Thunder in the Heartland

A Chronicle of outstanding Weather Events in Ohio

By Thomas W. Schmidlin and Jeanne Appelhans Schmidlin

LORAIN TORNADO - 28 June 1924

The deadliest tornado in Ohio history struck Lorain and Sandusky on Saturday, 28 June 1924. This was not the largest or strongest tornado to occur in Ohio, but, like the 1974 Xenia Tornado that killed thirty-two, this violent storm struck an urban center where thousands of people were put at risk. The number of fatalities will never be known with certainty, but an accepted figure is eighty-five dead (Grazulis 1990), seventy-two of whom were killed at Lorain, a city of thirty-seven thousand.

At the time of the storm, this was the second greatest loss of life reported from a tornado so far north in the United States, exceeded only by the New Richmond, Wisconsin, tornado that killed 117 in June 1899. Since 1924, only the Flint, Michigan, and Worcester, Massachussetts, tornadoes of June 1953 killed more at such a northern latitude (Grazulis 1990).

On this day of several tornadoes, high winds, and heavy rains across northern Ohio, at least four tornadoes touched down and wind and flood damage were widespread. Low pressure was passing eastward from northern Iowa through southern Michigan and into Ontario during the day. Temperatures were warm, near 80 degrees, but not unusual for June. Showers had passed through the lakeshore counties during the morning, but there seems to have been no indication that severe weather was coming later in the afternoon.

The place of first touchdown of the Lorain tornado is uncertain. It was first observed just north of Sandusky, a city of twenty-three thousand, but Grazulis (1990) placed the beginning point to the west over Sandusky Bay. In any case, the first damage occurred as the tornado struck the north-eastern edge of Sandusky at 4:35 P.M.

Damage at Sandusky was greatest along nine city blocks, an area about one-quarter mile wide and one-half mile long. The damaged area was bounded roughly by Market Street, Adams Street, Washington Park, and the waterfront. In that region, the Sandusky Star Journal reported that one hundred homes and twenty-five factories or businesses were destroyed, and eight persons were killed and about one hundred injured. The waterfront had heavy damage and the Sandusky Yacht Club building was swept into the bay. The three-story Groch Coal Company building collapsed, killing a bookkeeper and a driver. A watchman in a shanty at the Baltimore and Ohio rail yard was found dead several yards away, but the shanty was nowhere to be seen. Another B&O employee was crushed between two rail freight cars blown together by the wind.

Six autos were blown into Sandusky Bay from the ferry dock at the foot of Jackson Street. The steamer Boeckling was tied up at the Cedar Point dock with twelve hundred passengers. Captain Harry Wichter saw the storm and ordered everyone to stay in their seats. The passengers looked on with awe as the Sandusky waterfront was torn apart. The tornado then cut across Cedar Point about four miles south of the resort at its tip and then out over Lake Erie. Six cottages were blown down on Cedar Point, according to the Toledo Blade.

The U.S Weather Bureau had an office in downtown Sandusky in 1924, and meteorologist C.C. Cooper reported large cumulus clouds were visible to the west and southwest soon after 3:00 P.M. Light rain began to fall at 4:15 P.M., and by 4:30 P.M. streams of clouds from the southwest and northwest seemed to be meeting over the lake north of Sandusky. Where they met, the clouds presented a "bluish-black appearance and a cloud-whirl was plainly seen." The barometer had been falling rapidly all afternoon, but it plunged .2 inch in five minutes and then rose .2 inch again as the tornado passed one thousand feet north of the Weather Bureau. Winds had been from the southeast at the Weather Bureau as the storm approached but swung around to the northwest and increased to storm force. From 4:55 P.M. to 4:40 P.M. the wind averaged 72 mph and reached a maximum of 77 mph. Rainfall from 4:35 P.M. to 8:15 P.M. totaled 1.31 inches, and the temperature fell from 83 to 69 degrees.

