The debut of the 1990s has been marked by shattering, killing tornadoes across middle America -- gusts that have flattened whole villages.
Generally, the East Coast -- except for places like Georgia and North Carolina -- regards itself as fairly immune to such windy disasters.
Not so in Maryland, as one Sunday in 1902 was to prove.
On the morning of July 20 the weatherman forecast "showers and thunderstorms" for the area. The serenely dull local news columns were filled with accounts of when King Edward would be well enough to be crowned. The only real page-one eye-popper was an announcement that oat prices on the Chicago exchange had zoomed up to 65 cents a bushel, three times the norm.
Soon after 1 p.m. a freshening wind swept Baltimore harbor and rain began pelting down. Black clouds roared into town from the west and southwest at 64 miles an hour and "havoc came upon the city with a rapidity that was astounding," The Sun's lead writer reported.
On Franklin Road at Paradise Grove, Calverton, the Ebenezer A.M.E. Church was holding a religious meeting in a tent. In the southwest near the harbor, Charley Schaeffer, 13, hearing the storm, was taking shelter in a shed near his home on Ridgely Street, Westport.
Michael Schouler and family of 1212 Towson St. were nearing the Lazaretto lighthouse in Canton, returning from an excursion to -- Rock Creek by sailboat. Also on harbor water was a sextet of teen-aged South Baltimore boys in a rowboat. Another group on a harbor sortie were four Highlandtown boys in a small boat in the path of the storm near Taylor's Wharf.
Half an inch of rain fell in the 15 minutes that the grinding storm moved across central Baltimore to the eastern highlands. The downpour was so blinding that you could not see across downtown streets. Telephone poles were snapped off clean at the base, unlike the bending damage usual in hurricanes, the newspaper noted.
A North Carolina visitor was caught in a "funnel-shaped whirlwind" in front of the cardinal's residence on North Charles Street and hurled all the way across the street, falling in front of the Catholic Club. The steeple of St. Mary's Star of the Sea Church was damaged beyond repair, and in Mount Vernon Place, oaks in the east park were ripped from the ground.
Six houses in Charles Village along Calvert Street were unroofed, and stores along the Howard Street shopping center lost acres of plate glass.
Small boats, up and down the harbor, were capsized by the terrific blast of the storm.
Three of the six South Baltimore boys were rescued but three who couldn't swim drowned. Three of the Highlandtown boating party were saved, but one 13-year-old drowned. Harbor tugs rescued both sets of boys.
The shed young Schaeffer had entered fell in and as he fled the structure, he stepped on a fallen live wire and was electrocuted. On the Franklin Road heights a tree crashed into the Ebenezer church's tent, killing William Cornish, 25. Aboard the Schouler boat, Michael Schouler was the only survivor; he lost his wife and two sons.
Vast damage was visited upon Highlandtown, Canton and the north Broadway district. This newspaper dutifully published the addresses and owner-occupants of houses unroofed or otherwise damaged in the blow. The property loss was estimated at $250,000, with 414 houses unroofed and heavy damage to small craft and city utilities. The death toll from the storm was 12, counting two deaths in the waters off Tolchester on the Eastern Shore.
Was the 1902 disaster a bona fide tornado, as it has been billed in informal civic histories? The grinding circular winds would seem to indicate such. Oddly enough, less than a year after the big 1902 blow, a second west-to-east storm would roar through midtown and East Baltimore, unroofing 300 houses. Not a soul died in that catastrophe.