This article appeared in the Dayton Daily News, June 24, 1934
Cyclone at Washington Court House
By Howard Burba
When you halt with your town-of town visitor at Third and Main, and pointing to the city’s greatest architectural treasure, you incidentally mention the fact that during the dark days of March, 1913, water stood about it to the depth of eight feet, he stares at you in amazement. It is almost impossible for his imagination to paint a picture of that nature.
Likewise, when you motor along the broad, tree-lined streets of the pretty and progressive little city of Washington C. H. it is equally difficult to picture the desolation the same spot presented just 49 years ago. It was on the 8th day of September, 1885, that Washington C. H. was almost wiped off the map by what, with one or two exceptions, proved to be the most disastrous cyclones in the history of Ohio.
Two years previous to this a similar incident had been recorded in Green co., less than a score of miles away. Washington C. H. citizens still were engaged in thanking their lucky starts that they were not in the path of that tempest when suddenly and without a moment’s warning a similar visitation sent terror to their hearts. It was a duplication of the Jamestown catastrophe, though at Washington C. H. the loss of life was greater and property damage several times as severe, measured by the yardstick of dollars and cents. Only those who lived there and passed through that terrible night could estimate the physical suffering entailed.
From an old history, a few copies of an old Fayette co. newspaper and files of Dayton newspapers for 1885 I have searched out the story of the Washington C. H. cyclone of 49 years ago. From this data we learn that the cycle had its origin in Greene co., and swept across into Fayette co., of which Washington C. H. is the county seat, increasing in velocity and fierceness as it approached the town. It struck at 8 o’clock in the evening, leaving almost total devastation along its course of 12 miles.
An hour before the cycle struck Washington a huge black cloud crept up the western horizon, which was followed by a strange phosphorescent cloud filled with lightning, which shot from heaven to earth in an almost endless chain. Some described the cloud as resembling a huge elephant’s trunk, the lower end of which dipped down first on the right hand and then on the left. Others said it resembled a great and luminous hornet’s nest, whirring in the heavens in frantic fury.
As the cloud approached the darkness became intense. The roar of the angry elements could be heard, gradually increasing in power. About five minutes past eight the rain began falling in torrents, and the storm burst upon the town with a terrible roar, above which could be heard the falling of walls, crashing of timbers, and smashing of glass, while the earth seemed to sway and reel under the force of the discordant elements. This lasted about a minute, and then the storm passed over. But the rain continued to fall in torrents. In a flash Washington had been cut off from communication with the outside world. It was not until they arose on the following morning that residents of the Miami Valley were apprised of a terrible calamity at their very door. Then they received it in the form of outside press dispatches. No world whatever came to Dayton from Washington C. H. that night. Let us, that we may not lose continuity in our story, turn to the old newspaper files and read the startling news story as the Miami valley read it on the morning following its occurrence. The dispatches are given in the order in which they appeared:
“COLUMBUS, Sept. 8 – The most alarming reports are current here regarding loss of life and property at Washington C. H., where a cyclone gutted the city. Help will immediately be sent to the destitute families.
“At Plain City, 18 miles from this city, a carriage factory and mill were demolished and other buildings unroofed. This place is on a direct line north of Washington C. H., and along south to the Ohio river the trail of destruction is reported in like manner.
“At Portsmouth, which is almost south of Washington C. H., the damage was also considerable.”
“CLEVELAND, Sept. 8 – A Leader special from Springfield, O., says a terrible cyclone struck Washington C. H. at 8 p.m. tonight and almost literally swept it from the earth.
“It came from the northwest and broke upon the town suddenly, carrying everything before it. The tornado whirled up Court st., the main business thoroughfare, and ruined almost every business block on it, at least 40 or 50 in all. Hardly a private residence in the town escaped, fully 400 buildings going down.
“The Baptist, Presbyterian and Catholic churches all suffered the common fate.
“The Ohio Southern, Panhandle, Narrowgauge and Midland railroad depots were blown to smithereens and every building in the vicinity was carried away, making ingress or egress almost impossible.
“As every wire within a circle of two miles is down, it is impossible to get accurate details of this catastrophe. The only reports that can be gotten are through an operator who tapped a wire two miles west of town and is sitting in a heavy storm to work his instrument.
“The panic-stricken people were taken completely unawares, and ran from the tumbling buildings in every direction through the murky darkness. A mad frenzy seemed to seize them as they ran hither and thither in their wild distraction, little knowing whither they were fleeing.
“After the whirlwind, which lasted about 10 minutes, a heavy rainfall set in, which still continues unabated at this writing.
“As soon as a few of the cooler heads had recovered their senses, searching parties were organized, and the work of looking for the dead began. So far 15 bodies have been recovered from the debris of the various ruined buildings, and the dreary work is just beginning. It is probable as many more will be found this morning.
“The glimmer of lanterns procured from farm houses in the vicinity and from the few houses left standing is the only light they have to work by. Two or three bodies have been stumbled upon in the middle of the street, where they were stricken down by flying bricks and timbers.
