Hellertown History: In 1890 Tornado Tore Through Town, Killing 10-Year-Old

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Note: The following 1890 newspaper article was reprinted in “Hellertown, Pa. Centennial, 1872-1972.”

SOUTH BETHLEHEM STAR – July 18, 1890

DEATH IN THE STORM: Hellertown is Struck Yesterday by a Great Storm Which Kills One Person, Injures Many and Destroys a Great Deal of Property

Shortly after 4 o’clock yesterday afternoon a peculiar stillness and calm was noticed by the residents of Hellertown, and many of the older people predicted a severe storm. A STAR reporter who was in the town at the time was among the number who prophesied the storm’s approach and his worst fears as to its severity surpassed prediction. About 4:30 o’clock dark clouds came sweeping down from the Lehigh Mountain from the northwest and from the southeast a similar approach was noticed. The two met in the Saucon Valley between Hellertown and Grim’s mill. The opposing forces seemed to diverge and the cloud from the northwest, which was of a funnel shape, swept on in its course. It struck the barn of Levi Riegel, along the railroad, above the furnace, unroofing it. Next it struck and carried away part of the overhead bridge on the railroad, tore the roof from the stockhouse at the blast furnace, and leveled trees, fences and outhouses along its course for a space of half a mile. A freight car standing on a side track at the furnace was swept along until it reached the switch, where it was thrown from the rails. The field of corn east of the railroad, one of the finest in the Valley, was stripped to the ground as if cut with knives.

Next in the storm’s course was a large frame barn of Charles Stevers, which was leveled to the ground. It contained the season’s crops. An immense hay stack on a hill on the same farm was carried away, the hay being strewn along the storm’s path for miles.

The storm seemed to gain in fury every minute and as it struck the fine new 3-story brick building of the Hellertown Agricultural Works it was at its height. The men within ceased to work as the storm approached, but little realized their peril. When the whirling cloud struck the building it drew the structure up with its great suction, twisted it and smashed it to fragments from top to bottom. Many of the heavy timbers, large pieces of the tin roof and even the bricks were carried off, while others crashed down on the heads of the terror-stricken employees, burying them in the confused mass. Every person in the building was more or less injured. Those who could do so set to work in the drenching rain and hail to rescue their fellow workmen.

A sad sight met the eyes of the rescuers as they proceeded with their work. John*, the 10 year old son of Dr. E. J. Freeman, of Freemansburg, who had been spending several days with Charles Barba, the son of Foreman Barba, was in the mill when the storm came and was caught under the falling mass and instantly killed. His head was terribly crushed and his body frightfully mangled.

The following is a list of the injured:

  • WILLIAM H. BARBA, general manager of the works, badly injured about the hips and internally.
  • SAMUEL SOLIDAY JR., forehead badly gashed and body bruised.
  • FRANK BODDER, cut about head and body bruised.
  • SAMUEL SOLIDAY SR., body bruised severely.
  • CHARLES SOLIDAY, boss moulder, head lacerated and badly bruised.
  • WILLIAM REILEY, head badly cut and otherwise injured.
  • HARRY KLINE, carpenter, both hands lacerated and body bruised.

Several of the men who were caught in the yard of the works were picked up by the storm and carried several hundred yards into adjoining fields, but were little injured. A faint idea of the force of the storm can be had when it is told that portions of the tin roof weighing hundreds of pounds were twisted into balls and carried a thousand yards, one of them lodging in the yard of David Bodder, on Main Street.

The storm cloud continued on in a southeasterly direction, striking the frame slaughterhouse and barn of Jacob Hagey, tearing them to pieces. Mr. Hagey and several members of his family were at work in the slaughterhouse at the time and made miraculous escapes. Two horses, which were in the barn, were buried under the falling mass but, strange to say, were taken out unhurt. The large barn of Milton Bright, near by, was lifted into the air from its foundation and twisted to pieces. The lumber yard of Hess & Bro. was turned into a chaotic state. The lumber was carried off, and after the storm great quantities of it hung on trees in a near-by orchard. Hess & Bros. planing mill escaped with the big doors being blown in and the windows smashed by the hail. A large frame stable of Mrs. Kreidler, on Main Street was leveled, and the roof and top story of a 2-story brick building belonging to John Moyer, of Bucks county, and occupied by Titus Ruch, was carried off and the house flooded. The family was at supper at the time and none of the members was injured. The tin roof of the residence of Elwood Ball was torn off and the house deluged. The steeple of Christ Union Church was torn off and lodged in a yard nearby. The roof of Odd Fellows’ Hall was also badly damaged.

Among the properties damaged are: Hellertown Park Hotel, Dr. A. Brown’s residence, the handsome residenced of Jere S. and Milton J. Hess, the residences of Constable Moyer, Miss Mary Rentzheimer, John A. Geissinger, I. T. Hartzog, Dr. Wm. F. Detweiler, George B. Deemer, Jacob Nickum and others. But few houses escaped damage, and there is hardly a house on Main Street from which the chimneys were not knocked off.

When the storm had passed and the news of the fatality at the Agricultural Works, and the great destruction wrought had become known, the wildest excitement prevailed. Drs. H. D. Heller, A. Brown, Wm. F. Detweiler, of that place, and John A. Detweiler, of Bethlehem, were summoned to the scene and attended the injured. The remains of the unfortunate lad were taken to his home by his father who had been notified of the sad occurrence.

Among those who made very narrow escapes were James D. Woodring, Esq., and Jacob Ruthard, who were returning from a frog shooting trip. Their team was caught under a falling shed, in which they had sought shelter. Their buggy was wrecked.

The storm passed on towards Springtown, doing great damage all along its path. The stack and engine-house at Bachman’s iron mines were leveled, and three grain stacks on the farm of Titus Bodder were scattered.

A meeting of the directors and stockholders of the Hellertown Manufacturing Company, the owners of the destroyed works, was held in Odd Fellows’ Hall, last night. Jacob B. Leith is president of the company and J. S. Hess, secretary. It was decided to rebuild the works as soon as the insurance is adjusted. The loss on the works is estimated at $10,000.

The total loss to property in the town and vicinity will amount to upwards of $25,000.**

*Click here to view the FindAGrave.com listing for John Knecht George Freeman, who was killed in the 1890 tornado and is buried in Trinity United Church of Christ Cemetery in Freemansburg.

**According to a historic inflation calculation, the monetary damage caused by the storm would be equivalent to more than $625,000 today.

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