'Tornado - take cover!'

Whether winter, spring or summer, twisters frightful

Pieces of the Past column by Jim Reis

The wind howled, boards and shingles flew through the air and people scrambled for shelter.

The year could have been 1884, 1925 or 1952; the month could have been February, April or July. In each case, nature unleashed her fury on Northern Kentucky.

One of the more destructive tornadoes ever to hit Kentucky struck in February 1884. Some 800 people in several states were killed in that storm.

The following is a closer look at that and other notable twisters.

Feb. 20, 1857 : Accounts say a tornado raced across Bracken County about five miles southwest of Augusta before crossing the Ohio River and touching down on the Ohio side. Several buildings and barns were knocked down and much damage was reported.

April 25, 1878 : Dr. Edward B. Orr was still a young man of about 26 years when he unexpectedly died at his home in Alexandria. An account in the Newport Local newspaper gave no cause for his death, but said he was a man of 'marked ability' and that his loss would be hard to fill. Orr was from a family of physicians as his father, John Orr, and a brother, Thomas S. Orr, also were doctors.

Funeral services for Edward Orr were nearing completion when a violent wind ripped through Alexandria. Four large windows in Methodist Church South were blown out and the hearse of Buning and Erschell Undertakers flipped over. No injuries were reported.

Edward Orr's misfortunes apparently did not end with his burial. Some two years later Cincinnati newspapers carried stories of grave robbers who dug up the grave of a young physician in Alexandria.

The Newport-based Kentucky State Journal newspaper said friends of Edward Orr were concerned and went to check the graveyard. The newspaper said the grave was checked and the 'hole found empty,' causing 'great excitement at the county seat.'

Feb. 19, 1884 : Skies over the southeastern United States were filled with tornadoes. An estimated 800 people were killed and damage widespread in Kentucky, Indiana, Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, North Carolina and South Carolina.

It's not clear what the damage was like in Northern Kentucky, because the cities here were already battling a large flood. The flood had peaked Feb. 14 at 71.1 feet and by Feb. 19 the cleanup was just beginning.

Subsequent accounts in the Kentucky State Journal reported several flood-damaged houses in Louisville blown over by high winds and coal barges swept away.

Locally it is hard to assess the wind damage as flood-damaged buildings were collapsing all along the river from Dayton to Ludlow. Relief efforts also were under way to feed, clothe and house the homeless.

A soup kitchen in Newport reportedly fed 15,000 the next day. Another 418 children were fed the same day by the Jewish Relief Fund.

The Kentucky State Journal said two thieves caught stealing coal from a barge on Front Street in Newport received 'a good ducking' in the river as their punishment.

The 1884 flood proved to the second largest in local history, second only to the 1937 flood of 79.99 feet. As a result, any damage caused by the wind storm likely was considered minimal.

April 1895 : The exact date is not clear, but the Kentucky State Journal reported April 5, 1895, that earlier that month a cyclone had struck part of Boone County.

The writer added that the storm took residents by surprise.

The force of the wind was such that a heavy wagon was carried two miles from its original place. Several houses were reported damaged.

The writer added, however, 'Yet amid all the destruction it is pleasant to record that while some of the residents were injured, not a life was destroyed.

July 7, 1915: The tornado hit at 9:26 p.m. St. Joseph Church at 12th and Greenup streets, Covington, was extensively damaged. The front of the C&O Railroad office at 14th and Madison was blown away. Roofs were ripped off homes in the 1200 block of Scott Street. Stables were knocked down at Latonia Race Track. The C&O bridge over the Licking River was dislodged from its piers. And that was just the beginning.

People were missing and many communities were cut off from outside contact.

In Newport the streetcar barn was damaged, as was the Hippodrome Theater and the Airo Theater, both on Monmouth Street. Steeples were blown off or damaged on Immaculate Conception, St. Paul's Episcopal and Grace Methodist-Episcopal churches in Newport.

In Bellevue at least 25 homes lost their roofs.

In the Erlanger-Elsmere area at least one person was killed when a house collapsed.

Accounts said more than 1,000 buildings were damaged.

March 18, 1925 : Dayton was the hardest hit locally as high winds ripped apart electric lines, causing a series of treetop fires that kept Dayton Fire Chief Charles Findley and his men busy from midnight to about 2 a.m.

The Kentucky Times-Star reported that elsewhere in the state, Louisville, Lexington and Bowling Green all sustained significant damage. One account said 16 people were killed just in Kentucky, with scores injured. Tornadoes also struck in Indiana, Tennessee,

Alabama, Missouri and Illinois.

Days later, deaths across the several states were estimated at 800.

In Jefferson County a cabin was picked up and dropped 500 feet away. The parents were killed, but their three children apparently survived, though injured.

Twisters cut a three-mile path 100 to 200 feet wide across sections of Fayette and Bourbon counties.

In Allen County, near Bowling Green, a 20-year-old woman, her 3-week-old baby and her sister were killed when they were blown out of their house. Their bodies were found 200 yards away.

Red Cross chapters in Kenton and Campbell counties quickly began fund-raising drives.

Four months later, on the evening of July 2, 1925, another tornado hit the Covington area, sweeping down trees, signs, wires and poles.

Most of the damage was on Greenup and Scott streets, where a number of trees were downed. One tree smashed a car parked on Scott Street between Eighth and Ninth streets. Mabel Sample and her mother had just gotten out of the car and escaped injury.

In Newport high winds blew away a large tent in the city park, which was being used for a religious revival.

In Fort Thomas, some 1,500 people at the open-air boxing arena at the military fort had to quickly scramble for cover from the wind, hail and rain.

March 21, 1952 : While the winds apparently didn't reach tornado strength in Northern Kentucky, thunderstorms and heavy rains pelted the area. In Campbell County Twelve Mile Creek flooded, cutting off Ky. 10 near the California Crossroads.

Downstate the full force of a tornado hit Hodgenville during the night. Dozens were injured and many buildings damaged.

In more recent times tornadoes hit Harrison, Owen and Mason counties and the Bullittsville area of Boone County on April 3, 1974. And a tornado took a swipe through Boone County, Covington and Newport on March 12, 1986.

Egg on his face

The July 1925 tornado produced a moment of humor.

The Kentucky Times-Star reported that a tree fell on a man on Washington Street in Newport. Luckily, he was not injured.

However, when he crawled out to safety, an overturned bird's nest was on top of his head and broken eggs were dripping down his face.

The study of Northern Kentucky history is an avocation of staff writer Jim Reis, who covers suburban Kenton County for The Kentucky Post.

Publication date: 02-01-99

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