Tornado watch: When wild winds walloped our community
Just in Time local history series
On May 21, 2022, a powerful derecho rolled across southern Ontario, causing widespread damage from Sarnia through Ottawa and into Quebec. With wind gusts of well over 100 kph, this enormous thunderstorm system did quite a number on Kawartha Lakes. Barn roofs were blown off, transmission poles were downed, and towering trees were quite literally uprooted. A year later, one may still see traces of derecho damage in local forests, while some buildings still bear their storm-induced scars.
The 2022 derecho reminded us that Kawartha Lakes is not immune from extreme weather events, and history records a few tornadoes and tornado-like storms that left their mark on the landscape.
Around 5 p.m. in the evening of June 11, 1911, a dramatic windstorm described as a “cyclone” tore through old Victoria County, leaving a trail of destruction across much of Eldon, Fenelon, Mariposa, and Verulam Townships. The countryside between Woodville and Hartley was particularly hard hit, with dozens of barns being either demolished or losing their roofs to gale-force winds.
Archie Carmichael and his wife had been busy milking cows in the lower part of their barn, near Woodville, when the storm blew it to pieces. “Mrs. Carmichael was dazed for a time, but soon realized that something awful had happened as everything was in darkness,” the Watchman Warder reported on the following Thursday. “She managed to crawl to a small opening and by hard work got out of the debris, and with an axe she chopped a hole for Mr. Carmichael to get out.” Up the road, in Hartley, David Brown’s family had just finished eating supper when their kitchen was lifted from its foundation and dropped in a nearby field (farm kitchens were often situated in a separate addition to the main house). Brown’s daughter was badly injured, but according to the Watchman Warder, her father “came out of the ruins smoking his pipe and no one else was hurt.”
Barns were eventually rebuilt and debris cleared away, leaving few reminders of this storm on the landscape. However, the red-brick schoolhouse north of Grass Hill still bears the year “1911” in its keystone – tangibly reminding us that it replaced an earlier building lost to that year’s tornado.
Another storm of equal or greater proportions pounded Victoria County nearly three decades later. Local residents were going about their business on July 28, 1938, when ominous clouds began rolling in from the west shortly before 10:30 a.m. Rain pelted pedestrians, and lightning flashed across a sky that some eyewitnesses described as being darker than night. And then it hit. A powerful tornado unleashed its fury on downtown Lindsay, tearing the roof clean off the Benson Hotel. Jack Tangney, a local merchant, watched the entire scene unfold from across the street. “I was standing out in front of the store when I heard a great ripping noise and a piece of timber came flying towards our window,” Tangney told the Lindsay Daily Post later that day. “Then I ducked and by the time I looked again the whole roof had landed on the street with a great crash.”
As in 1911, harrowing stories of survival were documented for days afterwards. Miss Theo Peacock, sitting in a parked car on Kent Street, was taken to hospital in shock after being nearly killed by flying debris. “Heavy timbers from the hotel roof ripped through the car top, but left untouched the corner in which Miss Peacock sat,” reported the Globe & Mail on July 29.
“Spectators said it was a miracle she escaped death.” A few blocks away, staff at the Canadian National Railway engine shed sought refuge beneath locomotives as the shed’s roof was blown off. Southeast of Lindsay, Reaboro’s Malcolm Reeds ran to his garage and took shelter in his car – only to watch in amazement as the twister lifted the garage from its footings while sparing the car and its occupant. This storm claimed at least one victim, when Roy Windrem, a 39-year-old farmer from the Omemee area, was struck by lightning and killed while standing next to his barn door.
According to records in Western University’s Michael Newark Digital Tornado Archive, the storm which tracked its way through Lindsay to Hillhead Corners on July 28, 1938 measured an F2 on the Enhanced Fujita Scale, and was among the most powerful tornadoes to pass through this area.
Yet other tornadoes were spawned across parts of the Kawarthas on July 15, 1995, when a raging derecho storm system crossed through southern Ontario in the wee small hours of the morning. A twister touched down in Balsam Lake Provincial Park around 2:35 a.m., tossing trailers into each other and sending 10 people to hospital. Meanwhile, violent winds approaching 160 kph took down tree after tree in Lindsay, flipped over firmly moored aircraft at the airport, and left over 2,000 homes across the municipality without power. A local state of emergency was declared by 3 a.m.
For our family, though, this storm had a happy ending: we were living in Ops Township, and a little over 24 hours after taking cover in our basement, we were on our way to Ross Memorial Hospital to greet my sister, Marnie, who was born the following day.