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Lauderdale County History

 

The Great Meridian Cyclone of 1906

A Lauderdale County Web Exclusive
by Bill White

Cyclone!
 

The Great Cyclone of 1906
Part Four

 

The Aftermath

I

n the aftermath of the storm, even before all the debris drawn aloft into the maelstrom had settled finally to the earth, the terrorized, panic-stricken citizens and visitors to the city began to flee the devastated area, seeking safety in the untouched commercial district and nearby homes of the community.  Within moments, a different group of equally terrorized and panic-stricken citizens began to rush into the devastated area digging with bare hands into the debris searching for some sign of a loved one.

The storm that had seemed to take an eternity to pass beyond the city had lasted, in fact, only about twenty minutes.  In its’ wake it had spent the greater part of its fury on Front Street leaving a trail of total destruction more than two blocks wide and fourteen blocks long.  Front Street was devastated, reduced to ruin.  On both sides of the street where great, modern brick structures had existed previously were huge disorganized piles of brick and lumber.  The street itself was piled high with the rubble of these once fine structures.  As far as the eye could see in either direction along the street lay the wreckage of a once strong and active center of the city.

Tornado damage of the Mansard roof of the Joseph Baum Building located on Front Street at Twenty-Fifth Avenue.  Baum sold wholesale and retail clothing.

Chaos now reigned in the district as the confused and disoriented people thronged the ruins, tossing brick this way and timber that.  Beneath the wrecked debris that was all that was left of the buildings, the mobs realized that there were voids.  Within those voids were trapped living people. Their cries could be heard under the piles of rubble.  Within moments it became apparent that the efforts of the well-meaning mob were becoming counter-productive as, in an effort to free some injured soul, one person cast the debris of his efforts upon the attempt of another to reach a different victim.  As had always been the case in the city, men of courage and character began to emerge from the crowd and, putting aside their own concerns, they organized the crowd into work parties in which each team’s efforts were more coordinated and, therefore, more effective.

The areas of concern were still darkened and with no hope of light, electric or otherwise, the teams swarming the buildings used torches, lanterns and even candlelight to search the wreckage.  Even if the skies above had been clear, the waning crescent moon would not have added illumination to the storm path below.  Within half an hour, by 7:15 P. M., Mayor J. H. Rivers was on the scene followed closely by Chief of Police W. M. Bloodsworth who had taken command of the police department from Chief Nelson in 1901.  Fire Chief C. C. Massey was in place at Fire Station Number One assessing the activities of his companies and would soon head for the scene.

Meridian Mayor J. H. Rivers served during the tornado

The impromptu teams, now much better organized, had each taken a specific location or building upon which to focus their activities, and rescue attempts had begun in earnest.  Each area was cleared before moving on to the next.  The building or remaining piles of rubble received priority based on whether the cries of victims could be heard or on the likelihood that potential victims had been present before the storm.  In this manner, with little guidance from the authorities, the work of freeing those trapped, and uncovering the remains of those lost, proceeded.

Among Mayor Rivers’ first act after reviewing the wreckage was to order several large buildings on the outskirts of the city in the west and north be turned into emergency hospitals.  He then contacted the local militia and ordered them to respond to the area of greatest devastation, setting up a cordon of guards around the damage track to prevent looting and control the mobs of people still gathering in the area.

Although not within his authority, Mayor Rivers found them as concerned about the safety and security of their home city as any other citizens.  One would imagine that the telephone lines between the local Commander in Meridian and his higher headquarters were humming that evening as authority was requested and received for the units to assemble.  Almost immediately local Companies A and D rallied at their headquarters and, under the tactical command of their Captains, responded to secure the area through which the storm had passed.  Within hours others units would respond as well and, within a day, a unit from Laurel, Mississippi, Company E, along with three companies from other nearby localities, were in the area in response to the emergency call.

Having received the alarm and his instructions by telephone moments earlier, Cap’n Billy sat atop the heavy wagon as they turned east into the heart of the growing conflagration in Georgetown.  As the wagon turned, he gave the nod to his son Tom who slipped quietly from the wagon into the street and moved quickly off in another direction.

The view from Twenty-Second Avenue looking east.  The remaining lower floors of the Grand Avenue Hotel can be seen at right.  Across the street about half way down the block is the pile of rubble that was once the Meyer-Neville Hardware building.

