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The Day of the "Big Wind" in Dayton

This article appeared in the Dayton Daily News, September 4, 1932

The Day of the “Big Wind” in Dayton

By Howard Burba


Dayton has been more than fortunate in the matter of windstorms.  She has on several occasions suffered greatly from flood waters.  But otherwise the elements have been kind to her, and with one single exception she has escaped the wrath of the storm king.

            That one exception is still fresh in the memory of the oldest inhabitants.  But since local history contains little more than a bare mention of it, and no occasion has arisen in recent years to recall it for purposes of comparison, it has escaped the attention of the present generation.

            Most any community is fortunate to pass through three-score years without being visited by a death-dealing tornado or windstorm of cyclonic proportions.  Yet Dayton has done that very thing, and while such events are chronicled with considerable regularity from other sections of the country, it is necessary for Daytonians to think way back to the ninth day of July, 1871, to point to a similar occurrence.  It was on that date-61 years ago-that the Washington st. bridge was blown down, burying two victims beneath its ruins, and when the German Lutheran church, on E. Third st., collapsed, carrying death to three people and injury to a score or more.                

            You’d think that a storm of sufficient violence to kill five people and to reduce a considerable part of the city to shambles would be as fresh in the memory of the populace as though it had happened within recent years.  But here is an exception.  Possibly no major catastrophe in the long record of untoward events in this community has passed from mind as completely as this one.  Daytonians today, taken as a whole, are as unfamiliar with the details of that tornado of 1871 as though it had occurred in some land across the sea.

            But those residents gray of hair and bowed down by the weight of more than three-score years have not forgotten. All that is necessary is to recall the date, and memory carries them swiftly back to that Sunday morning when terror swept their home city, when angry clouds rolled heavily above their heads and the flying wreckage of their homes swirled about their feet; when roofs collapsed above their heads and the storm king shouted defiance at manmade things as he rode on the winds along a clear-cut path through the very heart of the city.

            “Something like a tornado visited Dayton Sunday,” reads a local newspaper story of Monday, July 10, 1871, “creating great havoc in property and destroying precious human lives.  The storm, which was a furious one, lasted about 30 minutes.  It began in the northwest with a sultry atmosphere and a temperature of 96 degrees.  About 2 p.m. there were angry growlings and menacing streaks of lightening above the horizon.  There were a few drops of rain, a sudden rush of wind and the storm came on furiously.  Branches fluttered in the air, shade trees went down in the gutters, signs were flung about like flails, great steeples, by the wind, swung to and fro like the tops of tall pine trees.  The thunder was terrific, the lightning vivid, the wind most furious and the rain poured down as though the flood-gates of heaven had opened for a deluge.”

            Thus the reporter of early days wrote his “lead” to the greatest windstorm ever to sweep over Dayton within the memory of man.  Painting this word picture of the fury of the winds, he went on to state that not a single square in the entire city escaped the blast.  Second st., then heavily lined with huge shade trees, was completely blocked the entire distance from the canal west to the river, scores of these forest giants being blown into the street.

            Sweeping in from the northwest, the tornado, for such it was in every respect, swept across the city on a southeastward course, entering the down-town district across what is now McKinley park, swerving a bit to the south to attack the Washington st. and the railroad bridges, and passing on out over the state insane asylum.  At that time Dayton was not blessed with bridges of reinforced concrete.  She had but few, and they were wooden structures, covered and weather-boarded to prevent decay.  The one across the river at Washington st. was of this type, and when the storm approached boys and men who were fishing or playing about the river in the neighborhood hurriedly accepted it as a shelter from the storm.  But instead of serving as a haven, it proved to be a death trap.  The wind surged beneath the long, slender structure and lifting it from its piers flung it into the river.  The roof crashed heavily on the supporting side timbers, flattening the entire structure on the churning waters below.

            Fortunately those who had sought shelter in it remained near the open approaches, and as they felt the quivering timbers being lifted from their foundation, they ran out and onto the roadway, thus escaping with their lives.  Two lads who had been playing about the river and who were among the first to scurry into the bridge when the storm came up, were not so fortunate.  They were swept down into the stream, beneath the mass of timbers, while a dozen or more spectators stood powerless to aid them.  George Speyer and Edward Mehan were almost instantly killed, their crushed bodies being removed from the debris shortly after the storm subsided.

