Storm 100 years ago devastated NilesPublished 5:28pm Monday, October 8, 2012
“Cloud burst” seems insufficient for the savagery Niles survived 100 years ago.
Two farmers lost their lives, “all transportation lines were tied up by bad washouts in all directions,” bridges were carried away, “streets were rivers and rivers were raging torrents,” reported the Niles Daily Sun of Monday, Aug. 19, 1912.
Headlined “Cloud burst does great damage in this locality,” coverage dominated this four-page edition of the two-cent newspaper loaned by Clayton Walker, who lives in the home where the fatal lightning strike occurred, according to his grandson, Blake Burgess.
Tiger Bill Wild West and Sharpsteen Medicine shows suffered “financial loss, discomfort and great inconvenience” from the record 14-inch rainfall blamed for “immense” crop damage, including to Beebe’s Howard Township mint plantation. The deluge flattened corn. Barron Lake’s level rose 15 inches. High-water marks for Pokagon and Dowagiac creeks “broke all records since 1861.”
Tiger Bill’s tents were pitched on a vacant lot west of National Wire Cloth Co.’s plant. Three to four feet of water covered the grounds.
High winds preceded the Saturday night storm. “Every stick of canvas was blown down and the members and the livestock crawled out from under the wreckage and presented a sorry and bedraggled spectacle as they stood in the drenching rain among the ruins. It would have been funny had it not been so serious.”
“The evil genius that drove the storm and had driven them off the show grounds followed them to the loading point at the Big Four station. Torrents of water washed down across the flats and undermined the tracks on which their cars were placed east of the freight house. Not only the tracks were undermined, but the freight house was nearly wrecked by the washing of the earth beneath it. The main tracks and sidings between the freight house and the river fared even worse. A couple of loaded box cars on a siding west of the Big Four freight house were undermined by the flood and tracks and cars dropped down several feet.”
Tracks washouts were reported north and south of Niles.
The Michigan Central dining room served 1,200 people 3,000 sandwiches, 200 pies and “great piles of cakes and doughnuts.”
The medicine show occupying lower ground on N. Second Street near the Leather Mfg. Co. plant “suffered even worse” than the wild west show, which was late limping into its next engagement in Benton Harbor.
Its tents “were in the path of the flood,” prompting the “novel sight of boys swimming there Sunday in three feet of water.”
Lightning killed Herman Villvock, about 70, survived by a widow and six children, and Otto Feathers, 26, a father married four years with two young children.
“Colored man broke hip” recounts the ordeal of Norman Arbuckle, who was found several hours later lying on the floor in Tom Davis’ barn on Ferry Street.
Seeking shelter from the storm, he crawled into the hayloft and went to sleep.
The storm “demoralized” telephone and telegraph systems and three railroads, including Michigan Central, Big Four and the interurban. Dowagiac Creek and St. Joseph River were on a “rampage rising to spring flood tide levels.”
The city was in darkness, the dam and plant on Dowagiac Creek “in imminent danger of being swept away.”
The Sun called it “one of the most remarkable and destructive storms that has ever descended upon this locality. (It) broke in all the fury of a fierce midsummer electric outburst about 5’clock Saturday night. Never before have the streets of Niles presented a more remarkable appearance, for every street was converted in an incredibly short space of time into a rushing torrent that filled the street from curb to curb. Sewers and catch basins were wholly unable to carry off the vast flood. Blinding flashes of lightning and deafening claps of thunder that terrified the nervous and timid shook the heavens and earth.”
The Indiana and Michigan Electric Co. substation near the Niles Board and Paper Co. was out of commission. All motors in local factories using the Chapin current were likewise affected, though most factory week was over for the weekend.
The storm continued to rage at intervals all night, with each eruption “seeming bent upon exceeding in fierce intensity anything that preceded it.”
The last interurban car from St. Joseph spent the night north of River Bluff.
Fifteen passengers walked to town at daybreak.
When high-tension wires “parted” on North Second Street opposite the interurban station, flames shot 100 feet in the air, “illuminating the whole town and causing general apprehension that some dreadful catastrophe had taken place,” since a workman had been electrocuted a few weeks prior.
Hundreds of people flooded in to gape at the unusual sights.
The Sun vs. The Star
The Niles Daily Star, established in March 1886, was challenged by The Sun in 1890.
The Sun fell on hard times later that decade, while The Star flourished.
The combined Star-Sun appeared on Oct. 20, 1910, and published under the dual name until acquired by Francis J. Plym on May 1, 1924.
Plym returned The Daily Star banner. The paper stayed in the Plym family until 1971. Ridder Publications owned it until 1976.
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