“The cellars of houses, and every sort of refuge, were filled with shivering people, huddled together in a vain attempt to keep warm.
“Morning trains will carry plenty of assistance. One started from Columbus at 3 a.m.”
Following the publication of these brief dispatches this part of the world clamored for first-hand information; for more details; for news direct from the scene of desolation and suffering. It was brought to them in their afternoon papers of that day in the following words:
“WASHINGTON C. H., O., Sept. 9 – This place was the scene of a mast disastrous visitation by the elements last night. It is the county seat of Fayette co. and has had a most extraordinary business growth within the last 15 years, and being the center of a rich agricultural district, with excellent railroad facilities, had grown to be a business place of considerable importance. Its residents had beautified the town with tasteful dwellings and its recently completed courthouse was one of the best in the state.
“Today this once prosperous town is a mass of ruins. Last night’s experience of its inhabitants has no parallel in the experience of any town in Ohio.
“A heavy rainfall began at 8 o’clock last night. That and the darkness drove everybody into shelter, so that while there are some who say they saw funnel-shaped clouds, it doesn’t seem possible that there could have been much observation of the heavens.
“Shortly after the rain began, wind came with a terrifying sound.
“Its work was almost instantaneous. The people say it was over in two minutes, but nobody could take note of time in such a fearful experience. When the fierceness of the storm had passed and men could communicate with each other, it was found that all were in darkness. The gas works were destroyed and all street lights were out. Only by the lightning flashes were the frightened people able to catch glimpses of the desolation that had wrecked their little city.
“With daylight came a most disheartening spectacle. The fair town of yesterday lay torn and wrecked in disordered heaps, and the street were well nigh impassable from the trees and parts of houses cast into them. The great wonder is that more lives were not lost.
“In Odd Fellows hall 40 members were gathered at a meeting on the second floor when the storm came. The building was literally thrown down, but not one of those inside it was injured.
“Thirty-one went down with the ruins and escaped while nine clung to the walls of an adjoining block and were rescued by ladders.
“The people were not frightened until they heard the rattle of signs threshing in the terrific wind. It kept coming worse and worse until the most substantial brick and stone structures of the city heaved to and fro at the mercy of the steadily increasing gale.
“Bricks and beams, roofs, fences and almost every conceivable thing that could possibly be wrenched loose flew through the air, scattering death and destruction everywhere. For eight long minutes the disastrous work went on. Music hall was filled with people attending the Salvation Army meeting, and as a portion of the roof and ceiling fell in, a panic and stampede was prevented only with the greatest difficulty.
“So far as has been ascertained the following is a list of the dead: Mrs. Mollie Jones, Edith Floyd, Ella Forsha, Jennie Forsha, Flora Carr. The fatally injured are: James O. Jackson and John C. Vanpelt.
“Fully 300 persons are hurt, some of them very badly.
“There is a report that a girl, Mary Shackelford, aged 10, was also killed, and among the seriously injured are Judge Asa Gregg, cut on head; W. M. Sharp, Coneman Hess, Milt Hiver, Hugh Forsha, H. H. Whelply, station agent; Mrs. W. P. Irving, B. Hess, James Snapp, Mrs. Tharp, Miss Lula Clifton, Herbert Taggart, Charles Mercer, Mrs. James Rench and a Miss Sheets.
“Every business house is badly damaged. The Ohio Southern depot, Paul Hartman’s block, the Stetson block, White and Ballard’s, Bailey’s livery stable, the new Catholic church, Presbyterian church and over a hundred private dwellings are down. The new courthouse is damaged. The loss is over a million dollars throughout the county. All is excitement. A called meeting of council appointed a relief committee with Col. H. B. Maynard as president. Company B of the Ohio state guard is on duty. The store fronts are all out.
“Among the business houses wrecked were those of White and Ballard, Wellon and Baker, Barney Kelly, Dahl and Baers, Herbert Hagel, operator in the telephone exchange, was killed. The old woolen factory was torn down. The covered bridge was completely demolished. The back part of the First Baptist church was torn down. The Springfield Southern depot as completely wrecked. The C. & M. V. passenger and freight depots were blown down, the Midland depot being the only one to escape.
“All communication is cut off from the town and few trains can pass through. There are but few trees left standing. Roofs, boards, and other debris block the streets. The fire department was called out to rescue those in danger. It is equal to the Jamestown ravage of two years ago. After the whirlwind which lasted about eight minutes a heavy rain set in.
“Among the incidents of the disaster was the blowing of the house of W. Tharp entirely to pieces and out of sight. The three occupants were dropped across the street with only Mrs. Tharp severely bruised. The others had but slight hurts. No part of the house can be found.”
“COLUMBUS, Sept 9. – The governor tonight issued a proclamation calling on the people of Ohio to extend aid to the suffering caused by last night’s cyclone at Washington, C. H. He says that money is needed, and that contributions should be sent to Mayor Mardus A. Barclay, at Washington, C. H.”
