The Big Tornado of 1898

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"Our Town" by James W. Tucker

The Hampton Union & Rockingham County Gazette

Thursday, November 15, 1951

Hampton Beach is accustomed to severe winds. Most of them blow from the northeast. Occasionally violent winds blow from the southeast. However, it's the northeasters that usually cause the most damage. Let a howling gale blow out of the northeast quarter for 3 or 4 consecutive days upon the occasion of a particularly high run of tides and the shale pile, which protects our shore from about Fifth street south to Great Boar's Head, will most certainly be washed all over the Boulevard. Of course other damage will be done, dependent upon the violence of such a storm and the exact direction of the wind untold losses might be suffered in proximity to the east end of Winnacunnet road.

Once in a great while a terrific wind storm will hit Hampton Beach from the west. We remember two of this type, one in 1917 and another in 1922. But the biggest blow ever recorded in our town, which hit our beach from the west occurred on July 4, 1898. That one must have been a man-size tornado, for nine persons were killed, many more were injured and the property loss ran into the thousands of dollars. We know of no other local catastrophe which cost so many lives but at least four beach fires have caused much greater property loss.

The Skating Rink

The big Tornado of July 4, 1898 is indelibly etched on the memories of many present residents of our town and for a variety of reasons a few of which we will recount later. In 1898, Hampton Beach did not extend very far south of the location of the present Ashworth Hotel. The most of the cottages and hotels, together with the beach terminal of the year-old electric railway, were north of this point. The amusement center at that time was the Skating Rink, a large, barn-like wooden structure which had been erected in a field just about in back of the present site of the Merrimack hotel. It was practically half way between the present Guyon Corner at the base of the Great Boar's Head and Cutler's Seaview hotel, now known as Allen's hotel. The Skating Rink was on the north side of the highway, which, you will remember, at that point runs nearly east and west.

Our Town a Peaceful Village

It is a bit hard for us to completely envision our town and our beach as they looked over half a century ago. Irving W. Marston was advertising laundry and tonsorial work at the Railway Waiting Station which he operated in Hampton Center and "Mel" Dunbar was conducting the Franklin hotel. N. [Nelson] J. Norton had a Carriage and Smith shop and D. O. Leavitt ran the drug store in our town. E. G. Cole and Co., advertised general merchandise in those days and J. A. Lane & Co., sold dry goods, groceries, flour, boots, shoes, rubbers, and paint. The Boston Store "positively no credit" was selling men's fine percale and woven madras shirts at 69 cents each and pure linen, huckaback, hemstitched towels for a dime a piece. George H. Elkins was manufacturing harnesses and F. N. Mason specialized in new and second-hand wagons and carriages. M. [Moses] W. Brown manufactured pianos "$175 up", at his new plant on the Beach Road; W. M. Batchelder had a "refrigerated wagon" for delivery of meats and provisions; C. M. Dearborn was the agent for Victor bicycles; Wesley Dearborn had "lumber of all kinds, constantly on hand" and did "teaming and jobbing" while Mrs. Ellen I. Brown, a clairvoyant advertised "sittings; $1.00" and advised her clients to "take car for the beach and stop at Elmwood farm." This was the peaceful village of bygone days which was hit by a terrible tragedy on Independence Day just fifty-four years ago.

Disaster Out of the West

Thunder clouds, black and ominous began piling up in a foreboding mass over the marshland to the westward about three o'clock on that hot holiday afternoon. The eastern sky gradually turned a copper color, the slight breeze became stilled and off-shore, Captain Frank Nudd's sloop, with a pleasure party of seven aboard, became becalmed under the still, reddish brown sky. Suddenly according to an observer, one of the swirling black thunder-clouds which darkened the sky about the horizon to the west, seemed to detach itself from the mass and come hurtling toward the beach at a speed described as eight miles an hour. The tornado approached with a deafening roar of wind, terrific peals of thunder and vivid lightening flashes.

Death on Land and Sea

The Skating Rink was packed to near capacity with a matinee crowd of about 150 people who were enjoying William's Electro-rama, "The Sinking of the Maine." A few people were bowling and others were patronizing various features of the Rink, when, with practically no warning, the tornado ripped the roof off the flimsy structure and flattened the walls. The scene of frenzied confusion which followed is impossible to describe. Fortunately, the winds subsided to moderate velocity almost immediately and people began to converge on the scene of the greatest disaster from all directions. Others prepared to go to the aid of the sloop which had capsized not far from its moorings. Doctors Smith and Ward from Hampton and Doctors Nute, Sawyer and Day from Exeter were notified at once and began fast trips to the beach in their horse-drawn vehicles. Road records had been established when the Exeter trio of professional men reined in their tired and belathered nags at the side of the flattened Skating Rink. Local fishermen had rowed to the foundered sloop to save those crew members and passengers who clung to the hull.

Counting the Cost

With the capable medical aid at hand, order was soon restored and it became possible to count the cost of the terrible tornado. Nine people were dead. Captain Nudd and four of his passengers were drowned. The fatalities at the Rink numbered four. Killed were Mr. Hilding Karlson of Exeter; Mr. Fred Williams of Brighton, Mass., an actress known as Madame Mora and the wife of the Electro-rama manager; John R. Pressey of Haverhill, playing that day at the beach with the Exeter band and Baby Cammett of Exeter, who had been accidentally dropped by his mother after the latter had been injured in the collapse of the Rink. Scores were injured in varying degrees of seriousness. Many buildings in the path of the destructive wind were damaged. It probably was a direct result of the tragedy at sea that work on the Hampton Coast Guard Station was begun immediately. [Tucker corrected this last statement a few weeks later in an article on shipwrecks off the Hampton coast.]

Tornado Reminiscences

Many local people remember incidents in connection with the tornado of '98. Kenneth Ross tells of the DeLancey ice wagon and pair of horses that were lifted bodily off the roadway and deposited right side up and with very little damage on the sands of the beach. Fred Batchelder, riding towards home on an electric car, relates how the canvass storm-curtains were ripped out of the trolley near Great Boar's Head and how the passengers ran to Leavitt's Hotel for safety and were practically blown the entire length of the veranda on the south side to a quiet haven in the kitchen of the hostelry. Mrs. Marilla Brown, picnicking for the day at the Isles of Shoals, remembers of seeing the frightening black clouds over Hampton and recalls that the captain of the steamer, out of Portsmouth, delayed the return trip until the storm had veered away from the Shoals and he became certain no danger would be encountered on the homeward voyage. And she tells of the happiness with which her parents greeted her safe arrival home in Hampton from an outing which they had good reason to fear might have ended disastrously for their daughter. If any other residents of our town have personal reminiscences of this big blow, the writer will gladly recount them in this column at a later date.

There have been numerous other catastrophes in the long history of our town but probably no other single calamity where the loss of life was so great. Hampton can never forget the terrible tornado which blew out of the west on Independence Day in 1898.

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