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The Curious Case of the Hampton Beach Independence Day Tornado

Hampton Beach, one of the more well-known beach towns in New England, had already become a popular destination for area residents by the turn of the 20th century. Trolley lines and railroads to the beach were built in the mid 1800s. The famed Hampton Beach Casino Ballroom opened in 1899. On the Fourth of July 1898, massive crowds headed to the beach for holiday events. One of those events took place at a skating rink where a film was being shown. This rink would be completely destroyed by sunset that day.


Hampton Beach around the turn of the 20th century

The Fourth of July was a very hot, humid one for New England. It had been blistering hot in the days leading up to the holiday, with July 3rd being the peak of the heat. Boston was reported to have reached its highest temperature in 17 years as several climate stations in the northeast recorded 100° temperatures. July 4th wasn't quite as hot, but still plenty stifling. This heat came to an end that afternoon in the form of widespread thunderstorms, as is often the case in New England.


Just after three o'clock in the afternoon, a strong thunderstorm ripped right through Hampton Beach. The storm caused extensive wind damage in the area. According to eyewitness accounts after the storm, large buildings were moved from their foundations while others were destroyed. The destroyed buildings include the skating rink, where crowds of people had fled to when the storm slammed into the beach, hoping to seek refuge from the storm.


The rink was said to be "old and flimsy" at the time of the storm. When the storm arrived from the west, it blew the roof off with all four walls caving in on the crowd inside. Up to 125 people received serious injuries with several deaths occurring. In all, dozens of homes and barns were destroyed in the resort town. When the storm moved out to sea, it capsized a boat, killing another five on board.


Aftermath in Hampton Beach

Shortly after the storm, newspapers reported on the carnage. The New York Times published an article titled "Storm in New Hampshire - Seven killed, many wounded, and great loss of property at Hampton." The article leads off with:


"A terrific tornado struck a section of Hampton Beach at 3:15 this afternoon...The atmospheric disturbance came almost without warning, and was accompanied by little rain at first, a few large drops preceding the swoop of winds. In an instant almost cottages were blown flat..."


This storm was remembered long after it had passed. The Hampton Union & Rockingham County Gazette published an article on July 7th, 1938 to commemorate the storm's 40th anniversary. Little did they know at the time the most powerful and deadliest storm in New England’s history would strike less than three months later. The paper wrote, describing the storm:


"The clouds advanced without any sound, a few stray drops preceded then with a roar and a vibration which some thought was an earthquake, it burst with all its fury, yet withal covering a space but little more than a hundred yards in width as it sped with its circular motion across the beach out to sea. Its duration was brief, but when it had passed there was only wreck and ruin in its wake."

While this description of the storm sounds rather tornado-like, looking back, not all of the known evidence points to this having been a tornado. The storm was immediately labeled a tornado after the event, as seen by the New York Times article.


The Monthly Weather Review is a journal that is currently published by the American Meteorological Society. This monthly journal has been published since 1872. In the July 1898 issue, an article was published titled “TORNADO AT HAMPTON BEACH, N. H., JULY 4, 1898.” The article states that the author, Arthur Sweetland, and another individual visited the scene of the storm two days after the event. After detailing some of the damage, Sweetland went on to write:


“The objects thrown down by the tornado did not show the rotary motion in the front and rear as well as if the storm had traversed a forest or orchard. Most of the fallen objects pointed toward the east or east-southeast…No one seemed to have noticed any pendants (more commonly known as a funnel cloud) descending to the ground. It was difficult to get a good description of the clouds or phenomena connected with the tornado, as almost everyone was too terrified to observe it.

Aftermath at Hampton Beach

This description paints a picture more indicative of straight-line wind damage. Sweetland mentioned that nearly all damage was facing the same direction rather than twisted in multiple directions, which is what occurs during tornadoes. He specifically mentions that the damaged objects did not show rotary motion.   


He also notes that no one reported seeing a funnel cloud out of the potentially thousands of people at the beach that day. With that said, the article also mentions that one person described seeing the cloud “turning over and over.” Another person in nearby Exeter thought “there was a large conflagration at the beach, as the light gray part of the cloud resembled smoke.”


It’s difficult to say whether or not this thunderstorm produced a tornado or a form of severe straight-line wind, such as a microburst. That is what one meteorologist who worked at the National Weather Service of Gray, Maine believes hit Hampton on that fateful Independence day. Microbursts are a localized column of sinking air in a storm that can cause a burst of extreme wind, similar to a tornado. These storms cause straight-line wind damage, but the winds can be strong enough to cause tornado-equivalent damage. 



Just last week, a microburst with straight-line winds estimated at 100mph caused damage in Seekonk, Massachusetts. This microburst came in the vicinity of where two EF-1 tornadoes touched down around the same time as the microburst. The meteorologist at the National Weather Service also notes the large swath of damage as being more indicative of a microburst.


With all of that said, it remains possible that this storm was, in fact, a tornado, or at least produced a tornado at some point. As seen last week, microbursts and tornadoes can occur at the same time in very close proximity to each other. The Seekonk microburst occurred just before a tornado touched down in neighboring Rehoboth. 



Regardless of exactly what this storm was or produced, it ended up being quite a memorable event. Shortly after the storm, crowds flocked to the beach to see the aftermath, as if it was the newest tourist attraction in the area. The 1938 retrospective by the Hampton Union & Rockingham County Gazette concluded by writing:


“When news spread of the calamity there was a great rush to see the ruins. For the next few days there were thousands of sightseers who found that it was almost impossible to get food as not a single chimney was standing and there were oil stoves on the beach.”

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