Saturday, 23 November 2013

The Regina Tornado


Damage to houses after Regina Tornado, 1912 (Canadian Public Domain)

Seeing that the Saskatchewan Roughriders--my favorite sports team--are in the Grey Cup this weekend and that the game will be in Regina, what better story than a Regina one...right?

Sunday, 30 June 1912 was a hot, muggy day on the prairies of southern Saskatchewan. In the capital city of Regina, people were outside enjoying themselves, despite the heat. But, what the heck…they were almost used to it by now because this stifling weather had persisted for weeks. Besides, nothing would deter the people of Regina from celebrating the upcoming Dominion Day (now Canada Day) on Monday.

The streets and houses were already decorated with lights, flags, bunting and other paraphernalia. The people were jovial, ready to celebrate the country’s 45th birthday. That afternoon, Regina’s mayor, Peter McAra Jr was showing some Grand Pacific Railway VIPs around the modern city of 30,000-plus Reginans. He was proud of his city with such visually-pleasing scenery as tree-lined boulevards, paved streets, planked sidewalks, the lovely residential neighborhoods the grandiose, and the newly-constructed Legislative Building at a cost of $3 million. Regina had sewer and water lines installed and an expanding warehouse district in the northeast. It also had 5 public schools, one Catholic school, a college, 2 hospitals and 3 daily newspapers, the Leader, the Province and the Standard.

My grandfather, Ted Oancia, 13 at the time, was living in the city. To beat the oppressive heat, he and a few young, male friends went skinny-dipping at a secluded spot on the eastern side of Wascana Lake, near Broad Street, within sight of the Legislative Building. Immigrants from Romania just 2 years before, my grandfather’s family had a strong link to the Legislative Building. Ted’s father, Dobre, had worked on the site for a time in 1911-1912 mixing roof tar at $2.50 a day. Prior to that, he helped construct the first wooden sidewalks in the downtown and residential areas  at $1.50 a day, a job he was fortunate to nab shortly after arriving from the old country. For a period of 2 months in early 1912, my grandfather’s mother, Maria, spent 3 hours each evening cleaning the newly-completed Legislative Building rooms for a pretty-decent 50 cents a night.

Even young Ted had a job there for 2 weeks in 1911, paid 75 cents a day to carry countless pails of water from a nearby well to the thirsty workers.  Grueling work, I’m sure for all three. After the water-boy job, Ted earned  $12.00 a week setting pins in a downtown bowling alley, then selling
Winnipeg Free Press newspapers on city street corners for 10 cents a copy. His earnings there were anywhere from $1.50 to $2.50 a day. By June 1912, Dobre and Maria had already left town. They had paid $10 to file for a quarter-section homestead about 115 miles southwest of Regina, in the Stonehenge area. Ted’s parents and his 4 siblings had arrived there in the spring of 1912, leaving Ted (the oldest of the kids) behind in Regina to work at the tender age of 13. He lived in a room above a downtown city restaurant and ate his meals at a nearby confectionery for $10 a month.

By 4 PM that June 30 afternoon, the heat began to vanish and the barometer took a nosedive. Heavy, menacing thunderclouds appeared in the southwest. At 4:45, two gray-green funnel clouds appeared 10 miles to the south and began to head north towards the city and its unsuspecting residents. The funnels quickly turned brown from the debris and ground it was picking up. Then either the 2 funnels formed into one or one of the funnels simply disappeared. No one knows for sure. Those in the city who could see what was happening headed for home. On the very edge of Regina stood the new Legislative Building on the southern shore of Wascana Lake. Observers stood in awe as the funnel cloud--with the awful sound of a roaring train and accompanied by rain, lightning, and hail--headed straight for the stately structure…

Before the twister reached the city, it had taken aim at several farms, throwing animals and machinery around like toys. The first fatality was Quebecer Andrew Roy, a visitor to one of the farms. By now it’s estimated that the tornado’s path was nearly 500 feet wide and had picked up internal speeds of over 200 miles per hour…

Luckily, the twister went right around the Legislative Building slightly to the east (although it blew out any closed south-side windows and caused some damage inside), then tore across the man-made Wascana Lake in the form of a waterspout, picking up a few million tons of water in the process.  A few hundred feet to the east, my grandfather and his friends watched in shock, not believing what they were witnessing, as their clothes were being blown away, never to be seen again. Meanwhile, across the lake to the west, Bruce Langton and Philip Steele were paddling together in a canoe, desperately trying to reach shore. They were spared when Steele was knocked into the water and Langton was carried by the storm to Wascana Park on the north side of the lake. Langton came out the worst, a broken arm, while Steele was in shock once he reached the shore on his own. Next, came the well-to-do residential district on the other side of the park, along Smith and Lorne streets, east of Albert Street (the north-south main artery where I used to cruise with my ’63 Chevy in my early adult years). This was where the swizzle-stick crowd resided in their large homes with landscaped yards worth anywhere from $7,000-18,000. Their streets were paved and almost all the homes had electrical and sewer hookups. Some had garages housing the new phenomenon, the automobile. Several houses took direct hits, while others nearby exploded from the pressures inside. Other houses alongside these ones were miraculously untouched.
The entire area was drenched in Wascana Lake water, along with rain from the storm.