Tom found his own home smashed by the storm, a twisted pile of lumber that seemed to have been crushed by some giant foot.  The roof now covered only the back yard, sitting directly on the ground as if it now covered some subterranean dwelling.  The single wall of the house remaining upright teeter-tottered in the breeze, ready to join the pile of twisted and broken lumber scattered around on the ground nearby, but not yet having given up its nearly vertical posture as had the other walls.  Here and there was the occasional piece of furniture, soaked but otherwise undamaged.  The stove stood as it had near the rear of what had been the kitchen but no stove pipes rose from the back.  The interior walls were all gone but the former demarcation of the rooms was clearly evident by the discoloration of the floor boards.

He was briefly frozen in place, horrified by the possibility of the loss of his beloved Annie.  As he stumbled toward the wreckage, he heard his name called from the darkened porch of an undamaged home nearby and turned his back toward the rubble as Annie ran into his arms.

Together they walked the few blocks south to his father’s home where they found that, even though much closer to the vortex than his own home, the house was still standing, having given up only a few squares of shingles and a small portion of the roof to the storm.  His mother, brother and sisters were all well and he left Annie with them as he began to quickly make his way to his father’s side in Georgetown.

The fires, almost entirely out of control, in Georgetown were being held marginally in check by the heavy rain.  The flame whipped and growled from underneath the debris, as if longing to break out and consume everything in sight but unable to do so.  It tunneled and snaked its way through the wreckage.  The fires were being fought by make-shift bucket brigades of the local residents.  But, not understanding the beast, they tossed water ineffectively upon the smoking ruins from which it immediately ran off, leaving useless, muddy puddles in the already saturated soil.  Cap’n Billy, a master of his trade, set about organizing the men and alongside his firemen, they fought the blaze together.  Not content to cast precious water about helter-skelter, he chased the fire beast into its’ lair, overturning partially destroyed walls, entering those houses still standing with hose and axe and ferreting out the beast anywhere it might slither or squirm.  The downpour following the storm had thankfully held the fire in check but as the rain slowed to moderate and then light, the fire had begun to reassert itself.  It was a long, hard-fought battle, but by 2:00 A. M., Cap’n Billy had vanquished the flame and the fires in Georgetown were, at last, extinguished.

Twenty-Second Avenue looking west.
 

Nearly 500 small homes had been destroyed by the wind and fire and the fire department had recovered the badly charred remains of eight black Meridian citizens, presumably residents of Georgetown.  However, the remains had suffered such damage from the fire that they were unrecognizable and, likely, would not be identified until the list of the missing was final.  It was also learned that a black church nearby had been completely destroyed, while the surrounding buildings were untouched.  But there was no fire there and this was not his concern.  This would be only the beginning of the long night.

In the downtown area, the local units of the Mississippi National Guard had completed its’ cordon around the stricken area and the work continued unabated by the distraught cries of the hopeful relatives of the victims.

The work crews beginning on First Street had already removed most of the debris from what was once the Thornton Livery and Feed Stable.  In the process they had uncovered the remains of six horses, but what they found next chilled and horrified them.  Beneath the rubble the crew had discovered the bodies of former Police Chief, now liveryman, William Nelson and his friend James Tarry, among the first victims of the disaster.  Nelson would make the long ride out eighth street road one last time, but not to his former residence on Thirty-Ninth Avenue.  His return would be to nearby Rose Hill Cemetery where his remains would spend eternity alongside his mother and, later, his wife, Mary.

The new Union Station, a proud new addition to the city, had suffered what was probably minimal damage.  However, at least one section of the roof was down and as the workers scrambled over the damaged section they discovered the bodies of father and son, John and Clarence Stewart and neighbor, Mrs. Smith, their sojourn precipitously ended.  Their bodies would continue the journey back to Cottondale on the train as they had planned but not quite as they would have wished.

Across Front Street, the Elmire Restaurant had been among the businesses hardest hit by the storm.  When the vortex passed down Front Street there had been twenty-one souls in the first floor restaurant and in the second floor hotel.  Seventeen of them had been killed in the partial collapse of the structure or by missiles launched from the roof of the Union Depot, just across the street, or one of the other disintegrating structures nearby.  Before the Nineteenth Avenue side of the hotel and restaurant had collapsed in on itself, all of the glass would be shattered and broken by the debris.

The body of M&O engineer Patrick McGinnis was recovered from beneath the destruction as was that of flagman Cliff Edwards.  Neither would Great Southern Railroad engineer John Smith make the home-bound run back to Selma on a locomotive, but, sadly, in the baggage car.

