“There may have been tornadoes in Manhattan Island before meteorological records were kept, but old inhabitants say that the one which cut a swath of nearly an eighth of a mile wide on the bluff of Inwood on Friday, July 5th, was the first of which they had ever heard.” (New York Tribune Illustrated – July 14, 1901)
In the summer of 1901 Gotham suffered the deadliest heat wave in New York City history. From June 29-July 6th at least 989 individuals perished in weather so hot it melted asphalt and drove scores of New Yorkers insane.
For a solid week New Yorkers cursed, collapsed, threw themselves into wells, leaped to their deaths from bridges, overwhelmed morgues and stretched police and hospital workloads beyond their limit.
Some fell to their deaths while sleeping on rooftops while seeking relief from their stifling, windowless tenements—dizzy, confused, dehydrated–trying to escape the suffocating air inside.
As the death count mounted newspapers began keeping daily tallies of the dead. Grim articles with headlines like ‘Morgue Crowded with Bodies” and “New York Holocaust” spelled out gruesome details of the ongoing catastrophe.
Newspaper readers absorbed the calamity with morbid fascination.
Hundreds of horses lay dead and bloated in the street, preventing ambulance service and removal of the dead. The young and the elderly were particularly vulnerable. Special boats were commissioned to take infants out to sea in hopes the ocean breezes would better sustain life than the oven-like atmosphere in the sweltering metropolis.
New York commerce stood still. The stock exchange shut down. Employers were encouraged to close up shop until the heat wave, or “Warm Wave” to use turn of the century parlance, had passed.
On July 3rd, 1901 Professor Willis Luther Moore, head of the newly formed U.S. Weather Bureau warned New Yorkers that July 4th would be the hottest in recorded history.
“You may say,” said Professor Moore,” that this will be a record breaker, nothing like it ever having been recorded in the annals of the United States Weather Bureau for intensity of heat and the number of deaths it causes. The two days that are to come will be something extremely bad. The death rate will mount rapidly, prostrations from sunstroke being numerous. The coming Fourth of July will be the hottest on record, and this will add much to the average casualties of the day.” (The Evening World, July 3, 1901.)
While the casualty list would skyrocket as the days progressed, three separate thunderstorms on the Fourth of July would prove a brief respite from the heat. Still a balmy 86 degrees, the heat killed only 57 people on the Fourth compared with 317 the day before.
The following day, July 5th, 1901, weary New Yorkers prayed for more rain—if only to cool things off for a short while.
In Inwood, on the northern tip of Manhattan, they received more than they bargained for.
The below article from the New York Illustrated Tribune describes a once in a lifetime meteorological event that played out right here in our own backyard.
New York Tribune
July 14, 1901
“There may have been tornadoes in Manhattan Island before meteorological records were kept, but old inhabitants say that the one which cut a swath of nearly an eighth of a mile wide on the bluff of Inwood on Friday, July 5th, was the first of which they had ever heard. The nearest previous visitation of this character, and the only one remembered within the present limits of New York City, occurred at Woodhaven Junction, in the present borough of Queens, a short time before consolidation.
There appears to be little doubt that the Inwood storm of a week ago was a genuine tornado. It was a black funnel shaped cloud, and came with a humming like a swarm of bees, which almost instantly rose to a deafening roar; and before those in its tracks had time to think had done its work of destruction and passed out of sight. It swooped down on the bluff with terrific force, snapping off like matchsticks hundreds of large trees and uprooting others which had withstood the tempests of a century, bounded entirely by the high ground at Fort George and the Harlem River, and then touched down the earth again at Featherbed Lane, across the Harlem, where it mowed another swath through the woods for a short distance, then lifted and disappeared. That no dwelling houses were razed and no lives lost seems miraculous. The burst of wind was followed by a downpour od rain which flooded the stricken district and extended far beyond it in all directions. The water, which descended more rapidly than the sewers could carry it away, rose above the floors in many houses in the valley between Inwood and Fort George, and almost to the ceilings in some houses in the Borough of the Bronx. Hail fell after the tornado had swept by, and broke many windows and skylights, killed poultry and frightened women and children.
The tornado first touched the earth on the summit of the bluff between One-hundred-and-ninety-fourth and Two Hundredth streets. Many trees were prostrated on the high ground, and two hundred linear feet of the sheds of Durando’s Abbey Hotel were blown down, much of the wreckage being carried over the steep bluff into the valley below. The cloud rushed down the declivity as if impelled by a resistless weight, wrecking the stately forest trees which had long been the pride of the neighborhood by breaking them off at distances varying from two to twenty feet from the ground, denuding great trunks of their branches and tearing others from the ground by their roots. The destruction on the William H. Hayes estate, where the Abbey hotel is situated was perhaps greater than at any other place. Charles H. Aitken, a game fowl breeder, who livees at the foot of the bluff, was the worst sufferer, except one. His little barn was demolished by the tempest and falling trees, and his two horses were imprisoned beneath the wreckage. They had not been taken out at 4 o’clock last Monday afternoon, although enough of the debris had been removed to enable their owner to know they were unharmed and to permit the animals to be fed and watered.
Two greenhouses belonging to H.L. Battleman, the florist, about three hundred yards out in the valley from Mr. Aitken’s place, were in the track of the whirlwind, and were demolished. Three others were just outside the path of the storm, and escaped.
The Kingsbridge Road down the hillside from the Boulevard and Eleventh Avenue was rendered impassable by the rush of water. The Muschenheim place, on the top of the bluff, suffered severely. Many of the trees cherished by A.T. Stewart while he owned the property were uprooted, and nearly all the others were denuded of their branches, or their trunks were broken in two. The L.H. Libby place, once the property of William H. Tweed, was also greatly damaged by the tornado. Among the roadways, besides the Kingsbridge Road, which were badly washed by the flood were the Bridge road, between Tryon Terrace and the Abbey; the winding road from the Abbey to the Kingsbridge Road; Lafayette Boulevard and French Boulevard. All the unpaved streets and paths leading down the hills in the vicinity were converted into brooks by the rush of water.”