Tag Archives: Colleague

“Under the Rule of the Storm King:” Pittsburgh Tornado, July 4, 1878

If you are a regular reader of Eleventh Stack, I wonder if you’ve noticed how often the folks who work here are amazed at what they find in the Carnegie Library?   Personally, I frequently feel that I stumble on things that are not only amazing but things which I would have never expected.

Perhaps “stumble” isn’t the correct word, though I can think of a time or two when I literally stumbled on the unexpected.  A few months back, one of my colleagues showed me something that she discovered that I found truly astonishing.  In this case, it wasn’t so much the information that she found, which was fascinating enough and makes up the main subject of this particular post, but the form in which she found it.  More on this in a moment.

I’ve been a Pittsburgher for nigh on 20 years and I’ve experienced many an incredible event here.  Surviving last winter, for one.   I also was here for a Pittsburgh tornado; I remember the particularly sickly blend of greenish/yellow that pervaded the atmosphere that evening and was very grateful that I had a sturdy roof over my head.

Often I’ve heard people say that tornadoes don’t touch down in Pittsburgh.  But, though infrequent, they in fact do.  One deadly one hit the Pittsburgh area on July 4th 1878, 132 years ago.  And, here, due to serendipity, is how we found out.

My colleague was searching in the stacks for something when she saw a tier of unusual (for a library) looking books: oversized, no spine labels, uncatalogued, looking for all the world like a collection of old fashioned ledgers placed on a shelving rack for future disposition.  Which, as it turned out,  is precisely what they were.    She selected one at random and brought it down to the office to try and determine what exactly they were.  Here is a photo of part of the collection:

And here is the individual volume:

Click photos to enlarge

After doing considerable leg work, we determined that what you are now looking at is a photo of an entry from a daily journal of a Pittsburgh Weather observer for 1878.  This collection of handwritten journals runs from 1850 through the 1940’s and was produced under various agencies throughout the years.

The Weather Bureau was established in 1870 within the Department of War and was assigned to the U.S. Army Signal Corps.   Previous to that, the weather was recorded first by Post Offices throughout the country, then by Army Medical Surgeons.  During the country’s expansion west, observations were used as a form of weather prediction, for both civilian and military purposes; stations up wind sent notice on to the next station, largely via telegraph, as to what was heading their way.  A network of observation stations, many of which were staffed by volunteers, was coordinated by weather pioneer, James Pollard Espy.

In 1837, Espy obtained money from the Pennsylania legislature to equip weather watchers in each county with barometers, thermometers, and rain gauges.  He went on to become the first chief of the national weather service.   The agency was later transferred from War to the Department of Agriculture, then the Department of Commerce.  It was renamed the National Weather Service in 1967, and now resides under the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration).

The reason we “stumbled on” the information about the tornado is that there was a very yellowed, disintegrating newspaper clipping, as pictured above, tucked in the page of the journal we were inspecting.  It had been placed in the book at the entry for the date, July 4th, 1878.   From the journal entry and clipping, we went on to find information in various newspaper resources and actually found the original article from the Pittsburgh Daily Telegraph, in decidedly better condition, and the headline from which this post takes its title.  With some further legwork, we found via ancestry.com, this article which describes in full what happened at Ross Grove (which is the present-day O’Hara Township/Aspinwall area)  7 miles northeast of the city.  The information in the article is a composite of material taken from the Pittsburgh Daily Post, the Pittsburgh Evening Chronicle, the Pittsburgh Commercial Gazette, and the diary of H. J. Heinz.  My colleague also found a recounting in the New York Times from the Daily Telegraph article.  In addition, the event is listed in the massive compendium, Significant Tornadoes, 1680-1991.

Besides the articles listed above, there is a succinct summation of the events of that fateful day in The Pennsylvania Weather Book:

July 4, 1878: Sunday School Tragedy

Another weather disaster struck on the Fourth of July, four years to the day after the Lewistown tornado.  The storm swept over the city of Pittsburgh, causing localized flooding.  A number of buildings were struck by vicious lightning, resulting in “great damage” but no fatalities.  Twelve miles above Pittsburgh, a flash flood claimed three lives at Sandy Creek Village, where a house was washed away in the storm runoff.

Another tragedy developed at a picnic in the community of Ross Grove, about seven miles northeast of Pittsburgh.  Either a tornado or possibly a downburst struck the area where a Sunday School picnic was under way around 3:00 P.M.  A large tree smashed into a wagon, killing seven children and adults.  Press accounts indicated sixteen others were injured, some seriously.  Flash floods several miles away took another five lives.

A full and interesting account, containing details which found their way into the Telegraph article, comes from the above journal entry for the 4th of July, 1878 by G. W. Hay, the Army Signal Corps observer in the Pittsburgh station. The station, according to the City Directory for 1878-1879, was located at 55 Fifth Avenue (the previous year’s directory, 1877-1878, locates the office as “room 18, First National Bank Building“).  The typical weather journal entry throughout the book for any given day was 3 or 4 lines, stating the winds, barometric readings, and general temperature (3 of these typical entries, for July 1st, 2nd, and 3rd, may be seen in the photo at the top of the page).   All the entries are in black ink in fine script, which is only occasionally hard to decipher.  The entry for July 4th, 1878 runs an uncharacteristic 32 lines, covering two pages,with marginal one or two word summations done in mauve ink.  Here is a transcription of that entry which is pictured above, complete with the occasional grammatical error:

Light to brisk easterly winds slightly higher barometer and stationary temperature.  Warm partly cloudy weather during the morning followed during the afternoon by a very destructive thunder, rain, and wind storm [in the margin, next to this line is written in mauve ink “Tornado”]. the rain com [commenced?] falling at 3:05 P.M. accompanied by unusually heavy thunder and lightning, the rain fell in torrents from 3:05 until about 5:00 P.M. and lightly from then to 7:35 P.M.  Amount of percipitation 2.80 in. The highest velocity of wind at this plateau [?] 30 miles at 3:30 P.M. At Ross Grove, about 8 miles up the West Penn Road a picnic was in progress when the storm struck the grove, a number of large sugar trees were blown down killing 7 and wounding 18 persons including men, women & children.  The Cosmos Oil Works on the Allegheny Valley RR [indecipherable] of the city limits was struck by lightning and burned loss about $25,000.  On Sandy Creek about 12 miles up the Allegheny the flood swept away a house belonging to a man named Connor [in margin in mauve ink “Family Drowned”]. The house was occupied by five persons all of whom were lost.  The storm was local and the damage done was all within from 15 to 20 miles of the city. besides [sic] the damage notes above there were several bridges and houses and barns struck by lightning and burned residences flooded etc.  The barometer at the station rose slightly during the progress of the storm but fell again immediately afterward.

Foul weather sunset – verified

This collection of one-of-a-kind local meteorological journals is an example of materials the Library has over the last 4 years been able to turn its attention to as a result of special preservation grants from a variety of agencies, including the Carnegie Corporation, state legislators, individual memorial gifts, and a number of Pittsburgh foundations.  The donors’ collective generosity is targeted to preserving and storing local gems such as the Craig Papers, the Art folio collection, and others.  This unique collection of local weather data, so fastidiously recorded day in and day out, year after year, in longhand, by individuals dedicated to the art and science not only of weather but of history itself is, indeed, another gem in the Carnegie collection.

– Don (& colleague)

PS. In case you didn’t hear, another infrequent natural occurrence was felt in Western PA just last week – an earthquake.


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