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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 Three

The Storm Strikes

A

bout seven miles southwest of the city the disturbance was passing over the low ridge of hills to the west of the Okatibbee Creek valley.  Perhaps with the assistance of a mild thermal updraft of warm air originating from the western slopes of this ridge line, the storm lowered its angry talons to the earth.  Sleek, sinuous, and sinister the black, swirling maelstrom gouged the earth angrily.  This first impact of storm and earth scored the land, uprooting and ripping apart trees and casting them about as if their massive size and weight were nothing.  The violence scoured the rich fertile soil of the valley along a path two hundred yards wide and a mile in length.  But the tornado apparently could find no firm purchase in the earth below and soon lifted.  The warm drafts of the windward side of the ridge having abated, the storm began to turn following the unobstructed floor of the valley, moving slowly, steadily to the east, the Sand Hill Mountians, and the City of Meridian.

Within moments the storm was observed passing a mile west of Arundel Springs, beginning a turn that would take it farther toward the city.  In the community of Meehan Junction, several buildings collapsed.  This was initially blamed on the tornado but the theory was disproven as subsequently other causes were assigned to the destruction.  The actual path of the storm had passed well to the southeast of Meehan Junction.

Perhaps the slopes of Mount Barton itself provided the final updraft that tipped the rolling, churning mass of air once again to the vertical, pushing the leeward end toward the surface.  The vast primeval pine forest that dressed the rising slopes of Mount Barton and the Sand Hill Mountains was, by now, cloaked in darkness as was the city, but the storm needed no light, only heat.  Reaching earthward, the vortex bore down upon the streets of Meridian toward her unprepared and unsuspecting citizens.

The interaction of the warm rising air had revived the storm and sent the characteristic funnel-shaped vortex dropping toward the earth.  Now, approaching Meridian from the west-southwest, the storm once again sunk its’ angry, mighty talons into the land.  This time they bit the soil hard and stuck.

The Sand Hill Mountains had been thought to serve as a natural barrier, sentinels protecting the city, but this storm apparently aware of the guards to the south, had skirted the hills to the west, charging freely up the Okatibee Creek valley, looping back upon the town as if directed by some unseen, malevolent hand.  The storm roared across the Sowashee valley, which was also unexpected, without a pause.   The cyclone, it was expected, should have followed the path of least resistance, turning to the east or back to the west in the smooth level valley of the Sowashee.  If this was the case, no one had told the storm.

Its long journey nearing its end, the tornado again found solid purchase in the earth and, although the great, airborne portion of the vortex zigzagged over the country side, giving the appearance that the storm was bouncing and bounding the way across the land, the tip of the vortex bounced only once, briefly, before sticking finally to the ground for the long, pernicious run through Meridian.

The first building destroyed was in the county, the city limits not yet having been breached, as the storm approached Meridian.  A farmer’s barn one mile west-southwest of the city limits was completely destroyed, flattened and dispersed by the wind.  After this the vortex bounced once, lifting only a useless few feet, then dropping back to stick fast upon the land.  The path of destruction would be virtually continuous through the city to the east end and beyond.

Only the Meridian Fertilizer Factory’s plant on the edge of town now stood between the tornado and the city.  The swirling malevolent spirit took no heed.  With crackling arcs of electricity filling the sky, the fury leveled the buildings and went hastily upon its way without as much as a backward glance.  It was here that the Grim Reaper first appeared to begin collecting the souls of devastation.

Turning eastward the storm crossed the New Orleans and Northeastern Railroad and the Alabama and Vicksburg Railroad tracks.  The vortex collided with the Fewell Survey section of town, devastating the small homes and railroad shops in that section before snaking its way back to the northeast to the Mobile and Ohio tracks.

As if puzzled by the strange configuration of railroad tracks or somehow attracted to them, the storm studied them intently and traveled, as if it were a locomotive itself, along the tracks for a few hundred yards, its winds whipping and toppling the structures nearby.  The vortex pitched freight cars well clear of the tracks, landing them, some upright, some on their sides near the right-of-way and overturned five passenger cars breaking, for good measure, every window in them.

