Tales of Tuscaloosa: Fury, Violence, and Commotion (May 2, 1829)

02 May 2018 Jim Ezell
Baseball size hail stones. Baseball size hail stones. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

It was over in 20 minutes. A storm of wind, rain, and hail had struck Tuscaloosa, and damage was extensive. It was late Saturday afternoon, May 2, 1829. The Alabama State Intelligencer reported that although the sun had not set, “it was impossible to see half way across the street,” and that if the earth and planets had been thrown from their orbits “the elements could not exhibit more fury, violence, and commotion.”

Observers reported that individual hail stones were not particularly large, but that the volume was “unprecedented”—an average depth of 4 to twelve inches, with drifts 7 to 9 feet deep. Every building in town was said have broken glass. A wide range of local residents were interviewed, and it was said that, “all concur in saying they never before, in this or any other country, by land or sea, beheld the like.” 

The forest was said to be “disrobed of its verdure, and the ground is as thickly covered with green leaves as in autumn it is with the yellow.” Orchards had been stripped of their leaves, fruit, and smallest branches. Crops were beaten into the ground, and in some cases animals in the open were killed. 

Hail is solid precipitation that forms when cumulonimbus clouds (thunderheads, or storm clouds) have strong updrafts and the atmospheric freezing level lowers. Hail stones (individual pieces of hail) accrete multiple layers of solid ice and often form irregular clumps. They remain aloft until their weight overcomes the upward force of the wind. Depending upon their weight, shape, and vertical wind force, they can fall at speeds typically from 20 to over 100 miles per hour. The largest hail stone on record was eight inches in diameter, while the heaviest was over two pounds. The size of hail stones is often compared to familiar objects. Some of the descriptors commonly used include pea, dime, golf ball, hen egg, baseball, or grapefruit sized. 

Late in the afternoon of May 10, 1912, another hail storm struck Tuscaloosa. Almost every building in town was said to have broken glass. There were numerous runaways of horses pulling wagons and drays. However, no lives were lost. Damage was estimated at $15,000 or about $350,000 today. 

Tuscaloosa was spared damage on May 22, 1928, when a hail storm almost beyond comprehension struck nearly 400 square miles of north Tuscaloosa and Pickens Counties. Some hail stones were reported to range from the size of hen eggs to baseballs and fell for 45 minutes. Cattle, dogs, and wildlife were killed. Massive amounts of timber and 15,000 acres of cotton were lost. Drifts of hail were said to have remained visible for over six weeks, until after the Fourth of July. 

During the height of World War II, in the early morning hours of March 17, 1943, marble size hail blanketed the city, damaging the numerous victory gardens that had been planted as part of the war effort. In a short period of time, the temperature dropped an amazing 40 degrees.

There was extensive damage in Holt from marble size hail on Monday, May 15, 1950. There were numerous broken windows, especially at Holt Elementary School, where a greenhouse was destroyed, and orchards and gardens severely damaged. On the same day, there were other hail storms in West Alabama. Near Coker, a dog was killed. Roofs and windows suffered in Reform and two churches lost much of their stained glass.

Hail has the potential to be cause catastrophic damage and pose a threat to life. Whenever storm clouds form, it is always best to follow the advice of meteorologists and emergency management to take shelter. The old southern saying, “it might come up a cloud,” is based upon centuries of experience, and it remains a cautionary expression to be heeded. 

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Druid City Living (DCL) is Tuscaloosa, Alabama's premier community newspaper, covering the great people, places and activities of the area.

 

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