Major storm struck Wellington County in July 1870

Extreme weather conditions and storms are fascinating subjects for historical study. Wellington County suffered many times in the 19th and 20th centuries, and some of those events have been described over the years in this column.

One of the problems in studying those storms is the accuracy of information. Few people owned outdoor thermometers in the 19th century, and there is no way of determining the accuracy of those that were in use. No one measured wind speeds until a weather station at the Ontario Agricultural College began making measurements.

Still, there were a few serious observers of weather, such as Rev. James Middlemiss, of Elora, who took daily measurements and observations for a period of more than 40 years.

The best sources for information about storms are the weekly newspapers of the county, all of whom employed correspondent reporters in their neighbourhoods. Though less than ideal, such reports give a reasonable picture of the course of storms across the county.

One of the most severe storms of the 19th century struck Wellington County on the evening of July 20, 1870. That was a Wednesday, but most of the local newspapers, many of which were printed on Thursday mornings, managed to include a brief account, with more complete coverage the following week.

It appears the storm was most severe in the eastern portion of Wellington. The Mount Forest Confederate described the storm as a tornado, but the damage was more widespread and extensive than what would occur with the typical tornado. The storm impacted areas as far away as Toronto and Hamilton. It is probable, based on the intensity of the damage, that the storm did generate a handful of tornados. No one made accurate measurements though, and the distinction would mean little to someone who lost the roof of their house or had a barn demolished by the wind.

In the north of Wellington the storm reached its peak a little after 8pm, when darkness would normally begin to fall. It should be kept in mind that standard time was in effect. Daylight saving time was far in the future. But on the night of the storm it was already black as night, and had been since about 7:30, when a heavy black cloud approached from the northwest.

The storm began earlier in the evening, but at first seemed to be a routine thunderstorm. As it became more intense it produced a continuous display of lightning and deafening thunder, accompanied by torrential rain, hail, and increasingly strong winds.

One old-time resident of Mount Forest said it was the worst he could remember there. In Mount Forest itself, chimneys suffered a terrible toll. At least 20 of them were blown down, and several caused significant damage to roofs as they crashed. The winds also stripped the roofs off a half dozen livery stables, most belonging to local hotels. The wind ripped verandas off several houses, and one barn was lifted off its foundation, coming to rest six feet away.

In the era before telephones it took several days for reports to come in from outlying areas. It would seem that at least one tornado tracked to the north of Mount Forest.

Winds tore the doors from the New Connexion Church and carried them away. A couple of small barns were reduced to kindling and a barn roof nearby was carried away to the surprise of its owner. The farmer found the roof a couple of days later, virtually intact, in a bush a half mile away. There were more than a dozen reports of roofs partially or completely torn off barns. Several houses suffered similar damage. Falling trees killed several head of cattle and at least one horse.

One farmer, John Robertson, reported about 60 acres of his bush blown down, with the trees uprooted in a tangled mess. The telegraph line along the Owen Sound Road was out of service due to downed poles and the wire broken by falling trees and branches.

Damage, though significant, appeared to be on a smaller scale to the northeast in Egremont Township. To the south of Mount Forest, in Arthur Township, the storm produced significant wind damage. Surprisingly, there were no fires, despite frequent lightning strikes. Simon Rooney watched as lightning hit the corner of his barn. The shock moved the building a few inches, but to his surprise no fire resulted.

In the Fergus area the winds did some damage to roofs, chimneys and fences. Fallen trees impaired transportation on the village’s streets. In Guelph there was slight wind damage, but there the storm resulted in minor flooding and wet cellars. The downpour in the Royal City began about 6pm, and continued at full volume for more than two hours. The worst damage there consisted of a few uprooted trees.

In West Garafraxa Township the storm hit with much more force than in the Fergus and Guelph areas. Damage was most severe in the vicinity of the Sixth Line, suggesting another tornado touched down there. About a dozen barns lost all or a portion of their roofs. Peter McDougall discovered his small barn relocated to a nearby bush.

In the Belwood area, then known as Douglas, the storm was the worst that anyone could remember. Residents there watched the black cloud advance from the northwest. A cloudburst began about 8pm. Some residents reported hearing a load roar, suggestive of full-fledged tornados. Rail fences were demolished, with the rails scattered like toothpicks. Wind and rain trashed grain crops. A strip of uprooted trees about 300 feet wide through the bush on Jeff Dobbin’s farm was further evidence of a tornado. Cyrus Sargent discovered a similar strip of levelled trees on his farm.

Few mature trees remained standing on some farms. Farmers reported the intense wind lasted only about three minutes. An intense display of lightning followed. As in Arthur Township, no fires resulted. Damage was most intense along the Fifth and Sixth Lines, with another band of major damage along the Ninth Line.

There were many casualties to cattle in West Garafraxa, most killed by falling trees and branches.

One tree killed three yearling cattle, which had sought refuge under its branches. As the storm reached its peak, Dick and Bill East arrived at the farm of Sam Allen for a visit. As they tied their horses, the wind lifted the roof from the barn and dropped it on Dick East. Unconscious from a blow to the head, he survived 15 minutes. Brother Bill survived without a scratch. Fatalities were worse in the Orangeville area, where seven people perished.

Though Luther was not yet extensively settled, damage there appears to have been very severe. Trees there seemed particularly vulnerable, as the winds ripped mature trees from the soft, unstable peat bog that covered much of the area. There was further evidence of a tornado near Luther Village, later renamed Grand Valley, where along a narrow path 30 to 50 feet wide, everything was leveled to ground level, and debris scattered over a wide area.

In East Garafraxa much of the serious damage was restricted to a path about a mile wide as the storm tracked toward Orangeville. Along that path a score of barns and stables were left roofless.

As an encore, nature provided another storm two nights later, on July 22, 1870. That one was less destructive than the earlier storm and struck shortly before midnight. Few people got much sleep that night due to a continuous display of lightning and ground-shaking thunder that kept up until about 4am.

A few barns and trees were hit with lighting for the second time in two days. There was one major fire chalked up to lightning during that second storm. John Taylor lost his barn, with a large quantity of grain and all his implements. The fire flared up again about noon the following day, but was extinguished with the help of neighbours.

Otherwise, the was no serious damage from that second storm, other than some trees and a few shingles from house and barn roofs.

It was a lesson that nature can be unpredictable, and that lightning can indeed strike twice in the same place.


Stephen Thorning