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Weather extremes, floods to droughts, during the fall of 1909

Published November 14. 2009 09:00AM


In the fall of 1909, many Pennsylvania farmers were looking to the skies for help from the drought conditions that had gripped the Mid-Atlantic region.

In October, the skies literally opened up and dumped great amounts of rain on some areas of the Keystone State.

The severe weather system first affected areas of the deep South when a killer storm, which the Tamaqua Courier labeled a "southern cyclone," struck in mid-October.

The Courier report painted a bleak picture in the storm's aftermath.

"Halves of counties were laid waste, towns were destroyed, plantations were greatly damaged and from all sections of the storm-swept area come reports of loss of life," it reported on Oct. 16.

At the Civil War battlefield of Shiloh, heavy statues were knocked off their pedestals in the historic national cemetery.

A few days later the western Pennsylvania town of Cambridge Springs in Crawford County suffered some severe storm damage.

The Indiana Gazette reported that the system, packing 60 mph winds, tore through the famous resort area. About 20 people received bruises after being struck by flying debris which was tossed through the streets by the gale-force wind.

The sudden storm surprised residents and visitors alike.

"Until the roar of the wind was heard in the distance no one suspected a cyclone," one man stated. "At the hotels and cottages, where there are still many pleasure and health seekers from distant points, the laughter of merry makers and the lilt of song were changed in an instant to screams of terror."

In an instant that jovial mood was shattered.

"Little wind and few clouds were noticed until the storm broke with a suddenness and fury that made men tremble and spread panic among women and children," he said. "When the storm struck, some people sought shelter in cellars.

"Mothers ran frantically about calling for their children. For 60 seconds there was the terrific bellowing of the tornado and the crash of falling timbers, while buildings that withstood the strain rocked on their foundations."

The storm left as quickly as it had appeared.

"As suddenly as the storm came it died down again, leaving ruin in its path, while men and women stood about dazed. As soon as it was realized that the worst was over there was a moment's hush and then excitement possessed the town," the reporter said.

Scenes of devastation were everywhere and survivors were amazed that the tornado did the vast damage within the space of a minute.

Despite the wild weather pattern that spawned huge outbursts of rain in parts of the state, much of the coal region remained in a drought condition. Ashland's reservoir was so low the town began to limit water usage, and in Shamokin, township schools were closed to guard against any possible epidemic.

One Courier writer painted a doomsday-like picture about the water crisis in Shamokin.

"Fish flowed through many spigots," he stated. "There is not enough water here to fight a conflagration and the inhabitants are being warned to use extreme care in handling matches, lamps and working about stoves."

The drought also affected Schuylkill County's mines. In order to operate collieries at Locust Gap and Locust Spring, the Reading Company began hauling water from Gordon. Some companies also began building purifying tanks to prepare mine water for boiler purposes. The Reading company's locomotives were filled with water after train runs to Sunbury for Susquehanna River water.

Tamaqua, meanwhile, was doing well, thanks to its artesian wells, which not only supplied the town's immediate water needs but also provided a surplus. About a million gallons was stored in the Owl Creek Reservoir in case of fire.

"Had it not been for the artesian wells, Tamaqua would have been in a sad plight for water months ago," the Courier reported. on Nov. 30. "The pump at the artesian well is kept running constantly while the pump at Schirner's Dam runs about nine hours each day."

The writer explained that since water usage went up during the evening hours, it was necessary to cease pumping in order to permit the cistern to fill up during the night for the next day's pumping.

"As long as the artesian wells hold out, Tamaqua is secure from a water famine," the reporter said.

Despite all the weather extremes that fall, one Courier writer asked his readers to remain optimistic about the future.

"When the day is cold and dark and dreary, you set down and mourn over the ashes of dead hopes," he wrote in an opinion in early November. "Instead of that, why not think of the sunshine that lies ahead, that is to say, live in the bright days of the future instead of the dark days of the past?"

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