The Storm of a Century: A History Lesson

We here in Washington, D.C., are still crawling out from under one of the worst winter storms on record for the area. As of last Wednesday, the winter of 2009-2010 broke the record for snowfall in the greater D.C. area. The previous record was 54.4 inches (1.38 meters) during the winter of 1898-1899.

Given how much hassle we’ve had getting the city back up and running in 2010 — the federal government was officially closed for four days last week due to snow conditions — it made me think about what was happening in D.C. 111 years ago during that previous record-holding season.

A quick trip to the Internet helped jog my memory of American history, and it turns out the winter of 1898-1899 was actually pretty important. William McKinley was halfway through his first term as president (though elected to a second term in 1901, McKinley was assassinated shortly thereafter and did not get to serve much of it), and the country was at war with Spain.

A sketch of the U.S.S. Maine explosion

A sketch of the U.S.S. Maine explosion

On February 15, 1898, the U.S.S. Maine exploded while docked in Havana harbor, killing 266 American sailors. The press at the time publicly blamed Spanish officials for the explosion and fueled a reactionary public with sensationalized stories of atrocities committed by the Spanish in Cuba. These stories were part of the “yellow journalism” of the time that favored rumors, exaggerations or even outright lies to generate eye-catching headlines.

One popular story about the role the press played in stirring up public sentiment for the Spanish-American War has William Randolph Hearst, publisher of the New York Journal, telling his correspondent in Cuba, “You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.” That story is probably more legend than truth, but it encapsulates the spirit of the runaway yellow press nicely.

But in the winter of 1898, presumably between blizzards, representatives from the United States and Spain signed the Treaty of Paris on December 10, 1898, and the U.S. Senate ratified it February 6, 1899. The treaty ended the Spanish-American War, with Spain ceding Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Guam to the United States.

The Maine incident, incidentally, had also helped push a joint resolution through Congress earlier in the year annexing Hawaii. There were many petitions protesting annexation, and the effort had already failed under the previous president, Benjamin Harrison — but you can read more about that history elsewhere.

Obviously, there were larger geopolitical strategies in play here, and the colonial policies that came out of the Treaty of Paris created many problems. Still, one year in which the United States took over Puerto Rico, the Philippines, Guam and Hawaii? A year that set a snowfall record that would not be broken for 111 years? Maybe the politicians of the late 1890s were just looking for a warmer place to get away from the winter weather. I know I sure am.

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