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ON the afternoon and evening of Friday, August 22, 1851, there was a heavy thunder shower in eastern Massachusetts, during which several houses were struck by lightning, and other damage was caused by the wind which swept with a speed of more than two miles a minute in a northeasterly direction from Worcester to Rockport. For some days previous a southwest wind had prevailed.

In Quinsigamond village in Worcester, at about five o'clock the wind was very furious, tearing up fences, trees, crops, etc., and carrying off roofs of buildings. It then proceeded to Wayland, where the shower was severe, and hardly had it begun than there occurred an extraordinary flash of lightning. The people thought that some building in the town must have been struck, and a few minutes later they saw rising in the southwest a dense black column of what seemed to be smoke. It was soon discovered that it was a cloud, which rose rapidly until it seemed to be a mile in height. It appeared to rise entirely above the earth, and to stand on legs, which touched the ground, extending over an area of about forty rods square. At some places along its route it became single and resembled an elephant's trunk, though it appeared differently elsewhere. Some said it was like a tall wide-spread elm tree; others, an inverted cone; and still others an hour-glass. The upper portion of it seemed to vibrate, and to move from side to side like an elephant's trunk or a waterspout at sea, and among the projecting points below were fitful gleams of lightning. The whole cloud whirled as it came over the town on its disastrous trip to the sea. It was the most violent and destructive tornado that was ever experienced in that section. At the northern part of Malden, its force was principally lost, and the column divided at a point about half-way between the earth and the cloud above, the upper part being dissipated, and the lower half settling down into an irregular mass, which soon disappeared. The force of the wind, however, was not wholly gone, for it wrought some slight injury at Lynn and Rockport.

The topography of the country, it is believed, has much to do with the origin and destructiveness of tornadoes. Prospect hill in Waltham, an eminence four hundred and eighty-two feet in height, was probably the cause of the terrific whirling force of this wind. There were two opposing air currents of different temperatures, one coming from the northwest and the other from the southwest, They acted suddenly against each other, after a sultry calm of some duration, and shortly a third gyratory motion made its appearance between them. The surface of the ground over which the tornado passed in Waltham and Arlington, where the force was greatest, was quite undulating and diversified. The following diagram gives the course of the tornado through Arlington, for a distance of two miles, passing from left to right. It shows the effect of the two winds upon it, which resulted in the circles it made before it left the town's limits.

New England Weather Picture


In Waltham, the damage done to property amounted to four thousand dollars, but the wind was most severe in what was then called West Cambridge, but which has since been incorporated as the town of Arlington. About two o'clock, as the tornado neared the place, a long continued roll of thunder was heard in the northwest, where there appeared a very black bank of cloud rising slowly to the height of fifty degrees, and stretching from west-southwest to east-northeast. The air was calm, sultry and oppressive. Not the slightest breeze was blowing, not a leaf moved. There was a dead closeness, a remarkable want of elasticity in the air, and many complained of lassitude. An old sea-captain told his wife about an hour before the awful devastation occurred, that if he were at sea he should expect a waterspout. People felt that something was about to occur, but they did not know what. A deathlike stillness prevailed throughout nature, which for about two hours seemed to remain still, and then the tornado burst with terrible fury, destroying houses, stone walls, fences, gardens, etc., and endangering human life. Large orchards were completely destroyed, great trees were uprooted, twisted, shattered, carried long distances and tossed about like straws. Oaks, walnuts and maples from two to two and a half feet in diameter were treated in the same way. Others were uprooted and carried a hundred feet. A great number of houses had their chimneys carried away, and were also unroofed, the fragments being carried thousands of feet. A two-story brick house was entirely demolished, and pieces blown away, hardly a trace of it remaining. Cars were also blown from the track. A man and a horse were lifted, whirled around, and then set down about a hundred yards away. The track of the wind narrowed as it came near the Medford line, but the fury increased, injuring several persons, and demolishing strongly built houses as if they were made of paper. Roofs were taken up as by suction, and carried into the cloud, being transported in some instances for miles. When the column of cloud and wind caught up the buildings into its huge mouth, it ground them to the smallest fragments, as a mill grinds what is put into it.

Many wonderful incidents occurred in Arlington. The large grocery and dry goods store of Messrs. Fessenden, Whitmore and company was levelled to the ground. Mr. Fessenden was the only person in the building at the time, and he was buried in the ruins, being extricated in an insensible state. His head and face were badly cut and bruised, but he was finally restored to his normal condition. Two men were blown entirely across Mystic river, and others were carried considerable distances, receiving serious injury. In proceeding to Medford the tornado passed over Spy pond, where two ice-houses were destroyed. In one of them was a man with a horse and chaise. The noise of the wind startled the horse, and the man took him by the bridle. As the building fell, however, the horse started, dragging the man out of it, but the carriage was crushed by the falling timbers. Colonel Douglas of Cambridgeport, with two friends, was sailing on the pond, and the wind lifted the boat upon one end, perpendicularly. The members of the party grasped a tree, they being near the shore, and held on until the boat righted. This disaster was caused by the water at one end of the boat being lifted in a column upwards of a hundred feet in height, and carried to the shore, where some boys, who were playing were covered first with water and then with earth, being finally blown on to the railroad track, completely coated with mud. It not only prostrated the grass and corn, but partly buried them in the earth, making the fields look as if a heavy roller had passed over them. A committee appointed for that purpose appraised the damage in Arlington at twenty-three thousand, six hundred and six dollars.