1912 Regina Tornado damage to the Metropolitan Methodist Church, YWCA, and Public Library (Canadian Public Domain)

Still moving north but on a more narrow path now, the twister badly damaged Knox Presbyterian Church on 12th Avenue and Lorne Street, the Metropolitan Methodist Church nearby, and down from there the new Central Library that had just opened 6 weeks before, a building that the famed Andrew Carnegie had donated money to.  The 2 square blocks of Victoria Park, across the street, took a direct hit and was a wasteland of ripped-up trees. In the same area, the YMCA and YWCA  were also in ruins, both resulting in at least $50,000 damage each. Then the twister took a turn to the northeast to the warehouse district on the edge of town where the deadly path widened again. The CPR Roundhouse was stripped bare, rail tracks were bent, boxcars were thrown into the air like cardboard containers, warehouses were crushed, a 75,000-bushel grain elevator was blown over, and more houses destroyed, these ones belonging to the lower, working-class families made of wood, not the stronger brick-built ones of the south. The 2-story telephone exchange on the east side of 1700 block Lorne Street was completely demolished, while 11 people were inside. None were hurt.  The tornado continued on…into the open country for about 7 miles where it petered out…finally…

Back at his home on Victoria Avenue near Hamilton Street, Mayor McAra stood with his Grand Trunk VIPs on the front lawn, stunned by destruction around them, after having to dive for cover in the house only minutes before. Meanwhile, my grandfather and his friends waited by their swimming spot until sundown, four hours later, before they entered the city, naked and in shock. A few anxious parents were quite relieved to see the boys alive and unhurt despite their nakedness. Early the next morning, Ted and his friends went out to view the destruction. A few blocks away was a jewelry store that had collapsed and the kids started helping themselves to a few of the articles in the rubble. But a policeman came along, took the articles and chased the boys away. They then went down to the next block and found another badly-damaged store, but the same policeman was hot on their tails and threatened to arrest them. This time, they took off back to their own houses.

Rated a F4 on the Fujita scale, the Regina Tornado left behind twenty-eight official deaths (still the worst Canadian storm in death count), hundreds injured, 2,500 people homeless, 500 buildings and 30 cars destroyed or damaged, and at least  $1 million in property damage, the equivalent of almost $500 million in today’s money. All this from a destructive path 3 blocks wide and 12 blocks long. One of the destroyed homes belonged to Walter Scott, the premier of the province. In the aftermath, the city charged the homeless for the use of cots sets up in schools and parks. They also charged the homeowners for removing rubble from in and around their homes. Nice guys. Kick them while they’re down, why don’t yuh. The city could have been a little more understanding, like Andrew Carnegie, who paid the $9,500 reconstruction bill to replace the public library roof and all the blown-out windows, even though he had already contributed to the building in the first place.

What exactly is an F4 tornado? Officially, it means a…devastating tornado…207-260 miles per hour…well-constructed houses leveled; structures with weak foundations blown off some distance; cars thrown and large missiles generated.

Every historical event has its oddities. And the 1912 Regina Tornado was no exception...

Opposite a couple open windows in the Legislative Building, final exams for all the Saskatchewan grade schools were stacked in piles along several tables inside one room. When the tornado raced around the south side of the building, it sucked the papers out the windows. As a result, the teachers were forced to pass or fail their students based on what they remembered about each boy or girl in their class…

In town the day of the storm was twenty-four-year-old English actor William Pratt, whom we know better as Boris Karloff, the man who later played in a lot of creepy horror films that scared the living daylights out of me as a kid. The Jeanne Russell Players, a traveling theatre group he was with, had gone broke the day before and left him stranded in Regina without a cent to his name. After the tornado, he received 20 cents an hour to help clear debris. After that, he stayed and worked in Regina loading baggage for the Dominion Express Company until October, when he left the city to join another theatre group, the Harry St Clair Players in Prince Albert. Up to his death in 1969, Karloff was plagued with back problems associated with the tough, manual labor jobs he had to take on to make ends meet after the Regina Tornado hit…

Newly-weds Frank and Bertha Blenkhorn were British immigrants, having arrived in Regina in early spring, 1912. Frank had just started his own real estate business.  They were walking together through Victoria Park when the storm roared through. They tried to run to one of the buildings surrounding the park. They didn’t make it, and both perished. Three months earlier, they had booked passage on the RMS Titanic, but arrived at the Southampton, England dock too late for her maiden voyage. The ship was supposed to be their honeymoon…

In the 3 July 1912 edition of the Morning Leader, just 3 days after the tornado, the following was printed…”Nothing—mark the word nothing—can check Regina’s progress. The Regina of the future is to be far greater than the Regina of the past. The new Regina will rise, Phoenix like from its ruins and for magnificent new churches and public buildings, for handsome residences, for substantial business houses, for beautiful streets and noble parks and boulevards will far out rival the Regina that was so badly stricken last Sunday.”

Within days, fellow Canadians came to Regina’s aid by sending medical supplies, building materials, clothes, and food, along with tradesmen such as carpenters, electricians, and painters. Over $200,000 in financial relief came to the city to help home and business owners who had suffered through the ordeal. In all, 64 businesses were affected. Within a week, most business were operating once again and a few months later, life in Regina was almost back to normal.  It took 2 years to completely repair the damage following the storm. To beautify the city once again, 40,000 new trees were planted.  The municipal government of Regina borrowed $500,000 from the province to reconstruct their city and paid the loan back by 1922. Then it took until 1958 for the province to repay the lender, the Bank of Commerce, with $1 million in interest.

My grandfather remained in Regina until the spring of 1913, when he headed forty miles west to Moose Jaw. He worked as a shoe shine boy until October 1913, then made his way by train, hitching a ride then walking to the Oancia homestead 15 miles southwest of Assiniboia to help out on the farm. There, he received a warm welcome from his parents and siblings. Ted married my grandmother, Stefania Kostuik, in 1922. They remained in the same area, set up farming and raised 10 kids, then retired to Assiniboia in 1967.They’re both gone now, but always remembered.

The Regina Tornado of 1912 is still discussed in our family today, over a hundred years later.

And…GO RIDERS!

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