Tornado partially destroyed infant town of Guelph in 1829

An account of a severe storm or a tornado has been the subject of a column in most years over the past decade. 

Many people consider a tornado to be fluke or at least a very unusual occurrence in this part of Ontario. While by no stretch have they been common, tornadoes are not as rare and unusual as most people suppose.

This column has included more than a dozen of them, and there are accounts of many more in my research files.

The distinction between a severe storm and an actual tornado is seldom clear in those old accounts. Indeed, it is one that still troubles the experts. To those who suffer the consequences though, the distinction is meaningless as they struggle to deal with damaged buildings and uprooted trees.

Most often, a tornado is part of a much larger storm. The tornado will track a narrow path accompanied by extremely high winds, while the ravages of the larger storm which accompanies it are felt over a much wider area. But they can be almost as severe.

Perhaps the most intriguing of the severe storms was the one that hit the infant town of Guelph 184 years ago–in 1829, when the Royal City was barely two years past its founding by John Galt and the Canada Company.

Accounts of that storm are very sketchy. There were few newspapers in Upper Canada back then, and none closer than Hamilton. Fewer still have issues surviving. In addition, there was no weather service either predicting weather or keeping records.

Some brief mentions of that storm can be found in a few papers. None of those are first hand, and therefore the accuracy of them is questionable or at least unknown. The beginnings of a weather service date, it would appear, to an observation station maintained by the British army at Fort York in Toronto from 1840.

As far as is known, there were only two accounts committed to paper and published in books in the nineteenth century. One was by Samuel Strickland, the brother of Susannah Moodie and Catharine Parr Traill, who worked in Guelph for the Canada Company from 1828 to 1831. He published a memoir, Twenty Seven Years in Upper Canada, in 1854.

The other is in Annals of the Town of Guelph by C. Acton Burrows, written in 1877 for the fiftieth anniversary of Guelph. Only one, Strickland, experienced the storm directly. Burrows was not born until two decades after the storm.

Strickland was a careful observer, and wrote of seeing the results of tornadoes in his travels around the province.

He called the incident at Guelph “the most appalling land tornado” he had ever witnessed. He noted that the path of such destruction following a tornado was almost like a roadway, with trees snapped near ground level and scattered in circles along a winding route that was only a few yards wide.

It is probable that Strickland recorded his observations in a diary. However, he did not write his account for publication for another 25 years, and very likely relied on his memory for some of the events. His account of the storm notes that the weather in late May of 1829 was very hot, with little wind.

In the early morning of the fateful day of the big storm he heard thunder, but it seemed far away from Guelph. About 10am very dark clouds began rolling into the sky overhead. The clouds moved quickly, seeming to swirl in circles. 

The rumble of thunder and display of forked lightning was incessant, Strickland recalled. The dark clouds seemed to swirl into a cone, with the point on the ground. He likened the sight to a column of inky black smoke, gyrating constantly, and surrounded by lightning strikes. 

The sight made a strong impression on him: “the roar of the thunder – the rushing of the blast – the crashing of the timber – the limbs of trees, leaves and rubbish, mingled with clouds of dust, whirling through the air – a faint idea is then given of the scene.”

Strickland continued his recollections: “I had ample time for observation as the tornado commenced its desolating course about two miles from the town, through the centre of which it took its way, passing within 50 yards of the spot where a number of persons and myself were standing watching its fearful progress.”

“As the tornado approached, the trees seemed to fall like a pack of cards before its irresistible current. After passing through the clearing made around the town, the force of the wind gradually abated, and in a few minutes died away entirely.”

This is a classic description of a tornado. Strickland and his friends observed it go by them only a short distance away, and they were lucky not to have been injured. In a few minutes Guelph had suffered significant damage that would be expensive to repair and clean up.

“From the point at which the black column had arisen,” Strickland wrote, “trees were twisted in every direction. The belt of timber that the tornado leveled had a width of about one hundred yards and length of two miles. At the entrance to Guelph, the tornado had crossed the Speed River and uprooted six acres of a woodlot, which city founder John Galt had left as an ornament to his house. To the east, the Eramosa Road was strewn with litter, impassible for nearly half a mile.”

Miraculously, there were no deaths or severe injuries. Several buildings lost their roofs, and the winds completely demolished a barn, broke dozens of windows, and destroyed a great many fences. Virtually every structure in the settlement suffered some damage to a greater or lesser extent.

In his account of the tornado, Acton Burrows obviously relied heavily on Strickland’s work, published 23 years earlier. Some of his paragraphs are obvious rewrites of Strickland’s account.

Burrows notes the then popular belief that tornadoes were more common before the clearing and settlement of Ontario, with the observation that the paths of tornadoes are common in tracts of uncleared land. He states that the lessening of the number of tornadoes is only one of the effects that land clearing seems to have on the weather.

Burrows notes that the town of Guelph made little progress in the three years after the tornado. Whether the two facts are connected is not clear. We do know that John Galt’s heavy expenditures on Guelph, while failing to generate significant revenue from land sales, soon resulted in friction between him and the British directors of the company, and his ultimate dismissal from his job.

The damage would have necessitated even heavier expenditures to undertake repairs. That could well have been the last straw for him as an administrator. Burrows, it appears, did not have access to Canada Company records, correspondence, and financial returns. For his part, Strickland abandoned the Canada Company in 1831, and moved to be closer to his sisters in the Peterborough area.

Strickland may have been frustrated by the Canada Company’s decision to put all authority in the hands of commissioners who were based in Toronto, where they had no day-to-day contact with conditions at Guelph.

Burrows notes that the Company seemed to follow a policy of “masterly inactivity” during the period immediately after the tornado. He seems to have suspected that the storm and subsequent Canada Company policies were connected, and he was probably right.

It is an amazing fluke that the tiny settlement at Guelph suffered a direct hit by a tornado, when there were miles and miles of unbroken forest in the district.

The role of the 1829 tornado on the subsequent history of Guelph and Wellington deserves closer examination. It is another example of how human activity is ever subservient to the weather.



Stephen Thorning