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The Deadly Cyclone of 1892

Jim Bales

Monday, June 30, 2014

There are many important stories to be told about Wellington.  This one has been told many times but is such an important story, I feel it needs to be revisited one more time if for no other reason than to clarify the impact this incident had on Wellington.

The date was May 27, 1892.  The large cattle drive business had moved westward, but had been here long enough for Wellington to get a good economic start.  Some papers stated that Wellington was growing faster than Wichita.  There were two railroads four banks and six newspapers in this young community of 21 years.  Wellington was coming off of its biggest growth years of 1886-87, but still growing.  The population at the time was between 12,000 and 14,000 people.  Wichita’s population at the time was 24,000.

The tornado was first spotted in Crystal Springs, a little town directly west of Harper five to six miles.  Not much is mentioned in the period newspapers of the damage, but when discussing the topic with another Harper County resident, his first response was "is that the tornado that wiped out Crystal Springs?”. 

It struck Harper at 7:47. The Wichita and Hutchison paper state that there was extensive damage to the town.  It destroyed both railroad depots, the mill, the opera house, several other structures.  One paper stated of all the homes in Harper only six were listed without damage.  Six people were killed before the storm moved on to the North edge of Argonia, where it leveled some farmhouses.

In Wellington, a City Council meeting was held that night at City Hall located at the corner of 7th and Washington where Heritage Park is today. A little after 8:30 p.m., the meeting was broken up due to the worsening weather.  At 8:57 the tornado touched down on the West end of Harvey and moved east in the alley way damaging some out buildings.  It crossed the Rock Island tracks at Harvey tossing around a few box cars.  As it passed H. Street it took a northeasterly track up 7th street growing to 300ft wide.  The destruction was devastating.  All four newspapers were damaged or destroyed, three churches were destroyed, one rolled over onto its top, 24 businesses, and one hotel destroyed.  The second floor of the 2nd Ward School was blown off and at least 21 residences completely obliterated.

The Rock Island rail line telegraphed Wichita for aid, and in the morning a special train was sent bringing people to Wellington to view the destruction. Several trains with estimates of 15,000 people, some traveling in stock cars, from towns and surrounding cities as far away as Herington and Hutchison came Sunday to view the ruins.  It was hot that Sunday and the demand for drink was so great that the city council was compelled to put up large barrels of ice water on every corner of the principal streets. 

A bulletin was sent down from Wichita that Sunday stating that conditions were favorable for another tornado. Most people treated this as a joke, however at 4 o’clock a dark cloud came up and alarm was raised that there was a tornado approaching and to quickly find shelter.  The crowd became chaotic but no one was injured.  A tornado was in fact spotted north of Corbin.

The Southeast corner of Washington and seventh is an empty lot today, but prior to that it was the location of the Antlers Hotel.  Prior to the Antlers it was the location of Wellington’s first hotel, a wood structure called the Philips House Hotel.

Newly married Milt Sasher, who worked as a traveling farm machinery salesman at Sasher and Kirk Carriage Works, had just returned to town and had stepped into the barbershop that was located inside the Phillips House Hotel. Just as he was stepping in the doorway his good friend Jim Hastie was getting into the barber chair but stepped aside and let Milt take his place.  When finished he left the barbershop, walked west across the street toward the old opera house which is now the old JC Penney building and most recently a dance studio.  He then turned and was going a block north to his home, and his new bride.  The tornado came through at the same time that he was stepping into the street crossing to where Heritage Park is now. He had to step back behind the opera house where he was protected from the strong winds and debris. The brick built opera house survived and protected him.  The apartment that he and his wife lived in was located above the offices of the Sasher and Kirk carriage works office.  Mrs. Sasher’s sister, Miss Kittie Strahan was visiting at the time.

The building collapsed and trapped his wife and her sister in the basement, then caught fire.  Sasher had to be restrained from running into the flames.

