Wednesday, April 12, 1893 was an unusually warm day with rain in the late morning. The skies cleared in the afternoon and the air was still warm. In the early evening clouds were seen forming in the west, the shape and actions of which indicated strong winds. Just before 7:00 pm a storm passed over the city with a vivid display of lightning. As a precaution, the electric lights of the city were turned off, enveloping the city in darkness. At about 7:05 pm a tornado formed and came to earth near the south end of Summit Street. (Note: technically the storm was a tornado but local newspapers of the time referred to it as a cyclone.)
“Chimneys and outbuildings and trees were overturned on the west side of the street, and on the east side the house of George Voorhees, lately purchased from Mr. Miles, was moved from its foundation, windows and doors broken, and the contents of the house generally wrecked. The family were fortunately absent. An old house north of that was somewhat shattered, and trees and small buildings were destroyed as far as M. T. Conklin's to the north and Prof. McClenshan's south showing thus a width of about 500 feet. The trees were thrown both east and west at the same spot,” noted The Ypsilantian of Thursday, April 13, 1893.
Only one building south of Michigan Avenue was damaged, this was Good Samaritan Hall, a church. It is said the sexton was just raising his arms to ring the bell, when the wind carried off the roof and the belfry. “His surprise”, noted The Ypsilanti Commercial of Friday, April 14, 1893, “may be imagined.”
The tornado continued on leaving the streets full of debris. The tornado lifted at Michigan, then known as Congress, and Ballard, returning to earth at Michigan and Adams. “The fine double residence occupied by Mr. Grove Spencer and Mrs. S. A. De Nike was utterly demolished. This is one of the most perfect wrecks left by the storm. The entire western half of the house is razed to within a few feet of the ground and the eastern wall all blown away. Mr. Spencer's family escaped the certain death that waited them had they been upstairs, by being at supper in the basement, and Mrs. De Nike's family on the first floor were saved by the strong partition walls,” reported The Ypsilanti Commercial.
The wind carried away the roof and walls to the upper floor of the Curtis Carriage factory (where the Key Bank Building is now), leaving buggies exposed. The tornado then crossed the street to make a wreck of the Cleary College building, the eastern wall gone, the tower ripped down to the second floor and the north wing totally destroyed. The Opera House was demolished, with only the front wall left standing. The Opera House was empty at the time.
The walls of the Opera House fell onto the Hawkins House next door, caving in the wooden portion at the rear, the first floor used as a dining room with sleeping rooms on the second. Cassius Valentine had just finished his supper in the dining room, and was in the office, where he had just paid his bill, as he was preparing to leave on the train. Suddenly the large attractive room was filled with dust and particles of brick and mortar. After the roar of the storm had passed, he heard the cries of several young women in the dining room.
“Mrs. Westfall and daughter were in one of the chambers above, and as the building crushed and darkness enveloped them, they felt the floor sink. They clasped arms about each other and a moment later found themselves in the dining room below, surrounded by brick and mortar and broken boards, and marvelous to relate, quite unhurt. A whole bedroom with its four walls in place now stands in that dining room,” reported The Ypsilantian.
“One girl was in the room when the crash came, and she was rescued with some difficulty but unhurt. A traveling man who was ill had retired, and he, bed and bedroom and all was suddenly dropped into the dining room. He gathered his night robe gracefully about him it is said and walked out from among the rubbish unhurt,” reported The Ypsilanti Commercial. It is said the traveling man left the city on the next train.
The tall chimney of the box factory on Pearl Street is said to have been carried off in one piece, and was, it is said, seen flying horizontally toward the east. The chimney was never found. Then the tornado moved onto Huron Street, damaging the buildings between Michigan Avenue and Pearl Street. It ripped the front off the second floor of a market, and shattered the wide windows of the stores, then drenched the interiors with water. A tin roof was carried off a building, and ended up wrapped around the front of a boarding house across the street.
Crossing the river the tornado continued on its path of destruction, ripping roofs off houses, breaking windows and spreading debris. A barn was torn into kindling wood, but the mustang in the barn was not hurt. “Then the storm crossed the M. C. track to the spacious and beautiful grounds of John Gilbert, destroying trees and fences, but the fine, high house escaped with broken windows,” reported The Ypsilantian.
“Across Grove Street there,” continued The Ypsilanti Commercial, “the home of W. A. Moore was unroofed and most of the interior and rear walls torn out. His barn was torn all to pieces, and he found his horse on the hay floor, faced about and still hitched to the ruins of the manger, and unhurt.”
As suddenly as it began, it ended. The tornado passed through the city in a span of time lasting ten to fifteen minutes. This writhing demon of a storm had crossed a mile and a half of the city with the sound of a hundred freight trains. As soon as the storm had passed men and women, holding lanterns, went out onto the darken streets, filled with ruin, to search for the dead and injured. The pleasant surprise was, there were no dead, and there were no serious injuries. At the time, the cost of the damage was placed at $100,000. The work of rebuilding began almost at once.
“The cyclone struck Ypsilanti, Mich.,” reported The St. Louis Post Dispatch, “but the name of the town was not harmed. It is neither better nor worse than before the storm. It is supposed that the letters were blown together in the first place, and that no cyclone can further tangle them up.”
(James Mann is a local author and historian, a volunteer in the YHS Archives, and a regular contributor to the Gleanings.)
Photo 1: Damage to the home of Mrs. S. A. DeNike from the 1893 Cyclone. The house was located on Michigan Avenue just West of Cleary College.
Photo 2: Damage to buildings along Huron Street from the 1893 Cyclone.
Photo 3: Damage to the Ypsilanti Opera House from the Cyclone of 1893.
Photo 4: Damage to the West side of Huron Street North to Pearl Street from the Cyclone of 1893.
Photo 5: Damage to the Ypsilanti Business District from the Cyclone of 1893.