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This article by Allston-Brighton historian Dr. William P. Marchione appeared in the Allston-Brighton Tab or Boston Tab newspapers in the period from July 1998 to late 2001, and supplement information in his books The Bull in the Garden (1986) and Images of America: Allston-Brighton (1996).   These articles are copyrighted in the name of the author. Researchers should, however, feel free to quote from the material, with proper attribution.

Allston-Brighton Tornado of 1888

When one thinks of tornadoes the mid-west usually comes to mind (the area known as “Tornado Alley’). Yet our part of the country also experiences these devastating storms from time to time, the obvious example being the great tornado that hit the Worcester area on June 9, 1953, killing ninety-four people and causing enormous property damage.

It may surprise the reader to learn that Allston-Brighton also experienced a tornado of considerable power, which struck our area on July 11, 1888.

This storm touched down initially in the Roberts section of southwestern Waltham, proceeding across neighboring Newton and Watertown, before crossing the Charles River into North Brighton.

Tornadoes often rise and fall in roller-coaster fashion as they proceed, and just before entering Allston-Brighton this storm’s destructive funnel fell to ground level. Though much weaker than the Worcester tornado, the Tornado of 1888 nonetheless packed a powerful wallop, as evidenced by its destruction of several recently constructed stone buildings on the Arsenal grounds in Watertown.

The tornado crossed the Charles at Brighton Corners (the commercial district that then existed at the intersection of Market Street and Western Avenue) at about 10 p.m., before proceeding across North Allston, roughly on the line of Western Avenue.

Its nighttime occurrence was most fortunate since the Western Avenue area was the most heavily industrialized section of the community in 1888, and many of the people who worked there had returned to their homes in other areas. The commercial establishments of the neighborhood included a hotel, several coal and lumber yards, two wool factories, various ropewalks, a dance hall, a glue works, several varnish works, and a pottery factory. The largest of these establishments, the Sewall & Day cordage factory, founded the year before, alone employed several hundred workers.

The storm caused extensive damage at Brighton Corners, where the roof of a portion of the old Charles River Hotel was “taken off and blown into the middle of [Western Avenue],” and the hotel’s principal “chimney snapped like a pipe stem.” Damage was extensive also across Western Avenue at Fuller’s Wharf and Lumber Yard. That important local landmark, founded in 1847 by master carpenter Granville Fuller, was reduced to a shambles in a matter of seconds. Not only were its chimneys demolished, but the contents of the yard, including its huge, neatly stacked piles of lumber and various storage sheds, were scattered all over the river and adjoining marshes. “The scene in the yard” in the storm’s aftermath, the Brighton Item  reported, “was one of chaos.” As the powerful storm made its way down Western Avenue, it tore up trees and telephone poles and stripped roofs of their shingles. 

Upon reaching the barn of H. A. Ritchie, the swirling funnel paused just long enough to rip off the roof of that structure and deposit it into the middle of Western Avenue, along with a man who had been sleeping in its loft. Amazingly, the victim survived the experience with only minor injuries.

The tornado, fortunately, just missed the extensive Sewall & Day cordage complex on the site now occupied by the Brighton Mills Shopping Mall, though a bolt of lightning struck the corner of the factory’s storehouse, “occasion[ing] considerable damage.”

The residence of Jerry and Mary Callahan at 305 Western Avenue, opposite Everett Street, was less fortunate. This wooden building was shaken off its foundation by the force of the powerful storm.

A still worse fate awaited the 225 feet long ropewalk of Leonard Arkerson to the immediate east, which totally collapsed under the force of the wind.

The sheds behind the dance hall and saloon of Bose Cobb at Barry’s Corner were similarly demolished.  A few weeks earlier this establishment had been the subject of a sensational expose appearing in the Boston Evening Record  under the headline: “Bose Cobb’s Place: A Brighton Dance Hall of Unsavory Reputation.” The Record accused its black owner (in an article filled with racial slurs), of selling liquor illegally and operating a house of prostitution. It also implied that the local constabulary, based at Brighton Center’s District 14 Police Station (then headquartered in the old Town Hall in Brighton Center), was receiving payoffs to ignore these practices.

Whatever the case, the Tornado of 1888 probably did more to halt the activities at Bose Cobb’s Place than the local police, though on a very temporary basis.

One of the most amazing aspects of this unique storm was a total absence of fatalities. Notwithstanding the violence of the storm and the extensive property damage, not one life was lost to the Tornado of 1888. 

A nearby residential neighborhood where a loss of life might easily have occurred had it been in the direct path of the tornado was Barry’s Corner, at the northeast intersection of Western Avenue and North Harvard Street. Here about thirty-five small-scale private residences were concentrated. Newspaper accounts fail to mention Barry’s Corner, suggesting that damage there was minimal.

The most serious and costly loss of the storm occurred at the Boston Glue Works, situated about 300 feet south of the site on which WGBH-TV (Channel 2) now stands, on a discontinued street called Upton Court. Founded about 1870 by George Upton, this industrial complex was one of several “nuisance industries” that existed in the general vicinity, enterprises that emitted foul odors and pollutants into the environment.

Just east of the Glue Works stood the Varnish factories of J. Babcock & Co. and of G. W. Joy & Co.  Further east, nearer the river, sat the Pottery Works of Joseph O. Bullard. Few homes lined the more easterly section of Western Avenue owing to these unpleasant and odiferous neighbors.

The tornado did enormous damage at the Boston Glue Works. It lifted the the roof off the complex’s drying house, effectually demolishing the building. More significantly, it blew over the large chimney that rose above its boiler house, which “fell through the roof smashing the boilers in its descent,” completely destroying its valuable machinery in the process.

In the immediate aftermath of the 1888 tornado, Western Avenue lay in a state of total havoc.

The paper concluded its account of the Tornado of 1888 with the apt comment: “The damage caused by this Western visitor will reach a very considerable figure when all the items are summed up, and it is hoped that another visit by a cyclone of large or small powers will be at a very distant date.
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