The day of destruction in Merritton

It was 100 years ago today that a tornado struck the small community.

By Dennis Gannon, Special to The Standard.

(Note: Merritton is now a neighborhood located in the heart of St. Catharines.)
    It was a day that Ida Smyth and hundreds of other Merritton residents would never forget.  Monday, Sept. 26, 1898 - 100 years ago today - was the betginning of just another work week for Ida, 26.  She was a teacher in the North Ward School, a msall brick building near the intersection of Smythe and Haight streets in Merritton.
    It was just another ordinary school day for her and her 32 pupils.  Then at 3:30 p.m., the lives of everyone - the students, their young teacher and thousands of other residents of Merriton - would, in a matter of minutes, be turned topsy-turvy, and in some cases changed forever.
    Over Lake Ontario on this hot, sunny, humid day, there suddenly appeared a storm.  A unique set of meteorological conditions caused the sky suddenly to turn black, the wind to rise, and a tornado was born.  Accompanied by claps of thunder, heavy rain and hail, it bore down on the city of St. Catharines and the neighbouring town of Merriton to the south.
    The storm first hit downtown St. Catharines, levelling trees along Beecher and King streets and tearing the roof off the militia's drill shed, which then stood on the north side of Raymond Street, where the parking lot is today behind the Falk Arts Multicultural Centre on Church Street.  The spire of a nearby St. George's Church was slightly damaged as well.
    Leaving downtown St. Catharines behind, barely touched, the twister meandered off in a southeasterly direction.  Initially it followed a lightly populated path through the shallow valley of the Second Welland Canal.  It did damage some structures near Disher and Moffat streets, just west of Oakdale Avenue, but along most of its path there was little else that could be harmed.
    Then it crossed Oakdale Avenue.  The twister headed toward Ida Smyth and the North Ward School.  As it did, Smyth herded her charges into a protected part of the building where they huddled in fear.  The building was hit full force, the roof was torn off and parts of the walls toppled.  Despite the efforts of Smyth, student Frances Moffat was crushed to death and others were severely injured beneath the falling roof beams and masonry.
    The area around Oakdale, Disher, Smythe and Haight was probably the worst single scene of destruction.  Across the street from the school,  the home of Richard Thompson was lifted from its foundation and rudely set down again, demolished.  The nearby home of James Bradley was also heavily damanged and a Mrs Bickley, and friend of the family who was visiting at the time, lay dead in the ruins.  Her infant son was spared.
    Nearby, the Loyal Orange Lodge's hall was nothing more than a pile of planks.  The power plant for entrepreneur "Carbide" Willson's acetylene plant at Lock 10 on the canal was severly damaged.
    Continuing to move south and east, the storm next bore down on the Lincoln Paper Mill, at the east end of Abbott Street between Oakdale Avenue and Hartzel Road.  Again, roofs collapsed, walls toppled and railway cars on nearby sidings were blown off their tracks.  Inside, Clara O'Neill was killed on the spot, crushed beneath the debris.  James McCarthy, one of her so-workers, was critically injured and died a few days later.
    The tornado, this act of God, did not spare the houses of worship either.  The Presbyterian church (located approximately where the Dairy Queen is today at Oakdale Avenue and Hartzel Road) was blown away, leaving behind little more than its rough-cast stone base.  Across the street, St. James Anglican Church (then, less than a decade old) was luckier, suffering only some minor damage to its steeple.
    The storm continued across Merritt Street and the Grand Trunk Railway tracks, missed the town hall, smashed some private residences and slightly damaged St. Patricks' Catholic Church, then still under construction.
    Mercifully, the tornado then headed up the Niagara Escarpment, away from a badly damaged, debris-strewn Merritton.
    The tornado struck Thorold only a glancing blow, missing the central business district along Front and Pine streets.  However, it did cause some serious damagealong St. David's Street on the Thorold-Merritton town line.  There, little Gladys Ekins died in her mother's arms, crushed as they sought refuge in the basement of their house.
    Leaving Thorold, the tornado roared through the open spaces of Stamford Township, hitting the occasional farmhouse or barn, until it crossed the border and swooped down on Tonawanda, N.Y.  There it also caused considerable damage, but no further loss of life.  It continued eastward and eventually died out over New York State.  Behind it lay a 72-kilometre swath of destruction and chaos.
    All this havoc, which occurred in probably less than 20 minutes, resulted in the deaths of five people, with serious injuries to 20 more, minor injuries to countless others and hundreds of thousands of dollars of property damage, mostly in Merritton.
    St. Catharines' drill shed, so badly damaged that it could not be repaired, was soon torn down.  It was not replaced until 1906, when the Lake Street Armouries opened.  Minor repairs sufficed to restore the damage done to St. George's Churge in St. Catharines, as well as to St. James Anglican in Merritton.  Street crews cleaned up the fallen trees and the felled telephone lines.
    Families whos homes had been destroyed struggled to put their lives back together.  They were  helped to reconstruct their homes and stores  by a  variety  of  special fundraising     activities.       There    were community meetings at   which  prominent citizens and companies pledged money, as well as more grassroots activities, including a series of weekend dances and a benefit concert by the 19th Battalion's band at the Grand  Opera  House  on Ontario Street.  The Merritton Cyclone Relief Fund raised $9,071.
    The Lincoln Paper Plant was soon rebuilt, expanded numerous times over the years, and now belongs to Domtar Fine Papers.  The Loyal Orange Lodge found new accommodations.
    Nearby, the ruins of the former North Ward School were left to stand as a mute reminder of the day of terror, while next to them a new North Ward School was constructed.  In 1942, a larger, two-room school, Smythe Street Public School, replaced it, and it was later expanded to become Valley Wood School.  Closed in 1984, the school building now houses the Valley Wood Apartments.
    Teacher Ida Smyth would live on until 1963.  Not long after the tornado, her presence of mind and bravery were celebrated by the Merritton School Board which presented her with a gold medal.  This award, in the shape of a Maltese cross, bore on one side an image of her former little red-brick school house and on the reverse expressed the thanks of the community for her having risked her life to save her pupils on that fateful day a century ago.