Along the way the storm found the Meridian Light and Power Company generating plant and, without hesitation, unroofed it.  As it passed, the winds swirled among the power delivery cables associated with the plant and destroyed them, plunging the entire city into nearly complete blackness.  Unable to topple the great chimney that carried the spent gases and combustion by-products high above the city, the storm took its frustrations out upon the natural gas storage tanks adjacent to the plant that had provided the fuel to heat the boilers.  These were buffeted by the high winds and, at one point during the passing, were lifted up entirely.  But the weight of the heavy tank and hold of the connecting fittings were too much for the storm and, again, it moved on.  The damage caused there had the effect not only of shutting down the power plant fully but also of interrupting service for the city’s gaslight systems, dealing a final blow to any hope of light.  The blackness was complete; darkness would reign supreme for the duration of the storm's transit of the city.

Continuing along the railroad tracks and veering gradually to the north, the storm continued its’ destruction.  It unroofed the freight depots of two of Meridian’s railroads beginning on the First Street side and continued its’ destruction moving over the buildings between First and Front Street.  In the process the buildings of many of Meridian’s premier wholesale establishments were destroyed including the entire seven-story Thornton Transfer and Storage building, uncharacteristically crushed as if some great fist from above had driven straight down through the building.

At Twenty-Second Avenue the storm increased its fury as it dropped onto Front Street and began its greatest level of destruction, flattening and completely destroying nearly every building within two city blocks on either side of its path.  As if focusing its’ energy, the lowest point of the vortex had reduced sharply to the point where observers remarked that the “tip of the cone was so small and sharp that it could not have been more than six inches wide at its base.” 

Nearby a young Meridian man named Will Ethridge stepped from cover and into the street.  Perhaps he was attempting to move to a safer place, or perhaps he was merely curious.  In any event, the winds on the periphery of the vortex snatched at Ethridge and gaining hold, lifted him from the ground, drawing him closer to the swirling mass on Front Street.  He traveled airborne as the storm clutched and grabbed at him for more than a hundred yards; then, as the vortex passed farther down Front Street, he was quickly lowered to the ground.  Dropping the last several feet, he landed standing and immediately dashed to the lee of the nearest structure uninjured.

The storm followed on, eastward on Front Street, leveling buildings as it went and, chasing a loaded passenger train out of town, passed out of the downtown area.

Minutes, perhaps only seconds, ahead of the great vortex, the regularly scheduled Alabama and Great Southern passenger train began to move out of Union Station, slowly building speed for the long run to Birmingham.  Perhaps hearing the commotion behind, the engineer may have looked back and seeing the vortex raging barely a hundred yards away, poured on the steam, encouraging the hard pulling locomotive to make haste lest she be destroyed and his passengers and cargo with her.  The trailing passenger cars were buffeted by the storm winds and as the cars rocked back and forth wildly on the tracks, many of the passengers dropped to their knees and began praying earnestly for deliverance and safety.  The locomotive, as if somehow aware of the danger, began to increase her acceleration. The black smoke pouring from her funnel, moved horizontally and with speed, back into the maelstrom.  She pulled away from the storm but not before the vortex drew close enough for the swirling debris to shatter nearly all the windows in the last two cars.  Hours later, when the train reached Birmingham, many of the passengers were understandably still shaken, some still in prayer.

At this point reports differ slightly.  Some say that the great storm hopped, as neatly as you please, over the Union Station causing little damage.  This seems unlikely.  However, while it is certainly true that the vortex moved to the left and right of its path, and that the Union Station was spared extensive damage, there are hundreds of stories about tornadoes causing much damage in some areas but no damage at all only a few yards away.  This is the most likely scenario here.  The barrel-tile roof of the station did provide projectiles that contributed to the damage of the adjacent structures, so there is little doubt that the Union Station was, in part, damaged.

                Just to the east of the wholesale and railroad districts of the city but well within the city limits, the terrain to the north of the streets begins to rise.  The land to the south of this point falls off slightly.  The rising terrain is the leading edge of Lindley Hill which would continue to rise to the north, just past this point the storm again began to turn.  Entering the mill section of town, apparently not yet having expended all of its’ energy, the storm leveled the Meridian Cotton Mill, as well as a number of smaller mills and factories in the area.  The winds scattered thousands of dollars worth of raw and processed cotton as well as other wood and vegetable products across the county.  Then, continuing to the northeast, tore into the Georgetown section of town seemingly with vengeance.