Water service was knocked out for more than twenty-four hours in Sandusky, and when it was turned on again the residents were asked to boil the water. Advertisements in the Sandusky Star Journal hawked distilled drinking water, tornado insurance, and window and auto glass. National Guard troops moved into Sandusky to maintain order, direct traffic, and assist in the cleanup after the tornado, but by Monday some residents were protesting the continued presence of the Guard and the requirement to obtain passes to get into damaged neighborhoods. However, the 2 July Sandusky Star Tribune expressed appreciation for efforts of the Guard and thanked Governor Alvin Donahey for sending the troops.

The history of the tornado over the twenty-five miles of Lake Erie between Cedar Point and Lorain is not known. It is possible the tornado that came ashore in Lorain at 5:08 P.M. was not the same funnel that left Sandusky twenty-five minutes earlier. It is clear from reports along the shore and from boats offshore that a severe storm continued over the lake between the two cities. Gale force winds occurred at Vermilion as the storm passed, first from the south, then west, and then northwest. Large waves damaged cottages along the shore.

The ninety-one-ton yacht Oswichee motoring from Rocky River to Put-in-Bay encountered the tornado five miles offshore and six miles west of Lorain. A passenger, Dr. M. L. Combes, reported a black funnel cloud one-half mile wide at the water and much wider at the top. He believed the yacht passed near the center of the tornado at about 5:00 P.M. The captain, with fifty years of ocean experience, estimated winds at 90 to 100 mph. There was tremendous downward pressure and the water whirled counterclockwise. Lightning was continuous, but the roar of the wind was so great that they could not hear thunder. During the height of the storm they were in complete darkness, which was followed by a "dirty, yellowish, amber glare."

The massive funnel came ashore at the Lorain Municipal Bath House in Lakeview Park and tore a three-mile path through downtown Lorain in about three minutes. Its width varied from four thousand to five hundred feet, apparently becoming narrower as it progressed eastward. The tornado lifted east of the city and set down again at Sheffield and Avon.

Damage in Lorain was greatest from West Erie Avenue south to Seventh Street and along Broadway south to Eighth Street. Buildings were damaged for thirty-five blocks along Broadway, and at least two hundred automobiles sat buried in bricks and other debris. A smashed Ford found on Broadway had apparently been blown against the fourth story of a building where oil and paint were found on the bricks above the wreckage.

More than one thousand homes were damaged and five hundred destroyed in Lorain (DeWeese 1924). All downtown businesses sustained some damage, and two hundred businesses were destroyed. Most of the destroyed downtown buildings were not of modern construction, as reported by E. H. Emery, Weather Bureau meteorologist in Cleveland. For example, the modern Antlers Hotel, of steel construction, had only a corner of its roof damaged, although it was directly in the path of the tornado.

Initial reports in the 29 June Cleveland Plain Dealer listed "300 dead in Lorain," but this was gradually revised downward to seventy-two by 1 July. The State Theater collapsed onto about eighty patrons viewing a Saturday matinee musical. Initial reports from Lorain in the 29 June Plain Dealer indicated that eighty bodies were taken from the theater, but the final tally was fifteen dead in the theater, many of them teenagers. This is the largest tornado death toll in one building known in Ohio.

Most of the other deaths were in collapsed buildings. Seven or eight persons were killed in the collapse of the Bath House as bathers scrambled for shelter. Five people died at the home of attorney C. E. van Duesen on West Fifth Street, two died in the Crystal Restaurant on Broadway, two in the Dinery Restaurant on Erie Avenue, and one died in the Mills Seed Store on Broadway (De Weese 1924). Others were killed in their homes or in crushed cars.

Eight autos were blown into the lake at the municipal beach, and a canoe was found wrapped around a tree. Some homes had their roofs removed, on others the second story was swept away, some "roofs squatted grotesquely over the cellars," and other homes were entirely collapsed down to the foundation, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer. On the east side of Lorain, sixty-two cars of a freight train were "scattered on both sides of the railroad" and some were carried thirty feet by the tornado winds. A bridge over the Black River was jarred four feet when the large freighter Henry Ford II, under construction at American Ship Building, was torn from its moorings and rammed the bridge. Business letters, checks, and other papers from Lorain fell from the sky later that evening sixty to ninety miles east in Ashtabula and Geauga Counties.

