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A 1911 storm even had circus people buzzing

Published May 28. 2011 09:00AM

Weather experts are calling this the deadliest tornado season in half a century. The storm earlier this week which spawned two low-level tornadoes in this area was a scary reminder of the whopper systems rolling through the nation's midsection.

A century ago, another intense storm system created havoc throughout the Northeast.

The word electric is sometimes used to describe feelings whenever a special moment arrives. When the Frank A. Robbins Circus rolled into Tamaqua in May of 1911, it certainly created that kind of buzz in the community. Little did people realize that an actual electrical storm would soon heighten their feelings and emotions even more.

One local reporter called it the worst storm he had seen in 20 years and one well-travelled circus official, who was in charge of setting up the large canvas tents, said it was the worst he had experienced in 35 years of circus life.

"He said there was no comparison between the cyclones of the west and the storm of last evening, for it continued twice as long" the Tamaqua Courier reported in its June 1 edition.

The storm, which included high winds, rain and thunder, was part of an intense system that lashed the East Coast for two days, leaving five dead and another five missing in Philadelphia alone.

In Tamaqua, the day had begun innocently enough. Just hours before, residents were much more interested in what was happening on the ground than in the skies above. Thousands watched as the carnies unloaded their wagons, and workers efficiently transformed the grounds into a tent city.

Without today's storm warning technology, residents were caught offguard when the storm blew through on Sunday night, providing a natural fireworks spectacle of its own in the nighttime sky.

"The electrical display was accompanied by terrific winds, hail and rain and for a time it looked as though we would be visited by a cyclone," a Courier reporter stated. Residents, including florist Nels Nelson, called it the most severe storm he experienced in the two decades he had lived in town.

Circus workers had put down additional stakes to anchor the tents but they proved vulnerable when the winds whipped up. One canvas tent protecting the horses blew down, causing a "stampede." Fortunately, circus handlers were able to quickly calm the frightened animals.

One circus worker, however, was not so fortunate. He became a fatality after an "electrical shock" rendered him unconscious for several hours.

"This, coupled with the crying of the animals and the general hubbub kept everybody up all night," the reporter stated. "By daybreak, everything had again been restored to its usual good order and showed no serious effect of the storm."

The storm's impact was even greater to the south in Lehigh County, where extensive damage was reported. Allentown residents reported first seeing the sky darken, which was followed by violent winds. The force sent debris and tree splinters flying. Higher structures, including church steeples, were most vulnerable.

The skies then opened up with hard rain, accompanied by large hail stones. One reporter likened the hail hitting the roof to the sound of "numerous Gatling guns."

Miss Blanche Buckecker and another young woman were riding to South Allentown but their carriage couldn't outrun the storm. The strong winds smashed a tree, which landed on some electric wires. The two women quickly became prisoners of the electrical wires, which first wrapped their horse and then the carriage.

"Before the eyes of the imprisoned occupants of the carriage the animal roasted to death," Buckecker told a newspaper reporter.

Fortunately, area residents were within earshot of the screams from the two women and were able to cut away the wires, rescuing the two from their electrified prison.

Another resident caught outside received a sharp electric jolt and was thrown to the ground after rushing to the porch of her home. Fallen wires had electrified the residence which contained corrugated iron.

A neighbor, John Wagner, also received a severe electric jolt, throwing him 25 feet across the street and rendering him unconscious. He was later pronounced dead.

Neighbors believed the house was on fire and called the fire department. When the firefighters began pouring water on the home they too received an electrical shock. They then changed to rubber boots for insulation.

In Tamaqua, meanwhile, the show went on despite the one circus fatality.

"Regardless of the weather, the performances will be carried on," the Courier reported. "The tents are thoroughly water proof and every one of the 1600 seats provide vantage and comfort, regardless of weather conditions."

One performer, head walker Hillary Long, made residents forget their cares for a time inside the tent by "walking down a flight of steps and across a platform on his head without any part of his hands or body assisting him in any way."

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