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Our Rich History: 1915 storm – with winds, rains – wrecked buildings, but not spirit of Newporters

By Paul A. Tenkotte
Special to NKyTribune

Part 68 of our series, “Resilience and Renaissance: Newport, Kentucky, 1795-2020.”

Wednesday, July 7, 1915, was a rather typical summer day in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky. The Cincinnati Post weather forecast predicted “showers and thunderstorms in this vicinity tonight and Thursday without much change in temperature.” With temperatures expected to reach the upper 70s, the day did not necessarily appear foreboding.

The storm destroyed the bell tower of Grace Methodist Church on East 6th Street in Newport. Courtesy of Northern Kentucky Views.

In fact, the lack of drastic temperature or other changes — as well as the time of year — did not spell any immediate concerns for tornadoes. At about 7 p.m. on Wednesday evening, a low-pressure system moved from Northwestern Iowa into the area of “central eastern Illinois.” At 9:29 p.m., high-velocity winds and rain began to pound Cincinnati’s densely populated West End, lasting until 9:35 p.m. A little farther east at the National Weather Service (NWS) headquarters in downtown Cincinnati, officials clocked the winds at 50 miles per hour, gusting up to 60 mph. NWS officials claimed that the storm did not exhibit cyclonic activity, but merely straight-line winds. Whether or not the storm was officially a tornado or not, according to a Cincinnati NWS official, “‘The damage done was the greatest in the history of the Cincinnati Weather Bureau’” (“Damage is Greatest in History,” Cincinnati Post, July 8, 1915, p. 7).

By Friday, July 9th, the Cincinnati Post reported the death toll in Cincinnati at 30, and one in the Northern Kentucky town of Elsmere. An additional 15 people were still recorded missing. These July 1915 casualties still hold the record for weather-related fatalities in the Cincinnati area. (“Revised List of Dead and Missing in Storm,” Cincinnati Post, July 9, 1915, pp. 1, 10).

The storm destroyed the Clifton Public School, just south of Newport. Courtesy of Northern Kentucky Views.)

The damage was estimated in the millions of dollars in the metropolitan area. Lying across the Ohio River from Cincinnati, Covington and Newport suffered heavy losses as well. Especially hard hit was the hilltop suburb of Clifton, just south of Newport. Often called “Spaghetti Hill” or “Spaghetti Knob” because it attracted Italian-American settlement, the town was still independent in 1915. Twenty years later, in 1935, it would be annexed to Newport. (See this Rich History column.)

The Clifton Public School lay in ruins, as did many homes. At 203 Grandview Avenue, the Lines family were in their beds. Eleven-year-old Emerson Lines and his three-year-old sister, Ruth, were sleeping on the third floor of their brick home. A Kentucky Post reporter vividly described the scene: “Their parents, sleeping on the second floor, were awakened by the wind and rushed downstairs and out to save some poultry, not aware of the danger threatening their sleeping children.” The storm tore the roof off their house, and began to hurl bricks everywhere. Now awakened, Emerson “snatched his baby sister” out of her bed, just “as a mass of brick and mortar fell into the room. One brick grazed the girl’s head, stunning her. Another struck him on the back, bruising and staggering him.” With the help of another sibling, the two made it to safety. (“Youth is Real Hero; Saves Child from Ruins,” Kentucky Post, July 24, 1915, p. 1).

On West Fifth Street, Immaculate Conception Catholic Church’s massive bell tower was weakened and had to be removed, later replaced with a much-truncated steeple. The church’s pastor for 39 years, Rev. James McNerney, was already suffering from serious illness when the tornado hit. According to a Kentucky Post reporter, Fr. McNerney’s “condition became grave July 7, caused, authorities say, by excitement incident to the tornado.” McNerney died on Monday evening, July 19th at age 78 (“Father McNerney Said to be Dying,” Kentucky Post, July 19, 1915, p. 2; “Rev. M’Nerney Dies after Long Illness,” Kentucky Post, July 20, 1915, p. 1).

View of a destroyed home in the suburb of Clifton, just south of Newport. (Courtesy of Northern Kentucky Views.)

Many Newport residents did not carry tornado insurance. The city waived all fees for building permits and also sent out cleanup crews to clear wreckage from the streets. In general, civility guided the cleanup efforts, with no looting reported. All Newporters seemed to pitch in.

Within minutes, the storm had destroyed or damaged homes, churches, businesses, and schools. Even nature itself suffered, as Newport’s Superintendent of Streets estimated that “1,000 large trees were uprooted by the tornado and many small ones damaged.” Women across the city led attempts to replant the trees in the coming Autumn. As the President of the Campbell County Humane Society, Mrs. Anna E. Raison, clearly stated, “‘Newport has long been known as a city of numerous and beautiful trees. In a few minutes, the storm destroyed these plants which have been many years in growing beautiful.’” And in a spirit of optimism for the future, she stated unequivocally, that the citizens would “replace damaged trees with more hardy and more beautiful types’ ” (“Women Plan to Restore City’s Trees,” Kentucky Post, July 15, 1915, p. 1).

We want to learn more about the history of your business, church, school, or organization in our region (Cincinnati, Northern Kentucky, and along the Ohio River). If you would like to share your rich history with others, please contact the editor of “Our Rich History,” Paul A. Tenkotte, at tenkottep@nku.edu. Paul A. Tenkotte, PhD is Professor of History at Northern Kentucky University (NKU) and the author of many books and articles.

Source: “Freak Velocity of the Wind Shown,” Cincinnati Post, July 8, 1915, p. 9.

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