Massachusetts Tornado, Aug 1851

The Tornado of August 22, 1851.

On the afternoon and evening of Friday, August 22, 1851, there was a heavy thunder shower in eastern Massachusetts, during which several houses were struck by lightning, and other damage was caused by the wind which swept with a sped of more than two miles a minute in a northeasterly direction from Worcester to Rockport. For some days previous a southwest wind had prevailed.

In Quinsigamond village in Worcester, at about five o'clock the wind was very furious, tearing up fences, trees, crops, etc., and carrying off roofs of buildings. It then proceeded to Wayland, where the shower was severe, and hardly had it begun than there occurred an extraordinary flash of lightning. The people thought that some building in the town must have been struck, and a few minutes later they saw rising in the southwest a dense black column of what seemed to be smoke. It was discovered that it was a cloud which rose rapidly until it seemed to be a mile in height. It appeared to rise entirely above the earth, and to stand on legs, which touched the ground, extending over an area of about forty rods square. At some places along its route it became single and resembled an elephant's trunk, though it appeared differently elsewhere. Some said it was like a tall wide-spread elm tree; others, an inverted cone; and still others an hour-glass. The upper portion of it seemed to vibrate, and to move from side to side like an elephant's trunk of a waterspout at sea, and among the projecting points below were fitful gleams of lightning. The whole cloud whirled as it came over the town on its disastrous trip to the sea. It was the mist violent and destructive tornado the was ever experienced in the section. At the northern part of Malden, its force was principally lost, and the column divided at a point about half-way between the earth and the cloud above, the upper part being dissipated, and the lower half settling down into an irregular mass, which soon disappeared. The force of the wind, however, was not wholly gone, for it wrought some slight injury at Lynn and Rockport.

The topography of the country, it is believed, has much to do with the origin and destructiveness of tornadoes. Prospect hill in Waltham, an eminence four hundred and eighty-two feet in height, was probably the cause of the terrific whirling force of this wind. There were two opposing air currents of different temperatures, one coming from the northwest and the other from the southwest. They acted suddenly against each other, after a sultry calm of some duration, and shortly a third gyratory motion made its appearance between them. The surface of the ground over which the tornado passed in Waltham and Arlington, where the force was greatest, was quite undulating and diversified.

In Waltham, the damage done to property amounted to four thousand dollars, but the wind was most severe in what was then called West Cambridge, but which has since been incorporated as the town of Arlington. About two o'clock, as the tornado neared the place, a long continued roll of thunder was heard in the northwest, where there appeared a very black bank of cloud rising slowly to the height of fifty degrees, and stretching from west-southwest to east-northeast. The air was calm, sultry and oppressive. Not the slightest breeze was blowing, not a leaf moved. There was a dead closeness, a remarkable want of elasticity in the air, and many complained of lassitude. An old sea-captain told his wife about an hour before the awful devastation occurred, that if he were at sea he should expect a waterspout. People felt that something was about to occur, but they did not know what. A deathlike stillness prevailed throughout nature, which for about two hours seemed to remain still, and then the tornado burst with terrible fury, destroying houses, stone walls, fences, gardens, etc., and endangering human life.

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