            The bridge, which had been erected at a cost of $48,000, and which had a span of 560 feet, was a total loss.  The abutments alone remained unharmed.  Just above it stood the old C. H. & D. railroad bridge, constructed along similar lines.  Part of its roof was carried away, but it remained on its foundation and weathered the storm.

            Apparently dividing its fury as it approached the river, one wing of the storm passed to the east and crossed Third st. near the scene of the present railroad elevation.  The German Lutheran church was directly in the path of this powerful gust, and it met the same fate as befell the Washington st. bridge and with even greater casualties.

            The Sunday school was assembling at the time, and between 300 and 400 persons had gathered when the storm broke.  The ground floor was used for Sunday school purposes.  Three of the teachers, Messrs.  Degenhart, Tschudi and Frank and a Mr. Thomas, the superintendent, heard the crash of falling brick at the rear of the building and, hurrying to the second floor discovered that the north gable was falling inward, the wind having torn it from the roof.  The side walls were about to collapse and the men hurried back down the stairway, shouting warnings to the thoroughly frightened men, women and children below.  Rev. M. Fritze, the pastor, shouted to them to hurry from the church.

            Panic stricken, the children surged toward the main entrance, facing Third st.  A few reached the sidewalk, but the others were in the lecture hall when the walls crashed.  The majority escaped the falling beams, which broke the floor through to the basement, but a number were caught and buried beneath the mass of timber and brick.  All the time the terrorized children were fighting their way through the clouds of brick-dust, gaining the street and fleeing for shelter to nearby residences.

            It was a busy moment for Dayton’s fire fighting force.  From a dozen different points came fire alarms, many frantic pedestrians seizing upon this means of procuring relief for those who had been caught in the collapse of both the bridge and the church.  Within a few moments after the dust had blown clear of the wrecked church anxious hands were delving into the debris and extricating those pinioned amid the mass.  Wagons and carriages were plentiful, since hundreds were hurrying to the scene from all directions.  The vehicles were used in removing the injured to the hospitals and their homes.  Many, once extricated from the wreckage, found themselves able to go their way unattended.

            The first body taken out was that of Leonhard Weyrauch, 16, who reside with his father, a shoemaker, at 52 Fifth st.   He had been crushed under the weight of heavy roof timbers, death having been instantaneous.

            The body of Christian Thomas was the next removed.  After warning those near him in the church, he had evidently remained within to assist the children in making their escape and was caught in the wreck, sacrificing his own life in an attempt to save others.  He was a shoemaker, and about 38 years of age.

            Further delving into the debris served to uncover a third body, that of Mrs. Theresa Randall, one of the Sunday school teachers, and the wife of Oscar Randall, of 79 Water st., an employe in the music store of J. D. DuBois.  She was one of the most popular members of the congregation, and among the best loved teachers in the school.

            Jacob Wolfram, 19, one of the scholars, was removed to the hospital with a fractured skull.  Lizzy Egry, 11, was badly cut and bruised about the head and shoulders, a scalp wound extending across her head from ear to ear.  Mary Siesse, 12, suffered serious injury to her back and had one finger broken.  Mr. Mailman, the church sexton, who did heroic work in getting the children out of the building was caught by the falling wreckage before he could reach a place of safety, and was badly cut and bruised about the head and shoulders.   Anna Faber, 7, was buried beneath the timbers.  She was extricated by her own father, who reached the church immediately after the disaster.  Miss Bodecker, a teacher in the Sixth district school, was extricated from the ruins, badly bruised.  All of the injured eventually recovered.

            The church had been erected but a year before its collapse, having been built at a cost of $50,000.  Only about one-third of the north end of the lower floor, and a like amount of the south end of the second floor remained in position.  The side walls and entire center of the structure went into the basement as the roof collapsed.  The tower, 80 feet in height, at the front end of the building, collapsed, doing serious damage to the two-story brick structure adjoining.

            “A report that the steeple of the Third Presbyterian church had been blown out of alignment called for a scientific investigation last evening” reads a paragraph in the first story published following the storm.  “D. H. Morrison investigated and reported that the steeple is 18 inches out of line and leaning to the south.  He attributes it to the windstorm, but does not believe the steeple is in danger of collapsing or that it forms a menace to public safety.”

