Weather has not always been calm during our peaceful transition of power in American History. It has played an integral role, sometimes with heavy rain, snow, or intense cold. January 20th is not the set date for every presidential inauguration, but it will be this 2017 for Donald Trump. The forecast continues to show a chilly rain, but it far from extreme for what can happen in Washington DC for this event. Here is an extensive account of the weather for each inauguration. Thanks to research from the National Weather Service in Sterling Virginia that governs over our area. Note that January was not always the month when a new president was sworn in. In 1933 and prior, it was traditionally on March 4.
- Ronald Reagan had both the warmest AND coldest January inaugurations.
- Taft had Faith in the Flakes. His inauguration had 9.8 inches of snow! FITF
- The image above was in a downpour for President Benjamin Harrison under an umbrella in 1889. It was 48 years early when his grandfather, William Harrison, caught pneumonia on a cold and blustery inauguration day and died one month into taking office.
Let’s start with this year’s January 20th date itself:
Climate Data For January 20th in Washington DC
43°F – Normal High Temperature
70°F – 1951 Record High
28°F – Normal Low Temperature
-2°F – 1985 Record Low
1.77″ – Record Rain in 1937
3.8 inches – Most snow set in 1985
What is Normal Weather for a ‘January’ Inauguration?
- Normal high temperature for the day is 43°F.
- Normal low temperature for the day is in the upper 28°F.
- Normal weather for 12 pm EST is a temperature of 37°F, partly cloudy skies, 10 mph wind and a wind chill of 31°F.
- There is about a 1 in 3 chance of measurable precipitation (i.e., at least 0.01″) on that day and a 1 in 6 chance of precipitation during the ceremony.
- There is only about a 1 in 10 chance of measurable snow (i.e., at least 0.1″) on that day and a 1 in 20 chance of snow during the ceremony.
- There is about a 1 in 6 chance that there will be at least 1″ of snow already on the ground from a previous snowfall.
Most Extreme Weather For A January Inauguration
Most Dramatic and Tragic – 1841: President William Henry Harrison was sworn into office on a cloudy, cold and blustery day. His speech lasted one hour and 40 minutes and he rode a horse to and from the Capitol without a hat or overcoat. Pneumonia developed from a lingering cold he caught on that day and he died just one month later.
Almost as bad – 1853: President Franklin Pierce was sworn into office on another cold and snowy day. He awoke to heavy snow in the morning which continued until about 11:30 am. Skies looked to be brightening by noon. Shortly after Pierce took his oath of office, as he began his inaugural address, snow started again. It came down heavier than ever dispersing much of the crowd and ruining plans for the parade. Abigail Fillmore, First Lady to the outgoing President Millard Fillmore, caught a cold as she sat on the cold, wet, exposed platform during the swearing-in ceremony. The cold developed into pneumonia and she died at the end of the month.
Worst Weather Day – 1909: President William H. Taft’s ceremony was forced indoors due to a storm that dropped 10 inches of snow over the Capital city. The snow and winds began the day before. Strong winds toppled trees and telephone poles. Trains were stalled and city streets clogged. All activity was brought to a standstill. Sanitation workers shoveled sand and snow through half the night. It took 6,000 men and 500 wagons to clear 58,000 tons of snow and slush from the parade route. See pictures. Despite the freezing temperatures, howling wind, snow, and sleet, a large crowd gathered in front of the Capitol to view the inauguration, but the weather forced the ceremony indoors. Just after the swearing-in, the snow tapered off.
Images: Photo taken in front of Presidential Reviewing stand.
President Taft and wife returning to White House after the ceremony
Wash Out – 1937: President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s second inauguration. It was the first time the inauguration was held on January 20th. Two hundred thousand visitors came to Washington for the inauguration, though several thousand never got farther than Union Station. It was a cold rainy day. Some sleet and freezing rain was reported in the morning. Between 11 am and 1 pm, 0.69 inches of rain fell. The ceremony began at 12:23 pm. The noon temperature was 33°F. At the president’s insistence, he rode back to the White House in an open car with a half an inch of water on the floor. Later, he stood for an hour and a half in an exposed viewing stand watching the inaugural parade splash by in the deluge. Total rainfall for the day was a wet 1.77 inches and this amount remains as the record rainfall for January 20th.
