Tornado Kills Nine At Hampton Beach In 1898

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By Mike Bisceglia

Hampton Union, Tuesday, May 30, 2006

[The following article is courtesy of the Hampton Union and Seacoast Online.]

Tornadoes like the one that hit the Seacoast last week are not as uncommon as one might think.
[Courtesy photo]

The Fourth of July back in 1898 was a day of great promise at Hampton Beach, but before evening set in, a tornado sent those at the shore scrambling for cover.

America was embroiled in the Spanish-American War when the sun rose that July day. That war, however, was half a world away. The Fourth was a day to bring out red, white and blue bunting; light a few fire crackers; listen to a band; and take in a horse or bicycle race.

The summer of 1898 saw the first full summer of trolley service from the village of Hampton to the area near Highland Avenue and the beach. It was now possible for travelers to take the train from Boston to Exeter. Then they could hop on the trolley for Hampton Beach. That’s 11.75 miles in three segments at a cost of 5 cents a segment. Ladies and gentlemen, please hold onto your hats. That trip from Exeter will only take a half hour or so!

The Casino was thriving and a few brave souls were motoring in Stanley Steamers. Hotels, rooming houses and cottages were springing up. Life at Hampton Beach was good.

The biggest local news was that Frank Beckman’s once skating rink, once dance hall, had been converted yet again. It was now a theater, and featured the miracle of the time, the stereopticon projector. This device featured a double projector in which one picture faded into another. What magic! The feature this day was "The Blowing Up of the Maine." We were, after all, at war. Some 150 to 400 folks (crowd estimates varied) crammed inside to take in the new marvel.

About 3 p.m., the weather began to change and light rain began to fall. Those on the beach welcomed the rain as an end to the day’s blistering heat. Beckman rose from his seat in the theater to close the window thinking only of his patrons’ comfort and safety. Fishermen just off shore noted a shift in the wind and the ominous clouds building in the west. They knew those clouds held more than just a few raindrops; they held wind ... a very bad wind.

The fishermen made for shore about the time the wind abated. The calm lasted only a few minutes ...

Some say the tornado that dropped from the black cloud onto Hampton Beach was a quarter-mile wide. Others say it was at least a half-mile across. It very possibly would have rated as an F3 or F4 category tornado on the Fujita Scale, which didn’t exist then.

No sirens warned of the approaching storm moving east across the marshland (they didn’t exist then, either). Thus, the crowd in Electro-rama Theater (the new name for Beckman’s establishment), had no warning it was directly in the path of the monster.

The theater was located at the base of Great Boar’s Head between what is now Guyon Corner and Allen’s Hotel. The roof was ripped off and its walls collapsed. Almost immediately, rescuers converged on the structure. Four people died in the theater.

Winds also capsized a sloop not far from shore. Fishermen rowed feverishly to the boat to pull survivors from the wreck. Five died in the capsized sloop, including Capt. Frank Nudd, who survived the wreck of the Glendon in February 1896. There is no complete report of the injured, but it appears 16 people received emergency medical attention.

Many buildings suffered damage, some so severe they had to be razed. Large barns were moved from their foundations. Timber from several buildings showered horses and wagons in the vicinity of the theater. Four women raced to the safety of a cottage. The wind caught the clothing of one and literally tore all of it from her body.

A large ice wagon and a pair of horses had stopped on the street. The tornado lifted the wagon and horses, carried them several yards, and gently placed the entire load on the beach in an upright position.

A special thanks to the dedicated folks at the Lane Memorial Library.

[Mike Bisceglia is a retired teacher and a resident of Hampton.]

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