The wind passed through Arlington from the west-southwest to the east-northeast, but when it reached the Mystic river, it took a more northerly course, and kept it till it reached Malden. It passed through the northern part of Medford near the railroad depot, a few rods south of "Wear" bridge, demolishing several houses, barns and other buildings, and damaging many others, and seriously injuring several persons. It destroyed property there to the extent of eighteen thousand seven hundred and sixty-eight dollars, as appraised by a committee appointed at the time for that purpose. The track of the wind in this town was from forty to seventy-six rods in width, and through much of the course the ground was plowed up by the wind in places from one to two feet in depth. Parts of roofs, furniture, agricultural implements, lumber, trees and chimneys were strewn up and down the streets and in the fields. At the "gate," three large and elegant houses were blown down. Miss Brooks' large barn, built of heavy timber and plank, was taken up and carried fifteen feet before it was torn to pieces. The two-story residence of James M. Sandford, the station agent, was carried twenty feet and blown to fragments, while his son James, who was eighteen years of age, was passing from the barn to the house. It was blown toward him, and his feet became entangled in the partly ripped-up sill of the door-way. One of his legs was torn open from the knee to the ankle, the bones were crushed, and the foot became a shapeless mass. He lay under the timbers three-fourths of an hour before they could be cut away, a work that he directed himself. Both legs were amputated, one above the knee, and the other just above the ankle. At the station a heavy baggage car, standing on the side track, was driven along the rails one hundred and sixty-five feet, and then taken up and carried sixty feet, nearly at right angles to the track. A stone wall three and a half feet in height was also levelled even with the ground, and the stones were scattered a rod or two on each side, badly injuring one of the shoulders of Luke Costello and fracturing the skull of George Maxwell. Five or six persons were also more or less injured in the town by falling buildings, and two men at work upon a new house were thrown several rods, one of them being considerably hurt. Timothy Fagan's house was unroofed, and his wife's ribs were badly jammed by her body being crowded into an opening in one side of the house. A Mr. Nutter's house was also unroofed, and his sick wife escaped injury, though the bedstead on which she was lying was torn apart, and a beam fell upon it. The wife of a Mr. Caldwell, who resided on a hill, while standing in the doorway of her house, was caught up and carried across the fields and over fences and trees about five hundred feet, being safely deposited by the side of a neighbor's barn, without injury, except some slight bruises. She knew nothing of her experience in the air. In another house a woman was sitting with her child in her lap when the building suddenly shook. She thought of no danger, but in a moment or two there was a tremendous crash overhead, and on looking upward she saw the sky, the roof of the house having been carried away. A moment later she was slightly injured on the shoulder by a falling timber. The house of a German farmer named Huffmaster was completely shaken to pieces, and he was buried beneath its ruins, receiving a violent contusion of the brain, which proved fatal. A Mr. West, who was building a house for a Mr. Haskins, saw the cloud coming from Arlington, and watched it anxiously. As soon as he saw it destroy a new house west of the Lowell railroad station, he sprang out of the house where he was at work, and ran, as he says, "for his life," to shelter himself behind a wall only five rods distant from the place from which he started. He had scarcely reached the shelter when the house he had left was totally destroyed. One more instance of the terrible power of the wind in this town is that of a pine tree, ten inches in diameter, which was broken off, carried several hundred feet into the air, and then thrown through the roof and windows of Doctor Kidder's house.

The tornado was also felt in the northern part of Malden, and then it swept on to Lynn, where, at a locality called Wood end, a boat was blown out of a pond, a brush heap carried bodily a distance of several rods, and apple trees eight or ten inches in diameter torn out of the ground. Accompanied by a terrific noise, it pursued its way to the upper part of Swampscott, where it uprooted several trees, moved a house slightly from its foundation, carried away a porch from another house, and scattered pots and kettles.

It was last heard from at Rockport, on the extreme point of Cape Ann, where the wind uprooted trees and forced the tide in to a considerable height, thus doing much damage to property in stores.

The day following the catastrophe crowds of people flocked to the scene of the principal desolation at Arlington and Medford.

At the time of the tornado a great deal of rain fell in Lowell, Mass., about seventeen miles to the north of Arlington; and as soon as the wind had passed showers of rain fell violently and in great quantities for a few minutes all along the northern side of its track, but none fell on the southern side. In Waltham, the northern and eastern sides of the house in which the principal of the high school lived were covered with mud, while on the other sides none was seen. No rain had then fallen in the town, and there was no water near the house. Other houses were wet, but not muddy. The water and mud were probably brought from a distance.

Source: Historic Storms of New England by Sidney Perley, 1891

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