A cook in the back of the restaurant was crushed to death under the collapsing building.  Colonel B. F. Elmire, the proprietor of Elmire’s, was himself injured when falling debris struck him heavily on the shoulders, fracturing his collar bone and leaving him unconscious with head trauma and internal injuries that would take his life two weeks later.  Ironically his death would be erroneously reported in the newspapers three days after the storm, but it would be retracted the following day.  When he finally succumbed to his injuries, the cyclone story was no longer interesting to the media and only his Meridian friends and relatives would know.

At the Grand Avenue Hotel, the news was initially a little better.  Although the destruction was complete and the hotel destroyed, none of the 30 guests or any employee was reportedly injured.  However, at the outset, J. M. Holt, the proprietor of the hotel, and his wife were having a conversation in the rear office of the hotel.  Suddenly, a huge piece of timber drawn into the maelstrom from some former structure, burst through the office window.  Passing between Mr. Holt and his wife, the timber embedded itself into the wall opposite.  Mr. and Mrs. Holt escaped unharmed and, even though it was initially reported that none of the guests was harmed, several bodies were later discovered in the wreckage of the two upper floors.

From the ruins of the nearby Meyer-Neville Hardware Company cries of the injured originated from beneath the wreckage as teams of rescuers worked to reach them.  Within a few moments the debris began to rise and fall as D. E. Bennett, an employee, extricated himself from the ruins, with only minimal assistance from the workers, and was hastily carried to a waiting wagon for transport to one of the city’s emergency hospitals.  He informed the working crews that there had been at least two others buried in the building.

A few minutes before Mr. Bennett had made his appearance on the surface, the crew had recovered the body of his friend and floor manager, Claude Williams.  He had been crushed to death by the collapse.  However, the cries of his colleague, Frank Woodruff, could still be heard and the team worked with renewed vigor to extricate him.

Woodruff was buried under two floors of debris and little hope was held of removing the wreckage completely in time to affect a rescue.  An ingenious and creative but dangerous new plan was devised by two of the team members.  A man, identified only as Gallaher, and a machinist of one of the nearby railroad shops, W. H. Hobbs, set about with a hammer, a small keyhole saw and a jack to tunnel their way to the trapped Woodruff.  As they proceeded through the debris, whenever they came to a piece of timber too large to be effectively cut with the small saw, the second man would jack the timber up far enough to have space to move underneath it and crib it in place with the cut pieces of lumber that they had dragged along with them.  When they reached Woodruff, they found him essentially unhurt except that his foot was pinioned beneath a large timber.  Jacking the timber off the foot, they removed him from the ruins the same way that they had come in.  Dangerous but effective, the rescue was complete.  Woodruff would later surrender three of his toes to gangrene but he would live on for years more because of the heroism of his two rescuers.

The body of Woodruff's friend, floor manager Claude Williams, was removed the following morning.  An odd story relating to Williams' death was published the following day.  When the rescuers finally reached Williams, it was discovered that his throat had been cut and he had exsanguinated.  The newspaper report suggested that Williams, pinned beneath the debris of the building, had exhausted himself crying out for help and when the team could not reach him immediately he lost all hope, committing suicide by slashing his own throat with his pen knife.  The story was blatantly untrue and clearly an attempt by some witless reporter to sensationalize the truth.

Remains of the Queen and Crescent Railroad freight depot.

In the days following the cyclone, it was demonstrated that Williams' throat had been slashed by shards of glass that flew inward when the pressure of the storm pushed in the large glass windows in the front of the building.

Among the first buildings on Front Street to go down was the Queen and Crescent Railroad freight depot.  There were 16 men on duty in the building when the storm struck and initial reports had them all listed as killed, buried beneath the rubble.  However, their mothers not having raised any fools, on seeing the storm approach, fifteen of them fled.  Unfortunately, they weren't heroes either, because the sixteenth man in the Queen and Crescent depot that day was a handicapped man named Charles Harris.  Harris was wheelchair bound and as the others fled the building, no one stopped to help Harris.  Harris may have lost the use of his legs but not the use of his brain.  Realizing that he would not be leaving the building, he moved his chair to a rear corner of the building away from the storm and lowered himself to the floor where he huddled as the storm blew over and the building came down around him.  When the storm had passed, he crawled out through the rear of the building and was found by the searchers minutes after the storm with only minor cuts and scratches.

Ironically, many of those who fled the building ended up in the emergency hospitals with broken bones and other minor injuries caused by having been thrown about by the winds or struck by debris.

