News From Terre Haute, Indiana

History

December 25, 2011

HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE: November 1911 tornado causes havoc in city, county

TERRE HAUTE — Three men were seriously injured on Saturday, Nov. 11, 1911, when a tornado touched down in the northeast part of Terre Haute and rural Vigo County. 

Houses, barns, telegraph systems and Rankin School were severely damaged by the funnel, which also disconnected the caboose from a Vandalia freight train.

There were no human fatalities, but several animals were killed.

It was the first tornado to hit Terre Haute since Dec. 5, 1909, when a small cyclone struck downtown.

Much like the 1909 storm, the November 1911 squall became a mere historical footnote after the catastrophic tornado of March 1913 claimed 17 lives in Terre Haute.

The funnel cloud first touched the earth at about 9:10 p.m., leaving a trail nearly one-half mile long commencing near the intersection of Elizabeth Street and Lafayette Avenue.

Then it seemed to hop.

Collett Park was in the path of the storm, which later caused devastation in the unincorporated towns of Edwards and Ellsworth in Otter Creek Township. 

The window lights and casings at Clifton Scofield’s grocery were early victims, crushed by the intense wind.

The tornado next hit the barn of Joseph Vanovers in the 1500 clock on Elizabeth St., which promptly collapsed.

Seconds later, a barn owned by Abraham Wickers 500 feet away was flattened.

Swerving to the north, the cloud hit the Edward Pearman residence at 1543 First Ave. Pearman and his family of five were situated in the living room when the house began to rock. Everyone headed to the door to exit and all escaped but Mr. Pearman, who was pinned by a collapsed roof and falling timbers.

When neighbors found him about half an hour later he was taken to the home of Fred Barnett, where he was first treated for internal injuries.

The Pearman home, owned by Simon Peck, was swept away, foundation and all, by the wind, leaving a gaping cellar hole.

The heaviest destruction was at John Rankin School at the intersection of North Nineteenth Strett and Prairie Avenue. The roof, chimneys and half of the upper story of brick, tile and steel were stripped and carried away, leaving the building without a second story.

The foundation and first floor of the school did not seem to be damaged but rain fell in torrents, exposing valuable books and maps to water damage.

The home of Charles V. Dorsey next door to Rankin was partially protected by the brick schoolhouse. Nevertheless, the wind struck the main part of the Dorsey residence and the entire structure was lifted from its foundation and deposited on its side.

Emma Dorsey and her 6-year old daughter, Joy, were in the house but were not injured. Charles and one of his sons were in the barn.

The building and windmill collapsed around them. They avoided serious injury while watching the tornado dismantle their stables, killing two team horses. One horse was struck in the head; the second had all four legs painfully fractured. A stallion by Samuel J. Fleming's Margrave, “the best and most prolific son of Baron Wilkes,” worth several thousand dollars, survived but roamed the countryside until the next day.

Oscar B. Hall’s home was cut into pieces. One-half remained on its foundation while the other half was lifted and moved four feet. Three Hall children were upstairs in the relocated half. When plaster began to fall, Julia Hall, the oldest child and a teacher at Rankin School, threw herself on top of her siblings, Mary and Oscar Jr.

The Halls’ cowshed was blown away in the night. Timber from the shed was found 1,000 feet away.

The homes of Samuel Beal, Alfonso Bouchey, Timothy Welsh, George Hamilton, Jacob Dooley, John DePugh, John Nelson and August Daris of Edwards, Michael Wassill of Ellsworth and Guy Roberts of rural Terre Haute were severely damaged, too.

Conductor Ernest F. Wehley and brakeman Frank Herkett, both identified as being from Terre Haute, were sitting in the caboose of a Terre Haute & Logansport freight when the storm harshly detached their car from the train. They were hospitalized with dangerous cuts and bruises.

The violence continued along the track, flattening telegraph poles. Tangles of wire also covered the interurban tracks.

County commissioner Louis P. Seeburger and Frank Wallman organized a search party to the injured and the homeless. Some were provided first aid; others were taken to the home of Fred Barnett for protection from the elements.

Seeburger’s residence, located off Lafayette Avenue near Elizabeth Street, was not damaged. But, from his front door, Seeburger watched trees from neighbors’ yards silently lift from the ground and disappear into the darkness. 

Carrying lanterns, searchers waded through mud and water and braved a chilling wind.

The temperature dropped from 79 degrees on Saturday afternoon to 16 degrees on Monday.

The funnel cut a swath varying from 100 to 300 feet wide, beginning at Scofield’s grocery.

While the storm did not reach the entire city, accompanying high winds did. The large plate glass window at the American Bank, 411 Wabash Ave., was blown in,  and the outside fence at Athletic Park on Wabash Avenue, home of Terre Haute’s Central League professional  baseball team, was flattened.

Telephone service all over the city was interrupted. Linemen frantically worked in the rain to restore vital services.

While Dan Brannan of Indianapolis, Thomas Derby of West Terre Haute and Jack Fiscus – drivers for a livery barn in Edwards — were driving past the Welsh residence, a strong wind struck their rig.

Brannan was enveloped by the buggy top, knocked unconscious and went bounding down the road. When he awakened he was lodged in a hollow of a large tree.

Fiscus was blown down the road while still clinging to the horse which toted the buggy. The two were hurled into a tree. Fiscus was badly bruised.

The horse was found the next day standing upright but dead with its head clutched by the fork of a tree.

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