White Christmas in Old San Francisco?

While the chance of San Francisco enjoying a white Christmas may seem less likely than winning the lottery these days, it wasn’t always so. During the 1880’s, for instance, San Francisco witnessed four sizable snowstorms over the span of just seven years: 1882, 1884, 1887* and 1888. By sizable, we’re talking an inch or more of snow accumulating within the downtown area. While this consistency within one decade was unusual even for the time, per additional reports throughout the latter half of the 19th century, it seems clear snowfall in old S.F. wasn’t as uncommon as it is today.

New Year's Eve, 1882 @ Market & Montgomery Streets (Palace Hotel @ left)
New Year’s Eve 1882 at Market and Montgomery streets (Palace Hotel at left).

So, has San Francisco ever witnessed a white Christmas? Quick internet search sources say yes, and that it was actually the first substantial snowstorm in S.F. we know of, in 1856, when 2.5 inches stuck to the downtown area (think Chinatown). With further googling, however, while it seems certain 2.5 inches carpeted downtown S.F. in December 1856, the exact date becomes questionable, as other well-documented sources note the date of the storm as December 30. Interestingly, most blogs, online newspaper editions, etc., covering this topic in recent years have used the December 25 date, i.e. see S.F. Chronicle article from 2011.

But is the December 25 date factual? Nope. Is the 30th? No, but it’s closer to the truth. The 1856 snowstorm took place the late morning and afternoon of Monday, December 29. Thanks to the California Digital Newspaper Collection, I captured the below clip from the December 30th Daily Alta California morning edition. It is important to note the italics at top explaining the bit is reprinted from the previous day’s evening edition (i.e. the writer is speaking of December 29).

alta-snow 1
from Daily Alta California, Tuesday Morning, December 30, 1856.

So there you have it, straight from a newspaper man of 1856: San Francisco has yet to see a white Christmas.

*February 5, 1887 remains the record for snowfall in S.F. at 3.7 inches in the Financial District (up to 7 inches on Twin Peaks). Notable S.F. snowfalls of the 20th century happened in 1951, 1962, and most recently, in 1976.

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