You thought the wild wintry weather of 2010’s popularly dubbed Snowmageddon in the nation’s capital was bad? More than one hundred years ago, a record-setting blizzard blanketed Washington, D.C., grinding the city’s operations to a halt. But as even Speaker Thomas Brackett Reed of Maine huddled in his hotel away from the chill, the House of Representatives soldiered on.
In mid-February 1899, a nor’easter swept up the East Coast, setting several single-day records for snowfall and temperature along its path. In the District of Columbia, negative 15 degrees Fahrenheit on February 11 remains the lowest temperature on record in the city. In the twilight hours of Sunday, February 12, snow pounded down on the city and winds raged at 45 miles per hour leaving Capitol Hill buried under snowdrifts up to 10 feet high. The following Monday morning, newspapers described the Capitol as “a snow palace.” With the House of Representatives set to open at noon, the “Hall of the House was as dark as a cellar” with snow smothering the glass ceilings; the relatively new light fixtures were switched on in the chamber to “relieve the gloom.”
Speaker Reed called down from the old Shoreham Hotel at 15th and H St NW to Representative David Henderson of Iowa stating he believed it to be “inadvisable to hold a session” given the conditions. However, several Members rushed through the snow and ice to reach the Capitol building for the noon opening. Many clutched bills they hoped to pass by unanimous consent. The Chicago Daily Tribune proudly detailed how Representative Joseph Cannon of Illinois “started down from the Cochran [Hotel in the city's northwest quandrant] in great glee and also in a sleigh.” But when his sleigh’s runner caught on a streetcar rail, “Uncle Joe” Cannon flew head over heels into a snowdrift. His fellow Illinois Republican Colonel Benjamin F. Marsh climbed into an empty coal cart and drafted the man pulling it to tug him down Maryland Avenue to the Capitol. When the man expressed doubt that he could pull a coal cart into the building, Marsh declared, “They may stop a coal cart, but they can’t stop it when I am aboard.” As the few Members to make it through the weather arrived, they gathered in front of the weather map in the Members’ Retiring Room to discuss the storm and wait for the day’s session.
As the noon hour approached, conditions remained perilous and all efforts to reach Speaker Reed at the Shoreham hotel failed. Shortly after noon, the Clerk gaveled the session into order. Representative Sereno E. Payne of New York remarked that a quorum was clearly impossible and moved to adjourn the House. Almost immediately, the Members present clamored for division, and the majority voted to keep the session open before electing Payne as Speaker pro tempore to loud applause. Joe Cannon then asked and was granted unanimous consent to pass the first bill that day, an appropriation of $5,000 to clear ice from the Potomac to keep the city from being overflowed.
Though the city lay still, with even the rail lines in and out blocked by deep snow, the House of Representatives carried on through the bruising blizzard, refusing to let Old Man Winter freeze the business of the nation.
Sources: Congressional Record, House, 55th Cong., 3rd sess. (13 February 1899): 1796; Chicago Daily Tribune, February 14, 1899; San Francisco Call, February 14, 1899; Washington Post, February 15, 1899; “Weather Service Marks Centennial of Benchmark Cold Wave,” NOAA, February 9, 1999, http://www.noaanews.noaa.gov/stories/s123.htm.