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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 Two

The Tragedy Begins

M

eridian continued her growth into the opening decade of the twentieth century.  New businesses opened almost daily and, of course, many businesses were already established concerns of long standing.  The Dement Printing Company presses were toiling away, just as they do today.  The Soule Steam Feed works had been in existence for some time and the wonderful aroma of Niolon coffee suffused the city’s streets.  The United States Weather Bureau had long ago started studying and recording the planet’s meteorology, and Meridian had her own local office of this service.

As the meteorologist would tell us, the word cyclone is no longer in common use today.  It continues, however, to apply to swiftly circling winds.  In earlier days the word was used to refer to a large number of storm types, nearly all of them terrible.  In application the term was used to describe hurricanes, tornadoes, dust devils, waterspouts and on and on.  The term, is now archaic when referring to a tornado, but it had its origins in the Greek word Kyklon, which loosely translated means "revolving."  The term was in more general use during the events of March 2, 1906.

The Federal Building circa 1907.  Located on the northwest corner of Eight Street and Twenty-Second Avenue it was home to the Meridian Post Office. The Weather Bureau was located on the third floor of this building.

Late on the evening of March 1, 1906, the weather service began to report that a large low pressure system, recently formed, was making its’ way slowly across the country.  The leading edge of the system was in the south, the northern edge was pushing along through the central United States.  In the city, there had been, for several days, a steady inflow of warm air, originating over the Gulf of Mexico and pushing inland.  Having reached Meridian and surrounding counties, the warm air mass had affected the ambient temperature of the city, pushing it into a range well above that normal for the locality at this time of year.  Unfortunately, the news concerning these two conflicting meteorological events wouldn’t be learned by the citizens of the city until the evening papers were published the following evening.  Even if the significance were recognized, by then it would be too late.

When the morning dawned at 6:22 A. M. on March 2, 1906, a heavy wet mist lay over the city like a shroud and a drizzling rain had begun to fall.  The sky was fully overcast as the drizzle fell from the low lying cloud layer, dampening the streets but barely settling the dust in the outlying areas.  The temperature was fully ten degrees above normal and was beginning to rise.

In Meridian’s East End at 1209 5th Street, Cap’n Billy was already awake and had been so for over an hour.  He was moving about the home as his wife, Margaret Ann, sometimes called Margarette by the family, was arousing the children who remained at home, for the new day.

 Thomas M. White, one of Cap’n Billy’s older sons, was waiting for his father in another room of the house.  Tom had joined his father on the city fire department a few years earlier before he had left his parents' home and married Miss Annie May Knighton, formerly of Choctaw County, Alabama.  Tom and Annie lived a few blocks away at 1422 14th avenue.  Today was their second wedding anniversary.  In an hour he and his father would walk together to the Gen Company Number 5 fire station several blocks to the north and begin their day's work.

In the west end, where the city limits came to an abrupt stop atop the eighth street hill at Fortieth Avenue, William R. Nelson was also preparing for the day.  Nelson lived at 3901 8th Street, only a block away from one of the city’s main cemeteries, Rose Hill.  He lived with his wife Mary and four of their eight children.  Nelson had made his career in law enforcement.  At the turn of the century he had been the city marshal.  When the Police Department was organized, he was one of a small number of citizens to serve as Chief of Police in the first decade of the twentieth century.  Nelson was fifty years old; his wife Mary was forty-six.  They had been married for twenty-six years and had given birth to eight children.

Although still a relatively young man but apparently feeling his years, Nelson had left the police department five years earlier in 1901 when Chief W. M. Bloodsworth was hired.  Perhaps the rigors of the job had finally gotten to him and he needed a rest or perhaps Meridian just wanted someone else in the job.  Whichever the case, he had accepted a much less stressful position, but doing something that he loved to do, working with the horses in the Thornton Transfer Stable and Livery.

A few blocks back toward the east, at 819 28th avenue, Meridian police officer James P. Tarry was also preparing for the day.  Tarry and his wife Georgia were long-time residents of the city.  Before joining the police department, he had worked for the railroad at the Union Depot.  He may have been well pleased with working for the city.  He was one of 15 city police officers and he was paid every payday, just as it should be, his earned share of his $660 per year salary.  He and Nelson had been friends for many years.  This afternoon, after his shift, he would stop in and visit, perhaps briefly, with his old friend as he often did, at Thornton’s.

The three set about the daily duties of their jobs without further thought to the increasingly threatening skies overhead.  Perhaps, since it was a Friday, they were considering what they would do with the half-day that they would have off tomorrow.  The city had embraced the 44-hour work week years earlier.

