The (Paterson) Tornado of 1903

By Edward M. Graf

Passaic County Historical Society Publication, Volume 1969, No. 1

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680 Main Street, Paterson, NJ

Paterson seemed a city marked for disaster shortly after the turn of the century.  In 1902 it was racked by the Great Fire of February 9 and 10.  Still groping among the ashes, a month later it was struck by its first great flood.  Little more than a year after, on July 22, 1903, a tornado tore a path of destruction through the South Paterson and Sandy Hill area.

The later catastrophe was born on the morning of the 22nd when a small storm developed over Paterson, moving in a northwesterly direction.  At the same time, another storm developing in the Raritan River Valley moved from the southeast toward the city.  When the two met at the Great Notch, a new storm was created.  The resulting turbulence created a tornado.

If there had not been a gap in the mountain at the Notch, in all likelihood the storm would have rose upward and passed over Paterson.  But the North WAS there, and the storm swinging through the narrow passage between hills took on a rotary motion as it headed toward the city.  The tornado had been born!

Though still weak, it gathered strength as it whistled down Valley Road toward Paterson.  It struck within the city limits shortly after 3 p.m.  Its first target was the Lambert property opposite the Castle, which was then called “Maplewood.”  Here several people were attending the funeral of the former Ann Carpenter, wife of Walter S. Lambert and daughter-in-law of Catholina Lambert.  Several trees were uprooted, but there was little other damage.

Continuing on, the tornado swept down Barclay and Marshall Streets, where it completely destroyed the coal pocket of Gould & Schuyler as well as the Beveridge Lumber Yard.  Some other buildings standing on Canal Street and Marshall Street were also damaged.

Descending on the Meisch Mill in Leslie and Courtland Streets, it blew away half the structure and left the remainder inoperable.

The tornado’s course was unpredictable.  Its rotary winds were erratic, often rising and leaving large areas untouched.  It struck again at 680 Main Street, collapsing a house owned by Meyer Bone.  Six plumbers were working on the building at the time.  One of them, John Van Dam, was killed.  The others escaped with minor injuries, but the storm had claimed its first human victim.

Gathering its forces, the tornado cut through the lawn between St. Joseph’s Hospital and St. Agnes Church, breaking windows and uprooting trees.  Next, it whirled on the Paterson Rolling Mills, demolishing a section of the building.  Part of the roof caved in and a dozen men working in the beams and in the steel shop were injured by falling debris.

Panic struck the employees in the south section of the Dexter and Lambert Mill as they saw the roof of the steel works torn off, taking every wire running along the railroad with it.  Hysterics were inevitable among the girls in the mill because they did not know what might happen next.  There was no time to think – the damage had been done in five to ten seconds.

Sandy Hill

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Clay Street (now 21st Avenue) near Straight Street

Roaring on its way, the tornado swooped down on Sandy Hill.  Since the area was flatter here, there was nothing to buffer its force and here a great many roofs were lost.  It hit Clay Street (21st Avenue) a short distance from the Lambert Mill.  At least a hundred building in this section were swept down as if tumbled by a giant hand.  Damage was extensive in Straight, Bond, Chestnut, Vine and Clay Streets.

Here two more were added to the death toll.  Eight-year-old Richard Hancock was in a fruit store when the storm approached.  Frightened, he ran for home.  Seconds away from safety, he reached the porch of his house, where he was struck down by flying debris.  He died instantly before the eyes of his horrified mother, who had come to his assistance.  The poor woman was half-crazed with grief.

The third victim was Mrs. Honora Nevins, 55, who dropped dead of fright on Straight Street when she saw the storm coming.

Also in the immediate area was a three-story building on Clay Street, owned and occupied by James Burns and his family.  This was reduced to splinters.  Miraculously, five people in the house at the time escaped with their lives.

Three adjoining buildings and stores owned by Commissioner Brett fared as badly.  They were demolished and several occupants were seriously injured.  Houses on both sides of Chestnut Street, between Clay and Bond, were ruined.

The tornado struck the Highland Silk Mill on the south of Clay Street, tore off the roof and damaged the interior.  More than a hundred panic-stricken employees fled, but none were seriously injured.

Crossing Clay Street, the tornado lifted a two-story house from its foundation and landed it upside down a few yards away.

In the vicinity of Madison and Beech Streets, fourteen houses were blown down.  A portion of the Holland Church on Gray Street was blown off and the interior of the structure was badly damaged by the heavy rain that followed the wind. Electric light and telephone poles came down and fallen trees added to the debris.

Charles Lowerre’s one-story blacksmith shop on the corner of Clay and Vine was picked up bodily, slammed down and totally destroyed.

General Hospital

When the storm reached General  Hospital, it took off the boiler house roof and the kitchen.  Slates were hurled through the windows and patients were forced to flee from their cots to the north end of the building.  Some 8,000 slates were blown off the roof, many embedding themselves in buildings for blocks away.  Damage to the hospital was heavy, the result of high winds and rainwater coming through the root and windows.

Describing the havoc, Superintendent O’Brien related:

I was sitting in my office on the first floor of the building when I noticed it raining.  The rain started to come down faster and it began to come in at the windows.  I got up and started to shut the window on the windward side of the building.  When I reached the third floor I was struck in the face by a piece of glass.  When I reached the dining room I went to shut the door, but it was impossible for the wind was too great.

I went to a private room on the third floor and there to my great surprise lay a woman in bed with slate and window sash all on top of her.  She had the bedclothes up over her head and had lain there all during the storm.  She told me that she watched the rain beat against the window when the crash came.  As soon as she saw the slates and other missiles coming in she wrapped herself in the blankets.  I took the woman as quickly as I could from the room to another private room at the other end of the building.

When I had her safely there, I thought of the boiler house for I saw that roof go off as I was descending the stairs to the third floor.  I went there and with the assistance of a few men I raked out the fire in the boiler.  My fear was of fire or the boiler blowing up.

Going to the fourth floor to the female surgical ward I saw all the patients had gotten up our of their beds except three.  These three were taken out by nurses.

All through the building could be heard cries from the patients, but this was over as soon as the nurses got to them.  The patients I could not blame for shouting, for it was enough to frighten anybody.

As soon as the excitement was over the patients were removed from the south side to the north side of the building.

In the children’s ward holes had to be cut in the ceiling to let the water through.

The hospital carpenter named Gormly working in the attic when the storm struck was stunned and knocked to the floor.  The roof was but ten feet above him, and that part of the roof ripped clean off.

In the X-ray room on the fourth floor, the machine was completely turned around and lodged in the side of the wall.  The machine, however, was not damaged and it worked perfectly later.

Slates from the roof of the hospital were carried over to East Nineteenth St. and were stuck in the weatherboards of buildings in the area.

The Orphan Asylum did not escape.  A section of the roof of the boiler house was torn off.  It was impossible to get a fire in the morning for cooking.  The shrubbery about the grounds suffered badly.

Cronin’s Castle

The tornado’s final force struck the Park Avenue crossing of the Susquehanna Railroad.  Seeing the storm approaching, Flagman Michael Cronin went into his shanty to keep out of the rain.  When the storm hit – the shanty (with Cronin still inside) – was picked up and hurled a distance of fifty feet over the track.  Cronin was not seriously injured and did not know what had happened.

The Aftermath

Less than ten minutes after entering Paterson, the storm swept on to Bergen County.  Here in the Silk City, it left in its wake three dead, hundreds injured, and thousands of dollars in property damage, much of it done by uprooted trees.