Frank Miller, of Tippecanoe City, reported to Dayton newspapers that the citizens of that place noticed the fearfully destructive cyclone shortly before 8 o’clock. It passed across from the northwest, and then swirled in a southerly direction. It was of a deep, fiery-red color, and angry clouds hovered all around it. Shortly thereafter a dark pillar of cloud swept past at a speed of 80 or 90 miles an hour. The pillar was the shape of two funnels with the small ends jointed together and stood out like a wall, being filled with gyrating limbs, leaves, dirt, sticks and fence-rails. Its path was almost due east, and it seemed to be sweeping everything before it.
“The Martin brothers, music dealers on W. Fourth st., Dayton, were in Washington C. H. and stopping at the Cherry House at the time of the terrible cyclone Tuesday evening,” commented a local paper. “They say the scene is indescribable, and thoughts of it are horrifying. The appearance of the storm cloud as it approached the town and the roaring of the merciless tempest were most appalling. As the cyclone approached the doomed city with furious speed it seemed there were three funnel-shaped clouds united at the top. The upper part of the cloud was jet black while the trunks were the color of fire.
“They say the property loss has been placed too low, that it will reach a million dollars in Washington C. H. and vicinity. It had a whirling movement, twisting off trees, lifting up houses, stables and sheds many feet and then dashing them to the earth. No words can fittingly describe the condition of the terror-stricken people after the storm had passed away. The Martin brothers left Washington yesterday morning for Dayton before they had time to gather many of the particulars, but they saw the general ruin of that once beautiful town and heard the groans and cries of the wounded and bereft. The Cherry House, in which they were stopping was partly torn away, yet no lives were lost, though the inmates thought that the end of all things had come.
“In an old cotton mill near the Ohio Sothern railroad lived a mother, father and six children by the name of Forsha. The mill was blown down and a daughter, 17, and a son, 10, were instantly killed. By a miracle the other members of the family escaped.
“Fifteen passengers were seated in one of the three depots destroyed. The depot was swept away, but none of the passengers was injured.”
As usual during such visitations, many freaks of the storm were reported. Cornfields in the path of the cyclone were in many instances stripped of their ears and foliage, the stalks standing as clean as though stripped by hand. In some instances the ears were husked. On the farm of Jesse Bush, three miles from Washington, blades of straw were found blown endwise into trees of the depth of half an inch. In another place a piece of pine fence-board was found with a piece of tarred paper roofing driven into it to a depth of three-quarters of an inch, and firmed imbedded. A train of nine cars and caboose standing on a bridge on the Ohio Southern railroad was blown off into the bed of the stream. An apple tree in the yard of Mrs. Lou Harris, Fayette st., a milliner, was driven more than two feet into the ground without a bough being broken. A carload of tin roofing and cornices, standing on a sidetrack at Washington was picked up by the wind and scattered, some of it being located on a farm 18 miles away.
“I was going home from prayer meeting at the Second Baptist church, of which I am pastor.” Rev. John P. Steptoe, Negro minister, told a newspaper man the day after the cyclone, “and the skies above me suddenly grew angry and threatening. As the lightning would flash every moment I noticed clouds of different kinds of colors, dark, red, pale and an inky blue.
“Then a kind of warm something passed by me. At this time I was a few rods from the Catholic church when balls of hail commenced to fall around me, and way above my head in the air it appeared that something like large whips and guns were firing and cracking. I turned back in search of a place of refuge, but I could not get any further than the Catholic church. There I stood in the tower, and in a quiet moment I thought I was praying my last prayer.
“Just across the street stood the First Baptist church. Something like a big slap struck it, and it fell. Then with two crashes the Catholic church fell, all except the tower in which I was standing and praying. But the Catholic church went down so easy, as it appeared to me that I thought it was only a breach or two in the wall. From where I was standing I could not see the main building.
I had my umbrella in my hand, and the top part of the stick was broken off and carried away. My at also was taken off my head; I have never found it. My lantern was burning in my right hand, and did not go out. I don’t suppose the cyclone lasted over two or three minutes, but it was a long time to me.
“After the storm was over, instead of going home as I had intended to, I turned back, bareheaded, for I was not aware at that time that the destruction was general, and all over the town. Afterward, when I surveyed the remains of the church and saw what a narrow escape I had I trembled like a leaf.”
For many days following the visitation of the winds Washington C. H. was a mecca for the curious. They stood in awe as the good people of the stricken town buried their dead, and as they gathered up and carted away the debris, repaired or began the rebuilding of their homes, and restored shattered store fronts and the windows in down-town public buildings. They worked with heavy hearts, apparently unmindful of their tremendous financial loss. On their lips was an echo of the same prayer that the highly-represented old Negro minister had breathed from the tower of the Catholic church.
They were thankful that a modern miracle had been wrought in that amid such a terrible destruction of property there had not been a greater loss of life.