Tuesday, July 26, 2011


Unlike Tornado Alley in the nation’s mid-West, New England is fortunate to suffer only rarely from tornados of magnitude.  Every year, funnel clouds are sighted across the region, with little or no destruction reported.  We are not immune to tornados, however, as we fell victim this past May to two or three of these destructive storms that rampaged through our back yards.

The unsettled and unusual weather patterns reported in New England for July 1890, posted in last week’s blog (snow and hail in Calais, ME), spawned a deadly tornado six days later, 121 years ago today, which roared across northeastern Massachusetts, killing eight persons in Lawrence, MA.

First touchdown was in Fiskdale, MA, 63 miles SW of Lawrence a few minutes before 8 am. Traveling about one mile per minute, the storm next came to earth for three minutes in North Billerica, 12 miles SW of Lawrence, unroofing some buildings and breaking trees. Now it bore down on Lawrence.

The storm system crossed the Merrimack River into Lawrence a few minutes after 9 am, accompanied by a 20-minute deluge, which flooded the streets.  It hopped across the river again and ripped into North Andover, passed over Haverhill, and was reported again about 9:30 am in Newburyport, 17 miles NE of Lawrence. Witnesses in Newburyport stated that the funnel cloud descended and rose several times, but did not touch the earth, before it moved out to sea.

The Lawrence damage, along the line of the tornado’s destruction, included an orchard, the Cricket Club (an enclosed playing field), three houses demolished and many damaged on Emmet Street (one turned upside-down on its foundation), and a grove of trees leveled.  Here the path was about an eighth of a mile long and several hundred yards wide.

After Emmet Street, the whirlwind lifted for another eighth of a mile, sparing a heavily settled section, before touching down again.  Here, it threw down the roof and steeple of the Catholic church, demolished a house, and ripped into a railroad bridge, killing two persons.

It raised for a moment, then came down again into a thickly settled area west of Union Park. At full force, it rampaged down Springfield Street, taking out houses on either side, ripped across Union Park and into some houses beyond, leaving behind ruin over half a mile long and three hundred yards wide.  Several residents lost their lives.

Still traveling in a northeasterly direction, the funnel descended again in neighboring North Andover, wrecking houses, uprooting trees, and killing one more person.

The casualties from this storm number 8 persons killed and over 50 injured, half of those severely so.

Eye-witnesses made several detailed descriptions of the tornado to the “Boston Herald,” the “Boston Globe,” and to meteorological agents investigating the damage.  Here are excerpts of six such statements from the “Annals” (see Sources, below):

Mr. Porter of the Glen Paper Co. said, “… a big brindle cloud … came up in the west about 9 o’clock.  … it made a leap aloft, like a giant jumper, and came tearing down from the hills at the rate of 60 or 70 miles an hour. The noise of its approach could be heard for a mile or more … like the noise of artillery in battle. In the center the cloud was jet black, then came a ring of smoky brass color, and outside of all was a fringe of dull gray that spread out and wrapped the whole sky in a fog-like shade …”

“Mr. Peter Holt … said it appeared to him as if two clouds were chasing each other around a circle.”

Timothy O’Connor stated: “It came like a dense cloud and was whirling over and over like billows of the ocean.”

James Henderson, a local merchant making deliveries, stated that he had just cut a piece of meat and was carrying it to the house at 101 Springfield Street when the storm struck: “ … the first thing I knew the wind struck the horse and me … I let go of the horse, and horse and cart were carried clear off the ground. … the horse was dropped near me, and all of the cart except the forewheels carried about a hundred yards away.”

Destruction along Springfield Street
From Joseph Waters, who was at the Lotus family house on Merrimac Street: “… a tenement house … had been picked up bodily from its foundations and dashed to fragments in the street … For a distance of 500 feet Merrimac Street was strewn with wreckage and broken limbs of trees.”

Mrs. Lizzie Holdsworth of Springfield Street reported in the “Boston Herald” that her house exploded. She was cooking in the kitchen when the storm struck. “Suddenly I heard a terrific noise and the breaking of glass behind me. Turning around I saw that the blinds and windows had been blown out. … I heard one crash and that was all. When I came to I was lying in the ruins.” Investigators reported that many of the destroyed homes showed the walls having fallen outward, as opposed to inward, as one might suppose would happen in this kind of wind.

Let’s hope that Mother Nature continues to keep New England on the outer fringes of her tornado target.

“Investigations of the New England Meteorological Society for the Year 1890,” published in the “Annals of the Astronomical Observatory of Harvard College,” Edward C. Pickering, Director, Vol. XXXI, Part I (Cambridge, MA: William H. Wheeler, Printer, 1892)

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