I was looking through the Hanover photograph files at York County Heritage Trust and came across these photos of the wreckage left behind by the 1915 Hanover tornado. I had heard of it, but never imagined it was so destructive. It is hard to image that the only fatality reported was one horse that was put down after becoming entangled in downed wires and breaking its leg. Humans and many other horses escaped with comparatively few injuries, especially when you consider walls and ceilings collapsed or were blown off many homes, businesses and stables.
Mary Kelly Mills, Harold E. Colestock, Wendy Bish and John McGrew teamed up to publish: Cyclone: A Pictorial History of the 1915 Hanover Tornado, for the Pennsylvania Room, Hanover Public Library. That narrative, with reproductions of newspaper accounts, photos and maps in that publication were essential for researching my recent York Sunday News column on the devastating tornado (see below).
Hanover suffered extensive damage in 1915 tornado, but no lives were lost
Downtown Hanover was busy Saturday evening August 21, 1915. Stores were doing a brisk business with the square area full of shoppers. Automobiles, horse drawn vehicles and trolley cars moved through the streets. Around eight p.m. a heavy downpour sent people scurrying into the stores and motion picture theater. That shower saved lives, as a devastating tornado soon swooped down, causing at least $300,000 damage (in 1915 dollars) in a few minutes. Miraculously, there were no fatalities.
The tornado (then called a cyclone) touched down in two areas. First it hit around the square, York Street, Broadway, Baltimore Street, Exchange Place and Water Street (now West Walnut).
Wentz Bros. & Frey department store lost their roof, and the rear of the second floor, which housed their floorcovering department, was swept away. Fifteen heavy rolls of linoleum came crashing to the first floor, coming within a foot of striking Wentz and a customer. Ruined rugs were found 500 feet distant. Store debris landed next door on the roof of the Hanover Theater, where about 300 people were ready to watch a movie. The tornado took down wires, plunging the town into darkness. Theater patrons started to panic in the dark as the roof dropped under the weight of rubble, but staff quickly lighted the gas lights and averted a stampede.
The nearby Hanover Glove Factory, housing $75,000 in stock, lost the second and third floors of the factory and thousands of gloves. Gloves were found blocks, even miles, away. Some people took advantage of the glove-fall, leading the company to eventually request that gloves be returned to the company’s temporary site in a shoe factory, “no questions asked.” Nearby Center Shaft Pen Holder Company was a “vast heap of wreckage and debris,” disheartening because they had recently rebuilt after a fire. Only the smokestack remained of the Hanover Steam Plant. Trees, automobiles and carriages were spun around the square, horses breaking loose and running away.
The few people on the streets were lucky. A large stone acorn-shaped ornament fell from the top of Tanger Hardware, shattering and denting the sidewalk and missing by three feet two young men running from the storm. Wayne Kroh and his son were on the square with their popcorn and peanut wagon. They managed to keep it on its wheels while “shrieking for help” as they were swirled the whole way across the square and back again.
Trolleys were blown off their tracks. Little Marie Hildebrand, sitting in a street car with her father, trolley conductor Monroe, was blown out to the street. She escaped serious injury. Telephone and telegraph wires tangled with York Street Railway wires, which carried 6,600 volts. No one knew how to turn off the extremely dangerous high voltage. Councilman Curvin Bender became a hero when he used an axe to break into the switch box and bravely pull the switch.
The tornado grounded again around Penn Street, badly damaging many residences, also the Penn Milling Company and Fitz Water Wheel Company, whose roof was carried several blocks and “moulding forms strewn about.” John Rohrbaugh lost the roof to his office and warehouse, and timbers from his planing mill became missiles, ravaging neighborhood houses. Flying wood drove through George Sprenkle’s house wall, just missing him. “A large number of pedigreed stock” disappeared from Sprenkle’s overturned chicken coops.
Newspaper articles praise the resilience of Hanover residents. Cleanup and rebuilding started before daybreak Sunday. Men and women with lanterns and flashlights made their way over wires and debris to help, seeing some strange sights. Alice Kuhn had just moved unto Abbottstown Street. Getting her house in order, she sat down in a rocking chair for a short rest before going to the movies. The whole side wall was suddenly torn away, leaving the furniture exposed but intact. Mark Whisler’s wife and three children were home alone when part of the front of the house and the roof were torn off, the windows and doors smashed and trees and porches blown away. Glass and broken furniture scattered throughout the house, but the only injury reported was a cut above one boy’s eye. Mary Yost’s house on Centennial Avenue had no outside damage and no windows or doors blown open, “but on the inside the rooms appeared to have been struck by a bomb. Locks were blown off the inside door and cannot be found, carpets were torn from the floors and pictures thrown from the walls; the dishes were thrown from the sideboard and the second floor of the house caved in.”
Since telephone and telegraph wires were down, a Hanover Evening Sun employee drove to York about 10 p.m. Saturday, alerting the outside world. Journalists from as far away as Philadelphia and New York arrived the next day. The sightseers soon came in full force. The York Daily reported that people lined up in the York Center Square before seven a.m. to catch trolleys leaving at nine. Realizing the inadequacy of the two regular cars to Hanover, York Street Railways quickly added seven more cars. The company transported 3,000 people to Hanover from nine a.m. to four p.m. The electric trolley lines, unlike other wires, had little damage and were quickly repaired and switched on.
They also came from miles around by automobile, carriage and train. Massive traffic jams resulted. The throng of pedestrians in the streets was compared to crowds that usually jammed the annual fair. Restaurants and groceries quickly ran out of ready food. Clubs exhausted beer supplies before noon. Some visitors sought out Hanover friends and relatives, but many went hungry and thirsty.
Sightseers “loitered in the town up to four p.m.,” causing a rush to get back on the trolley cars. Some trolley passengers hadn’t returned to York on trolleys by ten p.m., and the Daily said returning automobiles “resembled a motor parade.”
Hanover rose to the challenge. Two weeks after the tornado, the extensive festivities for their Centennial Celebration went on as planned.
For much more on the disaster and recovery see Cyclone: A Pictorial History of the 1915 Hanover Tornado by Mary Kelly Mills & Harold E. Colestock. It was published as a Research Project of the Pennsylvania Room, Hanover Public Library in 1996 by Wendy Bish and John R. McGrew, and can be used there and at York County Heritage Trust. It includes over 90 photos and maps gathered by photo editor John R. McGrew and reproduction newspaper articles, including those of the Hanover Evening Sun and York Daily referenced here.