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Sherman Says: The polar vortex of 2014 can’t top the infamous tornado of 1889

WILLIAMSVILLE — The recent fierce winter storm qualified for official status as a blizzard, in the eyes of the National Weather Service. Hundreds of schools were closed and major roadways were shut down. It had been more than 20 years since a blizzard had been declared in Western New York.

The blizzard that hit Buffalo recently was part of a much larger system dubbed a polar vortex.

A polar vortex is a large, swirling pool of extremely cold air located tens of thousands of feet in the atmosphere, according to Frank Giannasca, senior meteorologist with the Weather Channel. Basically an arctic cyclone, it ordinarily spins counterclockwise, around the north and south poles.

Last week, it moved southward over a large part of the country, with as many as 140 million Americans being affected. The Buffalo area endured wind gusts of about 50 mph, combined with daily doses of snow that reminded many residents of the infamous Blizzard of ’77.

We made national news, but once again, for all the wrong reasons.

Yet, the polar vortex was hardly the first time our region has been part of a colossal, continental weather event. A severe storm with numerous names smashed into the Northeast, almost exactly 125 years ago.

In its Jan. 17, 1889, edition, The Amherst Bee reported on a tornado that hit western Pennsylvania.

“A dispatch from Pittsburgh on Jan. 9 says that the storm that passed over the city and wrought such frightful destruction to life and property possessed every feature of a tornado. The thermometer fell 14 degrees. The chief catastrophe was the collapse of the building at Wood and Diamond streets. From the best information available, eight persons were killed outright or died in a short time and 35 others were injured,” read the account.

Graphic images were concocted by the Frederick News.

“The scenes on the street were awful. Dozens of policemen and firemen kept the mob back from the vicinity of the disaster, while others, covered with soot and dust, ran in and out of the wrecked building, carrying in tools and bringing out the victims, as fast as they were recovered.”

In Harrisburg, the weather office’s anemometer blew away, never to be seen again.

Far to the east, the tornado slammed into Brooklyn. Accounts published in the Brooklyn Eagle were vivid and dramatic.

“I was sitting at dinner with my family when suddenly, we heard a sound as though a number of heavy trucks were coming down on the asphalt pavement on the street. One of my children evidently had a good view of the [oil tank] explosion from the rear windows said, ‘Oh, papa, the sun is burst,’” said Charles E. Teale, a member of the Brooklyn Board of Education.

“It was almost impossible to find a street in the Western district of Brooklyn yesterday that did not show some trace of the cyclonic disturbance of Wednesday night,” wrote The New York Times.

Last week, The Times reported that people were similarly obsessed with meteorological nomenclature, following the 1889 storm.

“Was it a tornado? A gale? A gustnado? According to The Times, which quoted an unnamed official of the Unites States Signal Service Office, the technical name for the disturbance in Brooklyn was a tornado, and not a cyclone or hurricane. ‘It was a windstorm, pure and simple.’”

Yet, not even the whistle stop called Williamsville could escape the 1889 storm’s fury.

“During last week’s storm, the roof was blown entirely off Mr. Gregory Wick’s barn. Also, a smoke house was blown over at Mr. John Klein’s, 12 large apple trees were uprooted in Mr. George Haussauer’s orchard, the lower sash of a window in the stone schoolhouse was blown in and a smoke stack and stones from one of the chimneys on the Catholic church were damaged,” read The Bee.

Thanks to forecasts sent out days ahead of last week’s weather event, people seemed more prepared, this time around. My barn, smoke house, orchard, window sashes and chimney are fine.

David F. Sherman is managing editor of Bee Group Newspapers and a columnist for the Weekly Independent Newspapers of Western New York, a group of community newspapers with a combined circulation of 286,500 readers. Opinions expressed here are those of the author. He can be reached at


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