In the eastern part of town, as daylight began to break, casting an eerie early morning glow across the horizon, illuminating the cloud cover with a ghostly light, a group of men on the outskirts of the Georgetown section were checking the nearby homes for damage.  Shortly after 5:00 A. M., one of them heard a faint sound that he thought might be an injured animal.  Investigating the noise, he entered the back yard of an adjacent structure where, in the center of the yard, he found a baby.  The infant was completely unharmed and was apparently just waking up from an early morning nap.  The baby was taken to the emergency hospital for an examination and eventually returned to Mr. and Mrs. Stewart.

When the dust settled, several key buildings were safe, like the Great Southern Hotel which had sustained only minor damage, and the Mobile and Ohio Railroad freight depot.  However, many other buildings of the district were completely destroyed.  These were brick structures of five, six and, at least one, of seven floors.

The Grand Avenue Hotel, an older brick building dating to antebellum times, had crumbled to a cracked brick and dust ruin.  An observer who was a guest of the Grand Avenue Hotel would later write to friends about the storm.  On the back of a postcard showing the former splendor of the city, he would intimate, “The Grand Avenue Hotel is now a brickyard.”  Across the street, the Culpepper Hotel had also collapsed.

The soldiers of a uniformed organization other than the Mississippi National Guard moved quietly among the victims that evening.  These soldiers of Christ were visiting representatives of a relatively new organization to the city.  The Salvation Army had established a meeting hall in Meridian and was busily administering to the needs of the city’s downtrodden and lost.  Major J. M. Berriman and his wife, along with an Ensign Widgery of Atlanta, were visiting the area which was normally under the charge of the local minister, a Captain Downs.   They had planned a meeting in the local hall for that evening but soon discovered that they were needed elsewhere.

On returning to Atlanta, Ensign Widgery spoke to a representative of The Constitution.  He said:

“I have been in the Salvation Army work all of my life and have been thrown with suffering on many occasions, but that particular night in Meridian must remain in my memory in a dark place all its own.”

A large piece of timber, thrown by the storm, had crashed into the roof of their meeting hall.  The weight of the timber was such that it not only penetrated the roof but also crushed the structure.  The Army had set up shop in the Meridian Florence Crittenton Home, then, as now, a benevolent organization primarily concerned with the care of unwed mothers and troubled teens.  There they had been caring for the victims from Georgetown and the cotton mill district.

Having received permission from both the Meridian Police and Colonel McCants of the National Guard, the “Salvationists”, as they were called, entered the cordoned areas where the most damage had been wrought.   Widgery reported:

“It was very pitiful to see some of the injured among the debris, but so far away that an hour or more was required in getting to them.  Their suffering was terrible and there were many who asked for us to pray for them, which, of course, we were very glad indeed to do.  …Many thought that they were going to die instantly and the ‘God bless you’s’ which they returned for our prayers were of the kind that came directly from the heart and no mistake.”

These Christian soldiers were of great help to the relief efforts.  They had received not only spiritual training but had also been given extensive first aid training and instruction in what we would call today, "triage".  They were able to render aid to those who had only minor injuries as well as routing those most in need directly to the emergency hospitals and surgeons.

In the final count, nearly 40 businesses buildings were destroyed.  The Armour Packing Plant had been left standing but the roof was gone.  The Tom Lyle Grocery Company was leveled.  The final value of the destruction, after bouncing between $5,000,000 and $500,000, settled in, officially, at $1,250,000.  Of the business destroyed, only five had any form of insurance at all, and, among the five, the total amount of insurance was a very inadequate $67,000.  Outside of the businesses destroyed or damaged, more than 500 residences had been leveled.

On assessing the damage, the Meridian Light and Power Company estimated that it would take approximately ten days to repair the damage and to restore power to the residents

Another observer, present during the maelstrom, F. M. Struts of Washington, Missouri, gave one of the few eyewitness accounts when he arrived in Mobile, Alabama, the following day.  In his vivid account he reported:

“I was in the dining room of the Southern Hotel when the death-dealing wind struck the city.  Late in the afternoon I noticed dark clouds hovering around the city and the humidity was very trying.  Shortly after 6:15 o’clock a terrible-looking cloud could be observed bounding out from the southwest toward the city.  This was followed by a down-pour of rain and then, with a rush and a noise that struck terror to the stoutest hearts, the tornado descended upon that portion of the city near the passenger station.

“It came toward the city from the southwest, following the railroad tracks which passed through Meridian, along Front Street.  The noise was terrible.  Among the first buildings to go down was the electric lighting plant, and the city was thrown into a stifling darkness.  Confusion reigned.  People were panic-stricken and rushed into the streets from every direction.