The steamer City of Erie left from Cleveland loaded with medical supplies for Lorain soon after the tornado while roads were still blocked. This vessel anchored in the Black River and became a base hospital until Monday, when it traveled back to Cleveland with fifty of the injured. Dozens of doctors and hundreds of nurses arrived by rail, auto, and boat from Cleveland and most worked twenty-four hours straight through Sunday afternoon treating the injured at Lorain. Fresh medical personnel arrived Sunday evening. Surgical supplies such as antiseptics, ether, alcohol, and bandages were taken from Lorain drugstores but soon were in short supply and were driven in from neighboring cities. American Red Cross personnel and supplies arrived quickly and hundreds of Boy Scouts came from Cleveland to keep sightseers out of Lorain.

Most of the homeless in Lorain stayed with relatives or neighbors, but others slept on cots in Red Cross tents. Limited radio and telephone communication was established Monday morning. The local telephone system was owned by Lorain County Telephone Company, but it was Ohio Bell Telephone Company linemen who worked through the night Sunday to restore a line to Cleveland. Distilled water was carried to hospitals in trucks, but the general population experienced shortages for two days. Electric service was out so the rescue and medical teams worked first by candles and then by the light of acetylene lamps. Cleveland Railway Company placed their facilities and crews at the service of the Red Cross to provide transportation and assistance in the cleanup of Lorain.

The 30 June Cleveland Plain Dealer reported that four hundred Ohio National Guardsmen under the command of Brig. Gen. John McQuigg "with drawn revolvers and bayonets fixed in their guns" took control of the west and east ends of Lorain while police from Cleveland patrolled the business district. The police in their strict control "recognized absolutely no papers, military or otherwise, and were bold in saying that not even President Coolidge could write a pass to get anybody into the ruined district."

Most debris was cleared from Lorain streets by Monday, 30 June, but buildings were still being searched for bodies. Thirteen more were found Monday, bringing the death toll at Lorain to seventy-two. Everyone had food and a place to sleep provided by the Red Cross, Salvation Army, or ordinary citizens. Some businesses reopened Monday or Tuesday and banks opened temporary offices in the Antlers Hotel to disperse funds to customers. Electricity, gas, and telephone services were restored in most of Lorain by Tuesday, 1 July but a night curfew remained downtown.

A second tornado touched down in Sandusky County west of Vickery ten minutes after the Lorain Tornado first hit Sandusky. This tornado moved eastward along the road to Castalia, then lifted and reformed in Huron Township (Erie County).

A third tornado touched down at 6:00 P.M. near Geauga Lake and traveled for twenty miles through northern Portage County. It is possible that this tornado formed from the same tornado family that produced the Lorain Tornado. It was milking time and three farmers were killed in three milking barns north of Mantua. The tornado continued eastward, passing one-half mile north of Hiram and striking Nelson, where every building in town was damaged (Grazulis 1990). Professor George Colton of Hiram reported the storm passed Hiram at 6:15 P.M. and produced a well-defined track one-third mile wide across the county. Tens of thousands of trees were broken or uprooted, including many orchards and sugar groves. Debris from destroyed homes was carried four hundred feet or more. Evidence of counterclockwise motion was clear. Trees to the right of the path lay to the east, whereas trees to the left of the path lay toward the west. A rafter from a barn eighty feet southwest of a house was blown around the house and into a window on the east side of the house. Lightning was constant during the storm, and more than two inches of rain fell at Hiram in one hour.

The Lorain Public Library System appreciates the permission given by the authors, Thomas W. Schmidlin and Jeanne Appelhans Schmidlin, to post this section from their book, Thunder in the Heartland: A Chronicle of Outstanding Weather Events in Ohio. If you would like to read the entire book you may borrow a copy from the collection of the Lorain Public Library System or your local library.