ALSO IN 1902
|Trenton's high school athletes may call themselves the Tornadoes, but in this city, a real tornado is about as exotic a phenomenon as an earthquake or a plague of locusts.
So just imagine how stunning it was on Aug. 10, 1902, when a swirling, black funnel cloud cut a 2½-mile swath through Trenton, tearing the walls or roofs off 100 houses, tossing wagons and outhouses around like toys and showering the city with sheets of rain that collapsed a bridge.
This was before the age of storm warnings or home videos that made tornadoes a common sight on the nightly news. In 1902, a twister was an otherworldly freak of nature — something L. Frank Baum, two years earlier, had imagined as a fantastic vehicle transporting Dorothy into the Land of Oz.
Tornadoes were, in fact, so poorly understood that they were often mislabeled "cyclones," a term that more properly describes hurricanes.
"Trenton visited by a cyclone," screamed the headline of the Trenton Daily State Gazette, which went on, in the day's main story, to proclaim: "Trenton is now among the few eastern cities which have been visited by a real genuine wild, western cyclone."
By standards which would later be developed by tornado-watchers, in which an F-0 is the weakest storm and F-5 the most severe, the Trenton twister of '02 was minor-league. "From the damage, it sounds like probably an F-1," said Gary Skaggs, manager of the Severe Storms Laboratory in Norman, Okla.
Typically, tornadoes on the East Coast churn up far less power than their counterparts in the Midwest, where the clash of Arctic and Gulf of Mexico air masses has produced "Tornado Alley."
But after they lived through the 1902 storm, no one in Trenton was pooh-poohing its power.
It began on a quiet, Sunday summer afternoon with a drizzle beginning at 12:25, gradually turning into a heavy rain, then a torrential downpour.
The waters formed a gully of as much as two feet on some streets, tearing deep holes in dirt roads, washing away wooden sidewalks and filling the basements of scores of homes.
The flood damage was especially severe along the swollen Assunpink Creek, where the Olden Avenue bridge was so heavily damaged that it collapsed two days later. (No one was on the bridge in that mishap).
Four and a half inches of rain fell that day. But it wasn't until 5:42 that it became more than just a heavy rainfall.
That's when a sinister, black cloud appeared in Lawrence Township. With a hiss and a train-like roar, it swept down on what was then a neighborhood of small farmers, rail workers and lumberyard workers living in shacks and row houses in the North Ward.
One woman on Rose Street narrowly escaped death when she stepped away from a pan where she was frying potatoes — and, a second later, the heavy cooper roof from a nearby barrelmaker's shop came crashing into her kitchen.
A neighbor, Daniel Scanlon, was sitting in a nearby outhouse when the whirlwind lifted the backyard toilet and knocked it over. The newspapers of the time reported he was uninjured; they said nothing about his embarassment.
From Rose Street, the wind seemed to pick up speed as it hit the open spaces of the Delaware and Raritan canal and railroad and struck south.
On Allen Street, the tornado cracked the brick walls of the Crescent Pottery building — one of the biggest in Trenton's huge pottery industry — and smashed its major outbuildings into kindling.
Then, on Perry Street, the roofs and the front walls were ripped away from an entire row of brick buildings, leaving whole rooms exposed to street-level view.
Railman Albert Totten told a reporter at the time how he saw the Perry Street disaster after "an immense black cloud" dropped a few hundred feet from him.
"I saw the black mass shoot downward and several roofs were picked up and carried along," Totten said. "The air at this time was full of boards, bricks, stones and trees."
"Looking across to the [Perry Street] row, I saw a woman in the third story wringing her hands. I...hurried over to the house and found the woman was hysterical because of the narrow escape of her grandchild."
"The baby was in a crib in the third story, but when the roof was torn off the child was not injured in the least beyond a wetting by the rain."
The baby's survival was one of many arbitrary tricks played by the tornado that seemed like divine intervention. In another house on Perry Street, an entire wall was torn away and every piece of furniture shaken out of place — but a painting of Jesus remained hanging on the wall.
From Perry Street, the tornado skipped into the Chambersburg section of Trenton.
Members of the Freudenmacher Athletic Club on South Broad Street, who had been socializing in their clubhouse, suddenly found themselves coated with a shower of falling plaster and debris as the roof over their heads was lifted off.
But their fright was nothing compared with Patrolman Peter McLaughlin, a dapper-looking cop with handlebar mustache and bucket helmet.
McLaughlin, patrolling his beat on Liberty Street, gave an account of being literally blown off his feet and then trying to grab the wheel on a horse-drawn wagon in front of a blacksmith shop.
"I clung to the spokes of the wagon wheel like a drowning man and I was never more surprised in my life when I felt the wagon going up in the air," McLaughlin told a reporter. "The wind spun me around like a top and I grabbed a [horse-tying] post and held on until the tornado had passed over."
"I don't think the tornado was over 30 seconds in sweeping over that section, but it seemed like an hour to me."
In fact, the tornado's destructive rampage was over once it lifted from Liberty Street and spared McLaughlin's life. The twister had lasted little more than two minutes, but it left a huge toll.
The monetary damage was $200,000 — probably more than $4 million in today's dollars. Two people were injured, one a woman clocked over the head with flying timber, the other a 14-year-old boy who stepped on a broken, live electrical wire and got a shock.
Trentonians were counting themselves lucky that no one had been killed. Hundreds, in fact, gathered around Perry Street and the North Ward railyards to sightsee and snap souvenir photos.
But the fury of the storm was not spent.
Soaked by the downpour, the mud around the Hamilton fairgrounds had become virtual quicksand a day later. When 16-year-old Ada Reynolds ran through the mud, playing with two friends, she sank into the clay muck and drowned.
That was how the storm of '02 — one that had spared babies in their cribs and housewives cooking in their kitchens — claimed its only victim.
|1902: A twister trashes Trenton|
|By JON BLACKWELL / The Trentonian|
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