow problems. Extreme conditions worsened them, as too little or too much rain countered human expectations and upset these relationships. Rain’s outsized impact on snowy life in Vancouver was not just a product of natural circumstances, but of the specific relationships that people developed with nature.

[1] “Forum in ruins; wall and roof both collapse,” Vancouver Province, 21 January 1935; “Phone girls heroines of storm,” Vancouver Province, 21 January 1935

[2] “Marine Drive torrent at its doors,” Vancouver Sun, 25 January 1935.

[3] “Drainage Report, (Surrey, B.C.: Surrey Engineering Department, October 1963), as quoted in KPA Engineering Ltd., Floodplain Mapping Program, Serpentine and Nicomekl Rivers, Design Brief, Volume I (Victoria, 1994), 7. https://www.env.gov.bc.ca/wsd/data_searches/fpm/reports/bc-floodplain-design-briefs/serpentine_nicomeki_vol1.pdf

[4] Donald Stainsby, “Rain as a way of life,” in Chuck Davis, The Vancouver Book (North Vancouver: J.J. Douglas Ltd., 1976), 118.

[5] O. Slaymaker et al., “The Primordial Environment,” in Vancouver and its Region, ed. Graeme Wynn and Timothy Oke(Vancouver: UBC Press, 1992), 25; T.R. Oke and J.E. Hay, “Climate of Vancouver,” in Chuck Davis, The Vancouver Book (North Vancouver: J.J. Douglas Ltd., 1976), 119

[6] Primary weather observations shifted in the mid-twentieth century from the downtown to the Vancouver International Airport, located 10 km south of downtown on Sea Island. At the airport, the average annual snowfall between 1939 and 1997 was 49 cm. Meteorological records Vancouver, B.C. (City), 1898-1974, folder 1, 593-F-05, AM 907, City of Vancouver Archives, British Columbia, Canada.

[7] A white new year day,” Vancouver Daily World, 2 January 1901; “City in grip of prairie snow,” Vancouver Province, 10 January 1911; Bruce McLean, “Yes, snow is good,” Vancouver Province, 3 February 1988.

[8] This by-law was first passed by Vancouver City Council in 1892. It evolved over the following decades, but the original by-law directed residents to remove snow and ice from the sidewalks adjoining their properties by 11:00 a.m. the day following a snowfall.

[9] Vancouver Province, 14 November 1911; “Rain is rapidly obliterating snow,” Vancouver Province, 24 January 1927

[10] PW Luce,” The odd angle – shovelling the snow,” Vancouver Province, 23 January 1933.

[11] Re Sanding streets, First report of the City Engineer, year 1920, 20 January 1920, 157-F-01, COV-S372, City of Vancouver Archives, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada; “$1000 per hour bill for city snow removal,” Vancouver Province, 26 January 1950; “Milder winds, rain expected to break cold snap,” Vancouver Sun, 7 January 1982.

[12] A 1972 report on the city’s snow-clearing work demonstrates the cost differences between salting and plowing snow in Vancouver. Using a 15cm snowfall as an example, the report demonstrated that salting had cost the city $13,800 while plowing and snow-removal work cost $53,300. Statements by City Engineers also demonstrate that dispatching salting trucks was cheaper than large-scale plowing work in Vancouver.

[13] Bud Elsie, “Road crews keep eye on weather, hand on salt,” Vancouver Province, 19 January 1962.

[14] “Are repairing thaw damage,” Vancouver Province, 19 December 1922.

[15] “Icebergs in Vancouver harbor create rare job,” Vancouver Province, 28 December 1937; “Winter goes down the drain,” Vancouver Province, 26 January 1954.

[16] Dorwin Baird, “Storm sweeps university, campus life paralyzed,” Ubyssey, 23 January 1935; “Expo expects future leaks,” Vancouver Sun, 18 February 1986.

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M. Blake Butler

I am an Ottawa-based historian. Much of my research examines Canadian and environmental histories, with an emphasis on winter-based topics. My doctoral dissertation examined the history of snow in Vancouver between the mid-nineteenth century and the end of the twentieth century. I am also currently employed as a historical researcher at Know History. I can be reached at mblakebutler18@gmail.com.

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