Electrical storm of 1896 was worst in county’s history

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.

May 25 is early for a big thunderstorm, but the spring of 1896 was an unusual one all over eastern North America.

Beginning about May 20, thunderstorms and tornadoes appeared in the American midwest, in Iowa, Kansas and Nebraska.

Day by day, the unsettled weather grew worse. On May 25, shortly after midnight, tornadoes swept through parts of Illinois, and the destruction continued through the night. More followed in the afternoon. At about 6pm, tornadoes hit Tuscola County in Michigan, and two hours later, a major one cut a 30-foot path near Detroit, resulting in 47 deaths and more than 100 serious injuries.

The storm that hit Wellington County was part of the latter disturbance. Heavy rains began at about 8pm in Peel and Maryborough, and at 9pm in Guelph. As the storm intensified, it produced a frightening display of lightning – both forked strikes and sheet lightning.

Several witness reported the sky was lit almost continuously, with only the occasional pause of blackness. One man claimed that he was able to read a newspaper with the only illumination coming from the constant flashes. A constant rumble came from the sky, with the occasional strike causing the ground and buildings to tremble.

In Nichol township, at the edge of Elora, farmer John McLeod was busy in one of his outbuildings when the storm began. As he stood in the doorway watching the storm, a lightning bolt struck the shed. He was killed instantly. His son James discovered him later in the evening when he did not return to the house. The lightning had splintered a post near the shed, and had set fire to some straw, but the rain extinguished the flames.

Another bolt struck an old log barn on the farm of Tom Bosomworth in Pilkington. He was helpless to save the structure and it was a total loss. Fortunately, the barn was used only for hay storage.

Several other barns suffered lightning strikes. At Ennotville, Jim McDonald saw his barn being hit, as did a couple of his neighbours. Risking their lives, McDonald and several others managed to put the fire out. At one point, flaming pieces of the roof dropped to the hay piled below. Afterward he considered himself the luckiest man in the township.

One of his neighbours also had a close call. Archibald McNee watched in horror as lightning connected with his barn on Concession 8 of Nichol. The force destroyed a ventilator on top of the building, and splintered some of the rafters in the roof. In this case there was no fire, and McNee’s horses, cattle, grain and implements escaped injury.

Moses Burns in Puslinch, near Aberfoyle, was not so lucky. He lost his barn, as well as his hay and a bin of grain. As the structure burned, he managed to get his horses and cattle out.

The barn of Hugh McDiarmid in Puslinch also suffered damage. In Eramosa, a direct hit on George Armstrong’s barn caused major structural damage to the roof, splitting several of the main beams into kindling.

Several dwellings attracted lightning strikes. In West Garafraxa, Charlie Torrence was knocked out when lightning hit the chimney of his house. The current blew all the stove pipes apart, sent the lids on the kitchen stove flying, and knocked out ole Charlie, who was sitting nearby. When he regained consciousness he noticed his socks had been burned.

Another unfortunate house was George Laycock’s residence in Puslinch. The strike was to the chimney, with results similar to that at the Torrence house. At the time of the strike, Laycock’s mother was in the kitchen, rocking a grandchild in a cradle. The force of the strike pulled her shoes and stockings off. She was briefly knocked out. The strike burned several holes in the kitchen floor, and set a small fire in the cellar.

Another strike, at the “Slabtown” settlement in Erin, stunned a man named Rogers and his wife, and killed the family dog.

Some farmers lost livestock that was out at pasture. A couple of horses died when the trees they stood under attracted strikes. Jim Fasken of Pilkington lost a horse standing in the shelter of a shed. John Hanlon of Puslinch discovered a dead cow the morning after the storm.

At Living Springs in West Garafraxa, Bill Barnet lost a ewe standing in the middle of a pasture, and in Salem, Levi Wissler lost four sheep.

The Mundell factory in Elora was hit at the height of the storm, a little after 9pm, and the bolt was observed by many residents. A couple of employees near the plant grabbed jackets and ran through the rain to check the building. One was J.D. Brown, the foreman. He spent more than an hour checking the factory, but could see no sign of fire, and went home. The storm petered out after 10pm. And everyone thought all was well.

A little after midnight, a neighbour observed flames coming from the factory. Elora’s volunteer firefighters soon arrived, and found that the fire originated in the basement, where piles of sawdust were ablaze or smouldering.

But due to their poor training and the poor state of their equipment, it took 20 minutes to get a single and feeble stream of water on the fire. By then, the unchecked flames had taken a foothold on the main and second floors, and little could be done. The volunteers put their efforts into saving the boiler and engine, located in a separate building, and to protecting the lumber piled at the rear of the plant.

By 4am, only the stone walls of the factory remained. Mundell’s loss was about $12,000, and 40 men were out of work at what was then Elora’s major industry.

In the City of Guelph, torrents of rain caused as many problems as the lightning. A wide stream poured down the hill from Church of Our Lady onto Macdonnell Street, and another stream, several inches deep, turned Wyndham Street into a river. The two converged in the area in front of City Hall, where a temporary lake formed. The city’s rudimentary storm drainage system was completely overloaded.

Water poured into basements on Carden and Macdonnell Streets. The kitchen of the Queen’s Hotel was in its basement, and it was put out of commission by three feet of water.

The Gordon Street hill suffered major washouts. One gully was more than two feet deep. Guelph’s streetcar tracks ran beside the street. Surprisingly, service continued through the storm, as the streetcars inched through standing water. The motormen feared that the electrical motors could short out. The next morning, the motormen turned white when they saw the condition of the track in daylight on the Gordon Street hill.

Lightning hit at least a dozen telephone and electrical poles in Guelph, splintering them into pieces. The phone system itself remained out of service until repairs could be completed. Lightning seemed most severe in the York Road area, where several houses suffered strikes. As well, two pedestrians on the street where stunned when lightning hit nearby trees and poles.

During the night, the storm moved to the east, along the north shore of Lake Ontario. At Deseronto, it proved to be a blessing. Fire had broken out earlier in the day at the huge Rathbun sawmill and chemical complex. The heavy rain helped extinguish the blaze and save the town. Even so, damage there totalled more than $350,000.

Wellington County and the rest of Ontario were spared further destruction from storms in May 1896, but the unsettled weather continued in the United States for several more days. Tornadoes struck in Kentucky, Ohio and Virginia. The worst of them all hit St. Louis on May 27, killing 137 in the city and environs, and another 118 across the Mississippi in East St. Louis.

This storm is a reminder that exceptional weather conditions have occurred here before, and could well happen again.

We can only shudder when we consider what the results of this storm might have been had it occurred this year, rather than 123 years ago.

*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on Aug. 15, 2003.

Thorning Revisited