Worst Traffic Jam – 1961: On the eve of the inauguration, 8 inches of snow fell and caused the most crippling traffic jam (for its time). Hundreds of cars were marooned and thousands of cars were abandoned. The president-elect had to cancel dinner plans and, in a struggle to keep other commitments, is reported to have had only 4 hours of sleep. Former President Herbert Hoover was unable to fly into Washington National Airport due to the weather and he had to miss the swearing-in ceremony. By sunrise, the snow had ended and the skies were clearing, but the day remained bitter cold. An army of men worked all night to clear Pennsylvania Avenue and despite the cold, a large crowd turned out for the swearing-in ceremony and inaugural parade. At noon, the temperature was only 22°F and the wind was blowing from the northwest at 19 mph making it feel like the temperature was 7°F above zero.
Warmest Inaugurations: (Official weather records began in 1871)
Warmest January 20th Traditional Date: 1981 – Ronald Reagan – 55°F under mostly cloudy skies.
Warmest March 4th Traditional Date:
Official record: 1913 – Woodrow Wilson – 55°F under overcast skies in Washington, DC.
Unofficial: 1793 – George Washington – estimated 61°F in Philadelphia, PA.
Warmest Non-traditional Dates: August 9, 1974 – Gerald Ford – 89°F with partly cloudy and hazy skies.
Coldest January Date (and overall): 1985 – President Ronald Reagan’s second swearing-in ceremony on January 21 had to be held indoors and the parade was canceled. The outside temperature at noon was only 7°F. The morning low was 4° below zero and the daytime high was only 17°. Wind chill temperatures during the afternoon were in the -10 to -20°F range.
Coldest March Date: 1873 – Ulysses S. Grant’s second swearing-in ceremony – The morning low temperature of 4°F was a record for the month of March. The day remains the coldest March day on record. During the day, bitterly cold winds gusted up to 40 mph. By noon, the temperature had risen to 16°F. Wind chill temperatures were -15° to -30°F. Cadets and midshipmen had been standing on the mall for more than an hour and a half without overcoats. Several of them collapsed. When the president delivered his inaugural address, the wind made his words inaudible to even those on the platform with him. The inaugural ball was held in a temporary building without heat. It had to be halted at midnight so people, who had been dancing in their overcoats and heavy wraps, could go home and get warm.
Inauguration Weather Highlights
- 1817 = First outdoor inauguration. President James Monroe was sworn into office.
- 1873 = Coldest March 4th inauguration. Noon temperature was only 16°F with a record low temperature for March of only 4°F. Sunshine was no help as the wind made it bitterly cold. President Ulysses S. Grant was sworn into office for his second term.
- 1909 = Most snow with 9.8 inches. Also very strong winds. President William H. Taft was sworn into office.
- 1913 = Warmest March 4th inauguration. Noon temperature was 55°F.
- 1937 = First inauguration held on January 20th.
- 1937 = Record rainfall. It was President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s second inauguration. A total rainfall of 1.77 inches fell that cold day. Between 11 am and 1 pm, 0.69 inches of rain fell with a noon temperature of 33°F.
- 1961 = Eight (8) inches of fresh snow laid on the ground for President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration.
- 1981 = Warmest January inauguration. Noon temperature was 55°F. It was Ronald Reagan’s first inauguration and would greatly contrast his second inauguration listed below.
- 1985 = Coldest January inauguration (Jan. 21). Noon temperature was only 7°F. The morning low temperature was -4°F and the afternoon high was only 17°F. Wind chill temperatures in the afternoon were in the -10 to -20°F range. It was Ronald Reagan’s second inauguration ceremony.