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  Texas : Features : Columns : "Texas Tales"

Storm of 1895
El Paso, Texas

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

Even under normal circumstances, no one could label El Paso a city in the midst of a tropical rain forest.

In a good year, which is to say an average year, the city at the Pass of the North enjoys only nine inches of rain. But in the spring of 1895, what fell from the sky was dust.

Late on the night of April 4, a Thursday, a powerful early spring cold front began blowing through El Paso.

“A Big Blow,” read the headline of the El Paso Times the next afternoon. “El Paso Is Visited By a Terrific Wind and Sand Storm. Much Damage Done.”

By midnight, the anemometer at the Weather Bureau registered 50 miles an hour, and the wind “continued to gain strength” until 11 a.m. that April 5.

Calling the weather “decidedly cyclonic,” the newspaper reported that El Pasoans and visitors “had to desert the streets to avoid the storm of pebbles and sand that beat them in the face and almost swept them off their feet.”

The wind ripped the roof from two large building at the smelter and then “dashed on down the river to El Paso where it played havoc with roofs, awnings and signs.” The Vendome Hotel lost its roof “with a rip and roar, fragments flying in every direction.”

The court house tower “bent before the gale like the mast of a ship and the occupants of the building watched its gyrations with no small show of trepidation.”

Signs, awnings, and pieces of roofs became deadly projectiles, though the newspaper reported no injuries connected to the storm.

That’s probably because government offices curtailed their activities, schools and many businesses closed and the street car line quit running.

“A lady passing up Oregon street lost control of her wearing apparel which turned wrong side out – so to speak – like a refractory umbrella,” the newspaper noted. “But the wind filled the eyes of the naughty men with sand and they could not look.”

The wind took down many of the city’s scarce trees and ripped away telegraph, telephone and power lines, leaving the city without electric lights.

At 4:30 p.m. that Friday, the wind finally calmed. By night fall, the sky had cleared and the temperature had begun to fall.

“At midnight,” the newspaper concluded, “the weather was real chilly and the streets were completely deserted except by the police.”

Local newspapers concentrated on what happened in El Paso, but the cold front and resulting sandstorm swept across much of Texas, taking down line shacks along the Texas & Pacific Railroad and wreaking considerable havoc across the state.

In fact, not until the Dust Bowl days of the 1930s would Texas see such a severe spate of sandstorms.

The early April storm made news all across the Central Plains. In the high country of Colorado, it brought snow and dust. One newspaper reported that “trains were stalled on all the railway lines east of Denver and hundreds of men and several snow plows are engaged in clearing the tracks of drifting snow and sand.”

South of the snow belt, another newspaper reported, “The sun was frequently so obscured by sand as to necessitate the lighting of lamps.”

The storm lasted nearly two full days. In the Panhandle and elsewhere on the Great Plains, the unusually powerful front took a heavy toll on stockmen.

“The storm came so suddenly that few people got their stock in,” a Kansas newspaper told its readers. “Thousands of dollars work of stock…was lost…. Some estimate the loss at 50 per cent while others claim 25 per cent will cover the loss.”

A severe drought compounded the affect of the powerful wind associated with the cold front. “Unless it rains soon many more [animals] will perish,” the newspaper continued, “as the grass is so completely covered with the mud the stock can not eat it.”

Indeed, by April 17, even Austin, which normally gets nearly three feet of rain a year, had recorded only three inches of precipitation.

The drought broke later that spring and the state did not endure another prolonged dry spell until well into the 20th century.

© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" - October 26, 2005 column
 
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