By Joan Baxter
Following the April 3, 1974 tornado in Xenia, I was with a group of volunteers at The Greene County Historical Society. The group was packing artifacts and other materials which were placed in storage until other arrangements could be made.
One of the items I discovered that day was a nicely framed certificate commemorating the assistance of an individual who had been of great assistance following the Jamestown Cyclone which had occurred 80 years previously. I became curious about this similar event which had taken place so many years ago, and here is what I discovered. It happened on Sunday, April 27, 1884.
A major storm passed through Montgomery County, damaging some homes in Bellbrook then continued north and east toward the Ohio Soldiers and Sailors Orphan’s Home which was hit badly. The hospital received some damage to the roof, but the children inside were safe. Usually on a weekday, the children gathered on the porch awaiting the dinner hour, but this being a Sunday, dinner had been served earlier, so the students were all safely in the dining hall when the porch was torn away.
Gaining momentum, the “cyclone,” as it was often called, continued toward New Jasper. Residents there had spotted a funnel cloud heading that way, so took appropriate means of shelter. A few roofs were damaged and a blacksmith shop was blown away. Two men who did not have time to seek shelter held onto fence posts and were spared.
The storm entered the West side of Jamestown, where it first struck the site of the Jamestown Fair. The buildings on the site were completely destroyed, trees uprooted, leaving only barren ground where so many pleasurable activities had taken place.
The storm continued up Xenia Street, destroying every building in its path. The flying timbers from the buildings at the fairgrounds remained in that funnel, often serving as battering rams against the other buildings. The storm continued along the street, then turned at the Cedarville Pike (US Route 72), continuing with its terror. The force of the storm was so severe that pumps were pulled out of wells.
Nearly one third of the houses and buildings in the town were destroyed. When a final count was taken, 186 homes were severely damaged or totally destroyed. Six persons lost their lives with many others wounded. Newspapers of the day recorded the story variously as a hurricane, tornado or cyclone, but most agreed that the storm had been about one hundred yards wide.
Of the six lives lost, three were attempting to get to shelter in a cellar, but were caught between the moving house and the foundation. A 3-year-old ran from the house and was hit by a falling timber, as was another woman. The sixth person lived near the fairgrounds, where she was trapped in her home when it was destroyed.
Railroad cars were thrown from the track. The owner of the carriage factory opened his front door to look out. The force of the wind pulled him from the house and deposited him near a picket fence.
In addition, the high school, along with the Christian, Baptist, Methodist, AME and Presbyterian churches received severe damage, some beyond repair. The city building blew over onto a bakery next door, crushing it beneath the bricks but the six people in the building survived.
The Commercial Gazette reported “Among the ludicrous things is at the carriage factory of F. D. Hellrigle. The sign bearing the owner’s name was rent in twain, and the “rigle” part went to the ground, leaving the ‘Hell’ section standing. All the churches were destroyed, while the saloons escaped almost unscathed, which is regarded by some as rather significant.”
Help was forthcoming almost immediately. Jamestown Grand Army of the Republic members telegraphed Lewis Post in Xenia to meet the next night to determine what could be done to help. The ladies of the Art School of Xenia College offered to repeat their excellent entertainment in the Opera House the next week to benefit the people of Jamestown. The Jamestown Relief Committee began with a private donation of $500. The fund eventually grew to $14,000.
Tents were sent from Columbus to serve as temporary shelter. The May 3 Semi-Weekly Torch line reported a wind storm had passed through the area on the 2nd, no doubt those in tent shelters were concerned.
More assistance was necessary, so the concept of “Building Week” was established. Neighboring towns were asked to provide men who would work for a day or more during the week of Jun3 16-21 to rebuild the houses. Lumber and other supplies had been previously ordered, so that when the workers arrived, all was in readiness.
About 60 employees of the Miami Powder Company gave their Monday to help re-build houses which had been destroyed. Those who could not physically help were encouraged to donate $1. When the work was done, it was estimated that there were approximately, 1,250 hours or labor donated during the week.
A certificate of appreciation, designed by the noted artist Thomas Nast, was presented to those who had helped in the aftermath of the storm. In all, hundreds of volunteer hours and thousands of dollars were given to help rebuild the community.
Joan Baxter is a local resident and long-time historical columnist.