Storms of 1890 devastated Wellington County

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.


Accounts of severe weather have been featured a number of times in this column. Many were tales of the blizzards and severe winters.

But conditions such as those we suffered last Friday are not unique (on Aug. 19, 2005, tornadoes struck Centre Wellington and Mapleton).

Most readers will recall the devastating Grand Valley tornado of 1985, and the more recent one in Guelph. Some years ago, this column described the well-remembered 1923 tornado that ripped through Pilkington.

Hurricane Hazel of 1954 has already entered local folklore. But there have been many others. One was a close-spaced series of storms in the first week of June 1890.

On Wednesday, June 4, 1890, fierce winds swept across Wellington and adjoining counties. The force was so strong that branches were ripped from trees and rail fences flew apart. In late afternoon farmers braved the conditions to round up their cattle. There were scattered reports of mature trees ripped from the ground. In grain fields, where the crop was only a couple of inches high, the wind snapped delicate stems at ground level.

The terms “cyclone” and “tornado” were not in common usage at that time, and the conditions around them not yet fully understood. It is impossible to say after 115 years whether tornados contributed to the damage. Many buildings received minor damage, mainly lost shingles and demolished chimneys, but there were no reports of any structures totally wrecked by the wind, other than a barn on the Valentine farm, near the Irvine River in Nichol. When the wind hit, the barn had been jacked up on supports for the construction of a stone foundation under it. The whirlwind twisted the barn on its supports, and it was completely wrecked.

A small tornado probably was responsible for some damage in Elora at about 8pm. The wind ripped the veranda and part of the roof off the north side of the Grand Trunk station (near the current location of the Gorge Restaurant), and carried it over the building and onto the main track. A northbound freight train slammed into the debris, but miraculously did not derail. The wind partially lifted the entire roof of the station. It required major repairs to the framing. Fierce tempests twisted the poles and wires of the telegraph lines into a tangled mess. Nearby, gusts badly damaged a small barn and rotated it about 90 degrees. Some fruit trees nearby were ripped from the ground.

The winds died down later that evening, but torrential rains began, and continued through the night and into the morning. Around midnight the first of several severe thunderstorms hit Wellington. At Mount Forest a lightning strike connected with the big grain elevator at the Grand Trunk station. Grain dealer Eugene Murphy had been renting the structure from James McMullen, MP, and had between 15,000 and 20,000 bushels of wheat and oats stored. In less than an hour the structure was in ashes, along with two loaded boxcars standing beside it. Smoldering grain under the ashes continued to flare up for the next two days. As was often the case, insurance covered less than half the loss of $12,000. A week later, Murphy recovered part of his loss by selling the ruined grain to Martin Bros. for $2,500; they intended to use it as cattle feed.

The rainfall that night seemed to be heavier in the northern part of Wellington. Orangeville suffered the worst of the flooding. As the rain pelted down, streets became streams. The downpour was unrelenting for more than three hours on June 4. When the water reached creeks and streams it turned them into boiling and churning torrents, eroding their banks and carrying away everything in their paths. Bill Trumble’s shingle mill was one of the first victims, totally demolished by the flood. Two dams in the town disappeared completely.

Orangeville’s south and east sides suffered the worst of the deluge. During the night the raging waters washed away several hundred feet of the Canadian Pacific Railway line. It took the crews three days, working day and night, to restore the line and open it for traffic to Toronto. In the meantime, there was no mail service to many places in north Wellington and beyond. It was described as by far the worst storm in the history of Orangeville. Oldtimers did not disagree.

By noon of June 5 there were flooded fields everywhere. Those rains were heaviest in Peel and Maryborough. Culverts and small bridges had washed out, making travel impossible. In the south end of Peel, six bridges disappeared in a two-hour span.

Jim Hammill of West Garafraxa lost three head of cattle, swept away when the Irvine rose quickly and cut off their escape. John Bremner’s herd of sheep was grazing beside the Grand. They were smart enough to move to higher ground, but it wasn’t high enough. Elsewhere, livestock had narrow escapes. Others were trapped in knee-deep water in flooded pastures.

Local industries that were powered by water suffered badly. The Glen Lamond sawmill, east of Fergus, had hundreds of logs swept away, and the flooding Grand turned the building into an island.

Johnston’s sawmill at Waldemar had a similar experience. Johnston was holding his logs in a boom across the river. It broke, and the logs all rushed downstream to Fergus and beyond. Those logs, plus all sorts of driftwood and old stumps, damaged downstream dams and bridge abutments.

Thunderstorms, in wave after wave, passed through the area on the afternoon of June 5. Lightning struck two barns in West Garafraxa, splintering boards and timbers. In one case the boards seemed to explode, scattering splinters as far as 60 feet. Neither barn caught fire, but some livestock perished.

There seems to have been but one human casualty. At Guelph, young Willie Ching and three of his playmates went down to the Speed River near Goldie’s Mill between thunderstorms. They amused themselves by throwing rocks into the churning water. Young Willie lost his balance on the river bank, and struck his head on a rock as he fell into the water.

Bob Gow, a cooper working at the mill, heard the cries of the other boys. He rushed out, and waded into the river, barely able to keep his balance, and managed to grab Willie as he floated by. It was too late: the fall against the rock had killed him.

The thunderstorms, wind and rain moved on slowly to the east. Barrie suffered significant flooding on its streets. At Allandale, at the city’s south side, flood waters washed away railway track, and winds blew cars into the bay. Damage north and east of Toronto was even greater than in Wellington. In the Brooklin area every bridge suffered damage, and about half were washed away. Between Oshawa and Port Hope the flood carried virtually all the dams away.

The storm began with winds on June 4. By June 7 it was all over. Most of the rain locally fell on the first two days. After that everyone faced the task of cleaning up. Broken branches and felled trees were everywhere. For municipal councils it meant additional unforeseen expenditures. In some townships, faced with replacing up to a dozen bridges, setting the 1890 budget was not a pleasant task.

Comparing the 1890 storm with those of our day is not a simple task. Reporting of damage and weather conditions 115 years ago was a hit-and-miss business. Many farmers carried little or no insurance. They bore the consequences of the storm stoically. In the towns, mill owners had some repair work to do on their dams, buildings, or both. They seldom carried adequate insurance either. Thus we may not even be aware of some of the damage and of small tornados that probably accompanied the storm.

The situation with flooding is also hard to compare. Paved roads and parking lots were not yet in place here in 1890. Consequently, there was less run off. On the other hand, storm drainage systems were either primitive or non-existent. Floodwaters took the easiest course down hill to the nearest stream. Flood damage, therefore, was widespread. And there was no flood control of any sort on the Grand River and its tributaries.

Extreme weather conditions have always occurred locally. Our ability to understand and cope with them has improved significantly.

And with modern communications we know more about what happened, and know it much more quickly.

*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on Aug. 26, 2005.


Stephen Thorning - 1949-2015