Cluster of tornadoes caused devastation in 1922

The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015.
Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.

It is a popular assumption that tornadoes are a freak event in Wellington County.

That opinion is voiced every time we suffer one, with the cause attributed frequently to some apocalyptic explanation.

In truth, tornadoes are infrequent occurrences here, compared to areas of the American midwest and Texas. But we do get them from time to time.

Longtime residents of the county will recall the tornado that cut through Grand Valley, and the more recent one that swept across Centre Wellington to the north and east of Fergus.

The earliest tornado I have come across was in 1829. That one did much damage to the aspiring town of Guelph, founded barely two years earlier. Details of that storm are sketchy, but the cost of repairing the damage set back the town, which was already suffering due to the recall and removal of John Galt as the local manager for the Canada Company.

Little is known of that storm, other than the observations later published by Samuel Strickland, who was a witness to the event. He describes the formation of the typical funnel cloud, and notes that the damage was largely restricted to a belt 100 yards wide and about three miles long. It left the recently-opened Eramosa Road littered with trees and branches for about a half a mile.

In Guelph, Strickland recalled, the tornado “unroofed several houses, leveled the fences to the ground, and entirely demolished a frame barn: windows were dashed in, and in one instance the floor of a log house was carried up through the roof. Some hair-breadth escapes occurred, but luckily, no lives were lost.”

Our local weather history contains a series of tornadoes since then, but they are so rare that it is impossible to detect any sort of pattern to them. Recent ones seem more frequent and destructive, but that is because the countryside of Wellington contains many more houses and buildings than it once did, and the value of those buildings and their contents is much higher. As well, communications has improved significantly over the course of a century and three-quarters, and we now quickly have fairly complete reports on damage.

One of the significant milestones in local tornado history was July 11, 1922. On that date a severe thunderstorm swept through the area from the west, and along with them came a series of small but very destructive tornadoes – or perhaps only one or two tornadoes that touched down here and there. No one then took the trouble to compile a comprehensive set of observations.

The whole series of events took place during the course of a few minutes, shortly after 4pm. The first of the tornadoes touched down near Creemore, on the farm of George Day. Winds demolished his barn, and the driving shed disappeared completely. Pieces were later found in fields more than a quarter mile away. Day’s motor car was lifted 15 feet into the air, then dropped to the ground upside down. A tractor next to it was untouched.

Day’s house suffered significant damage. They chimneys and a brick wall were all ripped off the residence, and all the windows were smashed. Day and his children were blown out the door, and his wife, who was busy at a sewing machine, was dashed against a wall of the kitchen. All members of the family received painful injuries, from broken glass and flying debris.

As is so often the case with tornadoes, there was no nearby damage. Only Day’s farm was hit. That same tornado, or another one, next touched down on the north side of Palmerston. It stripped the roof off Watt’s Feed Mill, and snapped a number of vigorous maple trees, about 16 inches in diameter, just below ground level. “Just like toothpicks,” said witnesses, repeating one of the cliches of tornado observations.

That tornado continued its path east of Palmerston along the Minto-Wallace town line, causing significant damage to the Nairn, Malett and McEachern farms, and minor damage on another half dozen. The tornado was only part of a violent storm system, bringing torrential rains and high winds that laid flat much of the grain crop in Minto, Maryborough, Peel and Arthur Townships. In addition, a number of people across the area reported brief periods of hail.

The storm system also hit the southern portion of Grey County. Near Varney there was another tornado. Farmer Joe Lennox suffered the greatest damage. He lost the roof to his barn and much of his orchard, the trees uprooted as if grasped and twisted by some giant hand. To the west of the Owen Sound Road, dozens of mature trees littered the Grand Trunk railway line between Mount Forest and Durham. At least a dozen farms suffered major damage, in a swath that was up to a half-mile wide.

Another tornado touched down near Hollen, south of Drayton on the Peel-Maryborough townline. It then tracked to the east, through Lots 1 and 2 of Peel, from Concessions 7 to 12, skirting to the east of Drayton. Herb Ellis, near the hamlet of Stirton, and a short distance south of Drayton, suffered the worst damage. A portion of the roof of his house came to rest about 200 feet away, broken up into kindling. Wind stripped off the ends of his barn, and twisted the main beams of the structure, rendering it unsafe.

To the north, Bill Fletcher on Concession 8 sustained damage to a silo and his barns, and John Ritch on Concession 10 reported losses also, but to a lesser extent. Tornado damage was also reported in the Riverbank area, in northeastern Maryborough, probably caused by the same twister that swept past Drayton.

Yet another tornado touched down near Macton, about six miles from Elmira, causing significant wreckage on the adjoining farms of Norman, Wellington and Emmanuel Matthews. The cyclone lifted the barn on the Wellington Matthews farm off its foundation. Some of the boards flew more than a quarter mile. A horse that had been tethered in the barn was untouched, and did not seem the slightest bit concerned that its shelter was gone. Another farmer grabbed his young daughter from a swing and ran to the house, less than a minute before the tornado twisted the tree from the ground.

Reports of that storm continued to pour in to newspapers in the area for the following three weeks. People marvelled, as they do today, that there was no loss of life or major injury, considering the extreme forces of the winds and the fact that very little could be done to predict or prepare for the storm.

A truly curious aspect of that 1922 storm was its sequel. Few areas experience more than one tornado in a single year. Six days after the major storm, on July 17, another tornado hit portions of Peel, Maryborough and Arthur Townships. One of the best residences in the area, Clayton Stewart’s three-storey house, lost its roof and windows, and the contents, including some interior walls, were reduced to piles of debris. A bed disappeared, and was never found. The wind ripped out trees on the Stewart property and those of his neighbors. Stewart’s flock of hens was never seen again. Instead, the storm dropped a lone pigeon onto the roof of what was left of the garage, and the bird decided to take up residence there.

Frank Lockwood lost his barn, portions of which were scattered far and wide. The storm also devastated his house, knocking down the chimneys and breaking most of the windows. The Olivet Methodist Church, on the Arthur-Maryborough townline, lost its roof, and the driving shed was completely wrecked.

Damage on July 17 was far less than that caused by the big storm of July 11, but it was unprecedented to have two tornado-producing storms within a span of less than a week.

The prospect of a tornado is as frightening today as it was 80 or 100 years ago. They cannot be predicted with much accuracy or with much advance warning.

Forecasters can identify conditions likely to produce tornadoes, but otherwise we are at the mercy of nature when the sky becomes very dark and we detect that eerie greenish light that frequently precedes a funnel cloud.

*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on Aug. 3,  2007.

Thorning Revisited