The intermittent rain that fell throughout the day was nothing more than an inconvenience to the men as they moved around the city.  More discomforting was the temperature.  Shortly after lunch the ambient temperature had risen to a balmy 69 degrees but the humidity made the atmosphere feel oppressive and the stiff, cold breeze that was blowing from the southwest seemed to chill them to the bone.

About 2:30 in the afternoon, three farmers examining their fields in Jasper County, well southwest of the city, reported seeing an ominous-looking cloud formation.  The multifarious nebula, observed through a break in the lower layers of cover, were huge rolling formations of dark, almost black clouds.  They were reported to have had a greenish tinge to them and had pelted the men with marble-sized hail briefly before soaking both the farmers and their fields in a momentary, drenching, hard rain.  Within a few minutes the formation had quickly moved off to the northeast.  The skies appeared to clear slightly but the lingering light rain continued for several hours.  One of the farmers said that he had never seen anything like it.  The clouds appeared to be moving in several directions at once, roiling and churning around inside while the entire formation moved quickly through the area “like it had an appointment and was rushing to catch a trolley car.”

By about 5:00 P. M. the day was beginning to end for many Meridian residents.  With a few exceptions, most of the passenger trains had run, and the railroad was beginning the shift changes in the yards.  Patrick McGinnis, a local resident and engineer for the Mobile and Ohio Railroad, was finished for the day, and passing his engine to his relief worker, he sauntered across the street from the Union Depot to Elmire’s Restaurant.

The original Union Station building. 

                Although the depot was still technically under construction, enough had been completed so that it was already, for the most part, in service and had been receiving passenger traffic for some time.  The Meridian Terminal Company had envisioned a grand station for passengers arriving and departing from the city.  Meridian was now, as in the past, still built on the railroads.  This was true in several ways, not only was the city built because of the physical junctions of the railroad lines but, through the revenue generated by those lines and the commodities delivered and shipped from from them, the railroads provided the base funding on which the city had grown so rapidly.

Meridian’s association with the railroads began in the 1850s when the Mobile and Ohio and the Alabama and Vicksburg roads formed a junction at a place called Sowashie Station.  Because of these railroads, Meridian had become an important city and transportation hub during the Civil War.  Federal General William T. Sherman thought to put a stop to the city’s shipping capability by destroying the rails in all directions from the city, in some places for as much as twelve miles.

He tore up the tracks, burned the crossties, and using the fire to heat the iron rails, wrapped them around trees.  After destroying the rails, he razed the city to the ground in February of 1864, and, his duty done, sent a telegram to his commander saying, “…Meridian no longer exists.”

                But the undaunted citizens of the area, fiercely independent and driven by the anger of having their homes destroyed and their food and livestock stolen, set to the task that lay before them, and 28 days later Mobile and Ohio engines once again traversed the line.  By the turn of the twentieth century there were five major rail lines serving the city with more than 40 trains originating or passing through the city every day.

Elmire’s Restaurant was located on the ground floor of the two story Elmire’s Hotel on Front Street near the intersection of Nineteenth Avenue and had been managed for many years by Colonel B. F. Elmire who lived in the hotel.  He was assisted by his sister Ella who also made her home in the hotel above.

Within a few minutes, John R. Smith, an engineer for Southern Railway, also wandered in and joined McGinnis and the crowd in the busy restaurant.  Smith was fifty years old and was from Selma, Alabama,  where he lived with his wife, Millie.  Millie had been born in 1851 and they had been married for more than thirty years,  They had brought eight children into the world.  Of these, six were still alive and living in or near the home of their parents.  John Junior and his brother Samuel worked for the railroad like their father.  Their brother Arthur would soon be ready to join them, while sisters Minnie and Katie still helped Millie with the housework.

Cliff Edwards, a flagman for the Mobile and Ohio Railroad, had stopped by Elmire’s before heading home to 1007 23rd Avenue and his wife of more than 5 years, the former Miss Daisy Smith.

Back across the street at the Union Station, John Stewart, his son Clarence and a Mrs. B. Smith, all of Cottondale, in Sunflower County, Mississippi, waited patiently for their connecting train that would carry them farther into their journey.

A few blocks west, Claude Williams was wrapping up his day as a floor manager for the Meyer-Neville Hardware Company’s store.  Williams frequently stayed later than most at the store closing transactions and preparing for the next day.  He would soon be thinking about heading to his home at 2701 11th Avenue where he lived with his two sisters.

Nelson and Tarry had meet a few minutes earlier and had headed to Thornton’s Livery and Feed Stables on First Street, perhaps to examine some of the city’s horses or maybe just to sit and gab.