(Dennis Gannon is past-president of the St. Catharines Historical Society.)

Historical newspaper excerpts about the event above:

Toronto Evening Star
Tuesday Sept. 27, 1898

Description by Rev Lawrence E. Skey (Church of England, Merritton)

"The storm gathered away back over St. Catharines.  Two huge clouds coming at a wide angle met and the collision forced them down toward the earth. In an instant a funnel-shaped cloud formed and rushed down toward St. Catharines. It was a little too high to do widespread damage in the city. Now and again the great end of the funnel would plunge down toward the ground.  ... Then the cyclone tore down upon the village (of Merritton) As it entered the village its leaps and bounds were more frequent.  As it undulated sharply up and down, small whirlwinds would detach themselves and start off on a course of their own."

St. Catharines Standard
Tuesday September 27, 1898

"Monday afternoon began with a bright and clear sky overhead, which about three o'clock became overcast with clouds, and a rain storm was expected.   Ominous looking black clouds rolled up, and a gale of wind sprung up, but little was thought of this. The wind increased in velocity and a strange sight was seen in the north-west portion of the sky.  It was a great funnel-shaped cloud, black and wild-looking, which tore along at a awful pace and soon swooped upon the lower part of the town."

Toronto Evening Star
Tuesday Sept. 27, 1898

Death Rode the Gale

"Struck about four o'clock yesterday afternoon. .....  The storm approached from the northwest in the form of a funnel-shaped cloud."

St. Catharines Standard
Tuesday September 27, 1898

At Niagara Falls, New York, "Hailstones weighing over an ounce and measuring nearly nine inches in circumference, fell.  In the northern section of this state (New York) hailstones that fell averaged five and one half inches in circumference, and weighed about three-quarters of an ounce."

Toronto Evening Star
Tuesday Sept. 27, 1898

Experience of Capt. Clapp

"It was about 8 miles off the (Toronto) harbour when the tail end of the tornado struck it. The wind ran all the way around from the southwest to the east. It was when the wind was coming out of the north that it struck the boat.  The hail pounded down so fiercely they were unable to see any distance ahead of the vessel. If the same wind had appeared without the rain and hail the boat would have had a dangerous time. The hail and rain pounded the water almost flat and kept the waves from rising to any extent."

St. Catharines Standard
Tuesday September 27, 1898

At Tonawanda, New York, "It came from Canada, and from the northwest, with a suddenness and a roar that filled with terror the bravest. The sky grew dark and out of the blackness there emerged with ominous maneuvers the queerly shaped object which appeared to be about forty feet long. It seemed to leap from the timber-skirted shores of Grand Island into the Niagara River. As it dropped near the water its tail looked as if it were submerged."

St. Catharines Standard
Tuesday September 27, 1898

At Tottenham, Ontario, "A terrific storm of wind and rain, accompanied by hail stones, passed over this section this afternoon doing a great deal of damage. It travelled in a southeasterly direction, taking in the villages of Athlone, Keenansville, Colgan, and Tottenham. There was a heavy shower of hailstones as large as good sized plums, lasting for some ten minutes, and as there was a heavy wind at the time, much damage followed." 

New York Times
      Tuesday September 27, 1898

Tonawanda, NY, September 26
A terrible windstorm struck this place this (26th) afternoon, Houses and barns were smashed to kindling wood, trees uprooted and many people injured. It had been raining for and hour when, at 4:15, the tornado swept across the Niagara River.
Basset and Bellington's dock was the first place hit and there huge piles of lumber were thrown in all directions. Sheds on the dock were demolished and a number of cars were turned over. The storm passed across the town and disappeared in a northerly direction. Dozens of houses were wrecked and many streets are littered with fallen trees telegraph and trolly poles. Great stretches of wooden sidewalk were torn up on some streets.
Samuel Monette, a milk-wagon driver was caught in the storm. His rig was rushed along the streets at lightning speed until it was wrecked. He is believed to be fatally injured. Mrs Charles Peters and Mrs Henry Peters, the latter carrying an infant, were picked up and hurled violently against a building. Both were found in an unconscious condition. It is estimated that the damage to property will reach $100,000.

Niagara Falls NY,  Sept 26
A terrible hailstorm came down upon this city at 4 o'clock this afternoon. In the north end of the city glass in almost every building, public and private, was broken. The loss will be large.

Tuesday, September 27, 1898


The Storm came upon Mr. Stupart
Suddenly From Illinois

Robert F. Stupart, the Director of the Meteorological Observatory, stated this night that the first indication of this storm was noticed over Illinois where a wind from the south of 66th degree met a north wind of 54th degree. The phenomenon resulting was a storm with a rotary motion, which made a rush for the low pressure area in the east., taking a direct course across Illinois, along the northern shore of Lake Erie, and cutting out over Lake Ontario at Oswego.  It was only a few miles wide and  is termed a local storm.  Toronto was its northern limit while Tonawanda was its southern.  The storm evidently spent itself over the Niagara Peninsula as at Oswego it was reported only a thunderstorm.  Such storms as these are quite common in low pressure areas at this time of year, and spend themselves before gaining the velocity of a cyclone.


 <- Back to the Storms page!