“To add to the terror of the night fire started out in various parts of the ruined district.  Vandalism was also soon apparent, and to keep back persons who were frenzied with grief over missing friends and relatives, the local militia was called out by the Mayor.  A cordon of armed men was thrown around the ruined business district.  Lamps, candles, and lanterns were pressed into service by those engaged in the work of rescue.”

Mr. Struts’ account is chilling and, generally, on the mark.  However, given the confusion that he observed in the aftermath, it is understandable that he might have mistaken what he thought was vandalism for attempts by the rescuers to remove those objects that hindered their efforts.  The Commander of the Mississippi National Guard task force, Colonel William McCants, who cordoned and protected the scene within hours of the destruction, released the following statement on the fifth of March:

“Never in my years of military experience have I observed before, the entire absence of vandalism and ghoulish acts which usually follow on the heels of a like disaster.  Not a single instance of this character has been reported or observed.”

Although no vandalism was reported, the National Guard units, seven in all, did experience some “internal” problems.  On March sixth, a National Guardsman, Private D. G. Jones was stabbed by another guardsman, Private Arthur Stokes, with a bayonet.  It’s difficult to know which of the many bayonets used by the Army was in service with the Guard at the time but the M-1905 bayonet was nearly sixteen inches long and its predecessor was a triple edged tool of a similar length.  Either way this would have been a terrible wound.  The story behind this incident was not disclosed.

After the storm passed seven companies of the Mississippi National Guard were called in to cordon off the devastated areas.

Further, a Sergeant Quintley somehow managed to shoot himself in the abdomen.  The two soldiers were reported to be recuperating slowly and, presumably, both survived their injuries.  However, through these two unfortunate incidents we learn that the National Guard was standing watch over the city, having been issued live ammunition and with bayonets fixed.  This in itself would have been more than sufficient to deter reckless behavior on the part of the citizens and lends great credibility to Colonel McCants' assertion that no acts of vandalism had occurred.

Apparently, all citizens of the city and all National Guardsmen survived the brief occupation of the Guard.  The withdrawal of the Guard began five days after the storm on March 7, 1906.  Although some newspapers reported that martial law had been declared, such was not the case.  Law enforcement was conducted by the Meridian Police Department while the National Guard performed a security function.  The federal government would have been prohibited from declaring martial law under the “Posse Comitatus Act of 1878,” and the Governor had ordered that a “state of emergency” existed in the area, thus allowing the participation of the Guard under his supervision.

By late on the evening of March third, twenty-four bodies had been recovered from the wreckage and fifty-three had been reported injured.  The actual property damage, a conservative estimate at the time, was $1,000,000.

A view of the damage.  In the distance can be seen the Railroad YMCA building sans the top floor and a portion of the lower floor.

Those businesses that had assessed and reported their damage were:

Meyer-Neville Hardware reported $100,000 lost in the building and $150,000 in stock.  This building was the tallest, at seven stories, in the city.  The Meridian Cement Company was reported as a total loss valued at $250,000.  The Grand Avenue Hotel, consisting of two buildings, one on twenty-second avenue and a second on Grand Avenue, reported total damage in the amount of $50,000.  Thomas Lyle Hardware, four stories, reported $35,000 in the building and $40,000 in stock.  Elmire’s Hotel and Restaurant reported two stories damaged with a loss of $10,000.  The Culpepper Hotel lost the two top floors and reported damage amounting to $15,000.  The building was three stories tall.  The loss at the Railroad YMCA was $15,000.  The New Orleans and Northeastern Railroad Freight Depot Building was partially damages, with no estimate available.  The Meridian Cotton Oil Company was destroyed as was the Cotton State Lumber Company.  The largest loss at the C. M. Rubush Lumber Company was the stock which was valued at $150,000.

The financial loss of the businesses in the wholesale district was calculable but the loss in human suffering and life was not.  Bloodied but not beaten, Meridian would rise, like the mythical Phoenix, from the ashes of the maelstrom.  She would rise in the freshness of youth to become a paragon of peerless beauty and efficiency.  The city's entrepreneur's, government and fine hard-working citizens of the community would lovingly tend her wounds and nurse her until the Queen finally raised her head again, proud and defiant.

Continue to Part 5:  The Long Morning After

Review Businesses Damaged List

Review Deceased and Injured List

Return to Part 3:  The Storm Strikes

 

Page Last Updated:   Thursday, 27 April 2017

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