As the storm blew into Meridian’s east end, it brushed closely past the homes of Mrs. Singleton and Cap’n Billy.  A few blocks away, Meridian resident James Stewart stood on his front porch mesmerized as the danger approached, frightened but unable to look away, apparently unable to move.  In his arms was his infant son.   Perhaps Mrs. Stewart shouted for him to take cover or he at last realized the danger.  Whatever the case, Stewart turned to go indoors.  At that moment, a burst of wind snatched the infant from his arms and carried it away.  The baby rose a hundred feet into the air before disappearing into the darkness and swirling debris in the east.

Georgetown was a mill section of small, poorly built homes, populated for the most part by poor black members of the community.  These workers and their families made their living in the mills and had built whatever structures they could to be near their places of employment.  While not quite hovels, there were a number of inexpensively-built but well-constructed homes in the area, sometimes referred to as a “shanty town” by the newspapers.  These often stood alongside the more hastily-constructed shelters of the very poor.  Nevertheless the storm flattened the community and, almost immediately, fires flared up in the untreated pine lumber.

The maelstrom reached out an angry arm and as if somehow expressing its contempt for all things holy, pushed in the south wall of a small, black Methodist Church a few blocks away.  The south wall falling inward upon the pews and dais of the building gave the winds access to the inner walls of the sanctuary.  Immediately the force of the hard blowing winds pushed the three remaining walls outward and the roof of the building came crashing down upon the remains.  The church was mercifully empty.

Unknowing or uncaring the vortex continued on, scouring the earth to the limits of the city in the northeast and two miles beyond.  The small town of Marion now lay directly in its path.  But as the storm bore down on the suburb, its greatest intensity now exhausted and its work in Meridian at last finished, the vortex lifted from the earth and whipping, first right then left from its track, in some unearthly wave of farewell, receded into the clouds.  Although there was some damage in the county and on the outskirts of the small town, Marion had been spared.

From its touchdown south of the city, to the end the storm had ripped a path of varying width from 100 to 600 yards and eleven miles in length.  The official, although perhaps less than accurate, death toll was reported to be twenty-four dead and forty-six injured.  There was more than a million dollars in damage to Meridian’s businesses.  Following in the wake of the tornado, a torrential downpour of rain began and lasted for thirty minutes and the winds subsided from the sixty-five miles per hour reported by the weather service to thirty, then fifteen, then five.

The weather service for the city was located in the Post Office building on the northeast corner of Eighth Street and Twenty-Second Avenue in downtown Meridian, six blocks away from the unimaginable intensity of the vortex.  Many of the newspapers of the time also reported that the maximum winds of the storm were between sixty-five and seventy-five miles per hour.  Nothing could have been further from the truth.

In the days and weeks following the event, the weather service conducted a study, a careful scientific procedure that would eventually become known as a damage assessment survey.  They found devastating damage along the entire path of the storm.  Well-constructed brick and mortar businesses had been leveled to the ground.  The Union Station that had been built in the Mission Revival Style popular during the era was roofed with heavy terracotta barrel tiles, fashioned from the local clay, some of which had become deadly missiles in the strong winds.  The yards of the C. M. Rubush Lumber Company, the premier builder in the area and the largest lumber supplier in east Mississippi, had been stripped of all stock.  Eight by eight inch and twelve by twelve inch pieces of lumber as much as sixteen feet long were scattered for miles across the county and embedded in nearby buildings.  Some well-built homes, especially in the southwestern part of the city, had disappeared entirely, leaving only the footing blocks of the foundations with a few homes marked by only empty lots, the remaining dusty squares of ground the only indications that a house had once stood there.

The railroad cars, scattered about, littering the railroad right-of-way, were also assessed as was the tree damage.  While it was true that many trees were overturned and others broken with sheared and twisted trunks remaining, a telling fact was that in many places the only remains of huge oak trees hundreds of years old, were empty holes, ten feet deep, twelve or fourteen feet in diameter where a trees had once stood.  There was destruction seldom seen, even in the most devastating storms.

Finally, several months after the fact and of little interest to the newspapers of the time, the Weather Service published a report.  On the more well-known Fujita scale, still in use until recently, the storm rated an F4.  By this definition the wind speed in the vortex was estimated to be between 207 and 260 miles per hour.  Just slightly more than one percent of all tornadoes occurring receive this rating.

Meridian had survived a struggle with a worthy opponent and, while for the moment she was down, she was not out.  Next came the aftermath.

 

Continue to Part Four:  The Aftermath

Review Businesses Damaged List

Review Deceased and Injured List

Return to Part Two:  The Tragedy Begins

 

Page Last Updated:   Tuesday, 28 March 2017

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