Meridian’s downtown had, for the most part, emptied.  There were a few hardy shoppers still on the streets, but most had left the commercial district as the stores began to close.  Families had begun to return home preparing for the evening meal.  There was still some activity in the wholesale district and around the railroads which were always busy except during the earliest hours of the morning.  The hotels near the wholesale district always did a booming trade because of the proximity of the railroads.  The Grand Avenue Hotel, which was, despite its name,  not actually anywhere near Grand Avenue but on twenty-second avenue and Front Street, and the Culpepper Hotel, just across the street were doing a brisk business as, of course, was the Elmire Restaurant.  The several freight depot offices farther down the street toward the railroad crossing at Twenty-Sixth Avenue were still collecting the shipments of the day and moving them inside the frame storage buildings, as were the employees at the main office of Thornton’s Transfer Company at 2211 Front Street, adjacent to the stables.

The freight offices and transfer companies of Front Street were the UPS and FedEx organizations of the day.  They received shipments from the railroads destined for final delivery to businesses in and around the city and either stored the crates for pickup or loaded them onto express wagons to be moved to the recipient stores and individuals.  The stalwart men who rode upon the wagons and wrestled with the sometimes difficult and headstrong teams that would move the freight to its final destination, were known as express drivers.  There were a large number of wagons and teams as well as drivers, sometimes two to the wagon, gathered on Front Street or already backed to the loading docks of the shippers loading their rigs for delivery.

Back in the east end of town, Mrs. J. W. Singleton was preparing for the return of her family after the long day.  Mrs. Singleton was the widow of John W. Singleton and lived at 514 12th Avenue with her daughter, named Ella after her mother; her son-in-law, an engineer for the railroad; and two grandchildren, Belle and Mackie.  Her youngest granddaughter, Mackie, age one, was at home with her.  Her neighbor, just around the corner on Fifth Street, was Capt’n Billy who was, just about then, ready to begin the walk home from the fire station.

Stepping out of the fire house, Cap’n Billy and Tom observed flashes of lightning as they turned down Twelfth Avenue, but continued on briefly.  A few minutes later they heard the roll of distant thunder from the southwest and as the meteorological activity increased, Cap’n Billy hesitated, wondering what was in store for the city.  Perhaps realizing that something very much out of the ordinary was about to occur, or forewarned by the portentousness of the oncoming cloud formation, he turned and walked back toward the fire house.

                The sun was setting and the cloud cover had darkened what should have been late afternoon skies prematurely.  A river of night had flowed quickly and quietly into the city.  Had the western skies not been obscured by the heavy clouds, the trailing edge of the sun would have still been visible.  By 5:20, night had fallen completely and the city was dark even though the national weather service had indicated that sunset would not occur for another 32 minutes.

                Whatever light may have been left in the day had been choked out of the sky by the increasing cloud cover.  The pall of darkness had become intense, as “intense as would be normal for a cloudy, moonless night.”  Some official reports of the era used the term “unnatural” to describe the absence of light so early in the evening.  There were only the twinkling of the city street lamps and the occasional sliver of light from a store window to illuminate the sidewalks downtown.  Some of the few pedestrians who remained on the streets reported that in areas where the street lights were not illuminated, it was extremely difficult to distinguish even the faces of those passing by.

 A few minutes later, at about 5:40, thunder was again heard rolling out of the southwest, a herald of a disaster yet to come.  The sense of wrongness felt by those observing the event was further heightened when the rapidly approaching, billowing clouds in the southwest reportedly took on a “yellowish green tinge that seemed to pulsate in different degrees of intensity.“

Within the next few minutes, at 6:05, an intermittent moderate rain began to fall and the wind whispered through the city streets, moving at a low but steady velocity toward the southwest.  Within a few moments the wind stopped completely, as did the rain.  Stillness pervaded the town and an eerie, inauspicious silence settled.  The occasional flashes of lightning from the storm front briefly cast a stroboscopic burst of intense blue-white light upon the streets, arresting any movement breaking the stillness.

Presently, the frequency of the lightning and associated thunder increased rapidly and the pungent smell of ozone permeated the air.  There were frequent flashes of what the weather service called “sheet lightning,” until about 6:20, when a sound resembling the noise made by a fast moving freight train came from the southwest.  The cacophony of nature became louder and louder, attaining a terrific roar as the maelstrom bore down upon the peaceful city.  At 6:24 P. M. the greatest disaster of the twentieth century would strike the city.

Continue to Part 3:  The Storm Strikes

Return to Part 1:  Meridian As It Was

 

Page Last Updated:   Tuesday, 28 March 2017

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