The Philips House Hotel was also flattened killing 6 people including Milts good friend Jim Hastie, the barber Mort Upson, who when found, still had a razor in his hand, Ida Jones, a popular young waitress, Professor James Mayor, a piano tuner from Kansas City, Frank Campbell, a horseman from Williamsburg Kentucky, and Leonard Adamson, an 18 year old resident eating in the Restaurant.

In the Worden and Shaefer grocery, Joseph Worden, W. Shaefer, J. A. Bolinger and K. Adams were taking shelter.  The back end of the store was sucked out and they, along with it, flew approx. 140ft toward A Street where Bolinger was laid at the base of a tree and Shaefer was left in the tree limbs relatively unhurt.  The building was rebuilt and still stands at the Northeast corner of 7th and Washington.

The First Ward School was only 4 years old when the storm hit, removing the second floor completely and had to be rebuilt.  The last house damaged by the storm was the home of Judge J. G. Woods, just northeast of the school.  The storm then lifted and came down again northeast of Wellington killing a farmer and leveling his farm house before lifting again.

Harry Woods, the very popular and long-time editor of the Wellington Daily News for which the Woods Park was named, was a teenager or young man at the time.  He was down on south H. Street visiting his wife to be, totally unaware of the damage caused by the storm.  When someone came down the road and told him his parents had been killed by the storm, he made a quick run to their house. When he arrived at the house it was still standing but the upper floor, where the bedroom of his parents had been was demolished.  He yelled out for his parents frantically and heard his father's voice behind him in the dark.  He found that they were both okay but they had to leave the house in such a hurry that his father, the honorable Judge J. G. Woods, was not wearing any pants. Luckily Harry had a lantern with him and was able to retrieve his trousers.  Judge Woods did not rebuild the 2nd floor and installed a roof on top of the 1st floor.  The house still stands today at the Northeast corner of 9th and A Street.

Harry Woods was interviewed and quoted by a reporter from the Wichita Eagle.  I felt it was the best description of how things were that night.


Wichita Daily Eagle May 31, 1892

“The whole thing was rendered a thousand times worse” he said. “…From the fact that at the time so many husbands were down town when the storm descended You never saw such confusion.  Men were simply wild.  All the men who were down town rushed home and saw their houses in ruins and supposed their wives were buried and the women and children in turn supposed their husbands were buried in the ruins down town.  Everybody consequently thought that everybody else was killed.  All this confusion was worst con-founded by darkness, black as pitch.  I was stopped by women a half dozen times, who took me for their husbands.  People were crying, men and women alike, and some acted stark mad.  This terrible state of affairs lasted till nearly daylight, and did not end till everybody had some tidings that their friends were safe.  I passed up on the street in all this din, Henry Conrad, the restaurant owner, whose wife and baby were buried and rescued, rushed up to me and cried “ tell me about my baby, give me my baby.”  The men were working hard to liberate the baby.  A little further on I met two men supporting poor Sasher. His head had dropped to his chest and his legs were tottering. His mind was gone. I went over to where a group of men and women and children stood watching and waiting.  It was the most solemn crowd I ever saw.  Nobody said anything.  They did not converse, not even in whispers.  In the gray dawn, three stretchers with bodies filed past this group and I did not hear a sound.  If there was any curiosity to know whose bodies had just been carried past, it was not expressed in audible words.  Every lip seemed to be sealed by the calamity and every mind subdued. “

Wellington never quite recovered.  In total 11 died, and 29 were wounded, several with broken bones and head injuries. The storm stopped the momentum of growth that the town had experienced since the1886-87 boom, and the population declined.  Three banks failed after the storm and the city did not have funds enough to build another city hall until 1907, 15 years later.

A Harper historian documented that 27 families that opted not to rebuild and left Harper to make the Cherokee Strip run a year later in 93.  I am sure that also happened here in Wellington.

This material was presented to the Sumner County Historical Society and a video of that presentation will be aired on CH55 in the near future.  It also may be posted to YouTube.

Many of the original photos will be on display in the lobby of the museum over the next month.  Please come down and visit.