            Pandemonium reigned among the unfortunate residents of the state insane asylum when the tornado, having spent much of its fury, passed over that institution.  The north gable of the main building was blown away to within four feet of the roof, the loosened material falling inward.  Four women were injured, two of them seriously.  The tin roofing of the older part of the main building was torn lose, rolled up as though it had been done by human hands, and landed in the flower beds south of the building.

            Seeking out the highlights in the hastily written story of the storm, we learn that the home of Fletcher DeCamp, on Huffman av., was directly in the path of the storm, and that Mrs. DeCamp’s mother was still unconscious the day following from injuries received when a flying brick struck her in the head.

            A violent electrical storm added to the terror of the wind, and one bolt struck the home of Samuel Fredericks, on E. Third st., prostrating his daughter, Fannie, 17. 

            A gypsy camp near the waterworks, in which several score of nomads were sheltered for the summer, felt the back-lash of the blow.  A tree was uprooted and in falling landed on one of the gaily-colored wagons in which several women and children had sought shelter.  Two of the women were reported fatally injured.

            St. Marys church, on Xenia ave., was partially unroofed and the school building adjoining greatly damaged.  Miss Minnie Kinster, who was hurrying past the scene at the time was struck by a flying bit of timber and suffered three fractured ribs.

            Tom Schaeffer’s sign, “Good Notes Bought Here,” went into the air higher than the Phillips House, and the derrick being used in construction work on the Winters bank danced an idiotic jig before it fell and crushed the wooden awning over the sidewalk in front of an adjoining fruit store.  Schaeffer’s sign was restored later, when found two squares away from its original mooring, and Schaeffer continued to buy “Good Notes” on throughout the depression which was at this time just getting in full swing all over the United States.

            The Mad river bridge near the waterworks, now known as the Keowee st. bridge, was badly damaged, entire sections of the weather-boarding along each side being ripped off and carried away on the winds.

            Out in the southeastern part of the city a funeral cortege was wending its way toward Woodland cemetery when the storm broke.  Flying limbs, fence pickets and waste paper served to frighten the horses attached to the hearse and the cabs following it.  Drivers fought stubbornly to pacify their horses, and succeeded only after the funeral cortege had been disbanded and the hearse and cabs driven into stables scattered around in the neighborhood.  The cortege was reassembled and proceeded on its way to the cemetery when the storm had subsided, only to encounter another delay upon reaching there when it was found that the newly-made grave had been completely filled with water, which accompanied the wind, and in a perfect cloudburst.

            Part of the roof of the old C. H. & D. bridge over the Miami was blown away.  The huge chimney on the old Union Depot building was tossed to the tracks and walks below.  Tracks about he yards were filled with cars, a number of excursion trains having carried a large number into the city for a day’s recreation at the Soldiers’ Home.  Trains outbound after 2 p.m. were held in the station while schedules of incoming trains were disrupted throughout the entire afternoon and night.

            The old canal was doing a land-office business in those days, and Sunday excursions on it were also popular.  That these merry-makers did not escape the fury of the storm is revealed in this paragraph in the old newspaper of the day following:

            “A large number of our Israelitish friends, who had gone up the canal on the packet boat “Sport,” on a picnic, were caught in the storm about seven miles from Dayton.  The storm was somewhat of a damper on the enjoyments of the party.  Many were frightened, others drenched and all were glad enough to get safely home again.  They describe the scene during the height of the storm as being terrific.  Large trees were uprooted, others were bent like whips and whole forests swayed like the cornfields.  The skipper of the “Sport” weathered the storm, not a man was lost, and the vessel with her crew and passengers safely made port.”

            Tracing the path of the storm in a later issue, the old files contain the information what its western line did not extend beyond the corporation line of Miami City and the Miami City railroad depot at that time was at the present site of the Pennsylvania crossing on W. Third.  The center current of the wind seemed to strike in a line with Perrine’s woods, northwest of the city, following a direct course southeast to the state insane asylum, widening to a breadth of three or four miles in this region and from there rushing on in a southeasterly direction, on toward Centerville.  Beyond the city it leveled thousands of standing wheat shocks, felled forest and shade trees, unroofed barns and prostrated growing corn.

            Back in the city a stricken people buried their dead and took inventory of their property loss.  It ran well into six figures, and carpenters and repair men spent a busy summer in replacing roofs, fences and weather-boarding that had been ripped off and scattered like chaff.

            It was Dayton’s greatest windstorm of that generation.  But a kindly Providence has tempered later winds. Dayton has at no time since experienced a storm to compare with it.