Arlington, MA Tornado, Aug 1851

The Tornado of 1851.

Friday, August 22, 1851, the center portion of Arlington was devastated by a tornado which, beginning its course in Wayland, passed over Weston and Waltham, doing considerable damage, but on reaching Arlington wreckage everything in its path and swept on to Medford, creating equal havoc, and then onward over adjacent territory and thence to the sea. Judge Parmenter, in his sketch for "Middlesex County History," says that those who saw it described it as a dark cloud sweeping over the surface of the country with frightful speed; its base now touching the earth and now bounding up for a little to return again farther on. Its shape was variously compared to a spreading elm, and upright column, to an hourglass, and to an inverted cone---discrepancies probably to be attributed to the different positions of the observers, to the excitement of the moment, and perhaps to actual changes of shape. One eye-witness vividly compared it to an elephant's trunk, waving a little from side to side and sucking up everything that came in its way. Its path was straight for the most part, with curious eddies and turns here and there. It left behind it in Arlington a devastated swath which was, in most places, from thirty to fifty rods wide, although the track was at some points wider and at some narrower than this.

The storm occurred about half past five o'clock on a hot, sultry summer afternoon. There had been during the day a light southwest wind, but for an hour before the tornado there was an almost perfect calm. Without warning the storm struck this town at the premises of James Brown (now a part of Belmont) on the Waltham line and swept across it, tearing its way through woods, orchards, and cornfields. It crossed Pleasant street near what is now the Belmont boundary and went straight on across the land of Captain Hopkins, Doctor Wellington, and other residents on the eastern side of the street; then over the northeast corner of Spy Pond, demolishing the ice houses at the water's edge; then across the highway at a point near Franklin street, wrecking destruction on store, schoolhouse, and dwellings, and so on till it crossed Mystic River about fifty rods below the Medford street bridge. The tornado lasted a very few minutes, but in that time it did damage in Arlington to the extent of nearly twenty-five thousand dollars. Happily no lives were lost and no persons was injured.

Medford people were less fortunate. One man was killed, a young man had both feet crushed so badly that amputation was necessary, and fire others were seriously hurt.

Arlington citizens, at a public meeting, raised $1219 to relieve the more needy suffering loss by the tornado.

The storm had several noticeable features much commented on at the time. As it crossed Spy Pond it took up a great deal of water, and this mingled with the sand and gravel of the railway embankment and the dust of the highway, splashed everything with a liberal coating of gravelly mud. When there was any vertical motion it was a lifting motion---things were taken up into the air, not beaten down to the earth. Trees generally resisted the disintegrated force of the wind, but buildings were racked or shattered. In Medford, where very careful observations were made, few traces of rotary motion were found, but in one place in this town, where a cornfield was flattened before the blast, on both sides of the central line of the track, as if two enormous wheels with vertical axes, turning in opposite directions and playing into each other like cogwheels, had passed through the field.

Town of Arlington, Past and Present By Charles Symmes Parker, 1907, pages 108-109