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The 1829 Guelph Tornado
The settlement of a frontier town is often wrought with many hardships, not the least of which is the weather. An untimely occurrence of a storm, flood, or an abnormally dry season has crippled or destroyed many potential settlements. The infant community of Guelph in southern Ontario, Canada nearly met with such a fate in 1829 when a tornado raced through the settlement causing extensive damage.
The description of this storm as it moved through Guelph was chronicled in the writings of Major Samuel Strickland in his memoirs Twenty Seven Years in Canada West. At the time, Strickland was in the employ of the Canada Company, which was developing the Huron tract of southwest Ontario. In early June of 1829 just days before his departure from Guelph for the community of Goderich on Lake Huron, he "witnessed the most appalling land tornado...I ever saw in my life."
Strickland had previously encountered the mark of tornadoes on the Ontario countryside:
"In my hunting excursions and rambles -through the Upper Canadian forests, I had frequently met with extensive windfalls; and observed with some surprise that the fallen trees appeared to have been twisted off at the stumps, for they lay strewn in a succession of circles. I also remarked that these windfalls were generally narrow, and had the appearance of a wide road slashed through The forest.
The Annals of the Town of Guelph 1827-1877 states:
"Those who are old enough to remember when the Upper Province was one wild, almost impenetrable forest... will have frequently noticed, in the woods, large gaps or lanes, the ground covered with trunks and branches of trees, twisted and tangled in all manner of inconceivable shapes, through or across which by no possibility could a man proceed. It will also have been noticed that in these gaps, the trees appear to have been twisted off at the stumps, or turned up at the roots, as if some monster of infinite strength had passed that way and torn them up like rushes in his mighty grasp, and thrown them down in anger and scorn. [See Note below.]
It was postulated that the scenes caused by tornadoes which occasionally visit thickly wooded districts, "rarely occur after the land becomes cleared, it is supposed on account of some mysterious climatic change which takes place with the disappearance of the forests, somewhat in the same way as the changes in temperature and the quantity of rainfall which follow the clearing of the land." (Annals, 1877)
Strickland described the morning of the storm:
"The weather, for the season of the year (May) had been hot and sultry, with scarcely a breath of wind stirring. I had heard distant thunder from an early hour of the morning, which from the eastward is rather an unusual occurrence. About ten A.M. the sky had a most singular, I may say, a most awful appearance; presenting to the view a vast arch of rolling blackness, which seemed to gather strength and density as it approached the zenith. All at once the clouds began to work round in circles, as if chasing one another through the air. Suddenly, the dark arch of clouds appeared to break up into detached masses, whirling and eddying through each other in dreadful commotion. The forked lightning was incessant, accompanied by heavy thunder. In a short space the clouds seemed to converge to a point, which approached very near the earth, still whirling with great rapidity directly under this point; and apparently from the midst of the woods arose a black column in the shape of a cone, which instantly joined itself to the depending cloud: the sight was now grand and awful in the extreme.
Let any one picture to the imagination a vast column of smoke of inky blackness reaching from earth to heaven, gyrating with fearful velocity; bright lightnings issued from the vortex -- the roar of the thunder -- the rushing of the blast -- the crashing of the timber -- the limbs of trees, leaves and rubbish, mingled with clouds of dust, whirling through the air -- a faint idea is then given of the scene.
I had ample time for observation as the hurricane commenced its desolating course about two miles from the town, through the centre of which it took its way, passing within fifty yards of the spot where a number of persons and myself were standing watching its fearful progress. As the tornado approached, the trees seemed to fall like a pack of cards before its irresistible current. After passing through the clearing made around the town, the force of the wind gradually abated, and in a few minutes died away entirely.
From the point at which the black column had arisen, trees were twisted in every direction. The belt of timber that the tornado leveled had a width of about one hundred yards and length of two miles. At the entrance to Guelph, the tornado had crossed the Speed River and uprooted six acres of a woodlot, which city founder John Galt had left as an ornament to his house. To the east, the Eramosa Road was strewn with litter, impassible for nearly half a mile.
In Guelph, the tornado "unroofed several houses, leveled the fences to the ground, and entirely demolished a frame barn: windows were dashed in, and in one instance the floor of a log-house was carried up through the roof. Some hair-breadth escapes occurred, but luckily, no lives were lost," Strickland observed.
The Annals state that from this time very little progress was made in Guelph for the next three years. Business was almost stagnant and few new houses were started. The company commissioners appeared to follow a policy of "masterly inactivity", doing nothing which could be postponed. Whether the storm was an influence on this inaction, we do not know. Guelph, however, did recover to grow to a city of approximately 100,000 today.
The experience prompted Strickland to pen the following observation in verse.
Through all the sky arise outrageous storms,
Note: The Annals erroneously give the year of this storm as 1839. Strickland dates the storm as in early summer of 1829, the chronology of his book concurring with this date. In the Annals, the period discussed during which the storm is reported is 1828 to 1832, and Strickland is quoted extensively. It is therefore strongly believed that the 1839 date is a typographical error.
Annals of the Town of Guelph 1827-1877, Herald Steam Printing House, 1877, p4546.
Strickland, Samuel, Twenty Seven Years in Canada West or The Experience of an Early Settler, edited by Agnes Strickland. Reprint published by M. G. Hurtig Ltd., Edmonton, Alberta, 1970, p241-246.
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