Possible tornado struck Washington, D.C. and the White House 100 years ago (PHOTOS)

July 30, 2013

Update and correction, August 16, 5 p.m.: We’ve been made aware that two of the photos we originally published in this post were taken Nov. 17, 1927 after a tornado struck the D.C. area, not July 30, 1913. These photos have been removed.

On the White House grounds, there were 16 trees uprooted and 25 that were damaged during the severe thunderstorm of July 30, 1913. (Library of Congress)
On the White House grounds, there were 16 trees uprooted and 25 that were damaged during the severe thunderstorm of July 30, 1913. (Library of Congress)

Original post: A hot and humid airmass set the stage for a destructive thunderstorm and possible tornado that tore through the District 100 years ago today (July 30, 1913).

On the afternoon of July 30, 1913, the temperature in Washington had surged to 97 degrees for the second straight day.  It was the fourth consecutive day the temperature had exceeded 90.

Late that afternoon, a severe thunderstorm erupted near Washington, D.C. and it raked the city with violent wind gusts. Its torrential rains exceeded two inches.  The storm resulted in considerable building and tree damage, particularly in northwest D.C.

Several hours after the storm, the Weather Bureau posted this bulletin, at 8 p.m. on July 30, 1913:

The most striking feature of the weather during Wednesday was the occurrence of a severe local storm at Washington, D.C. and vicinity.  The storm was due to the intense heat of the last few days and at times exhibited a tornadic tendency.  It was, however, purely local in character, as reports thus far received do not indicate unusual occurrences at any considerable distance beyond the limits of the District of Columbia.  The storm lasted 30 minutes and the highest wind velocity was 66 miles an hour from northeast.  Considerable hail fell and the total precipitation from the storm was 2.02 inches.

The Saul Building at 7th and L Streets, NW is badly damaged by the severe thunderstorm of July 30, 1915. (Library of Congress)
The Saul Building at 7th and L Streets, NW is badly damaged by a severe thunderstorm on July 30, 1913.  The Weather Bureau said the storm “exhibited a tornadic tendency”.  (Library of Congress)

It seems likely that the thunderstorm produced a tornado in Washington although a microburst is another possible explanation for the destructive winds.  The damage to a few buildings was quite severe.  At the Pension Building and Patent Office, the Washington Post reported  $60,000 in repairs were required.

There was widespread tree damage throughout Washington.  In the city’s parks, 213 trees were uprooted and 1,175 trees damaged. At the White House, 16 trees were uprooted and 25 trees were damaged. The grand total of trees in Washington destroyed by the storm was tallied at 229.  The Washington Post reported these numbers in an article that ran on August 12, 1913.

I’m not sure who went through the city counting all of the uprooted and damaged trees, but the reports are very detailed by today’s standards.  Not surprisingly, there were no reports of power outages since the power grid was not yet established.  But, there was a report that “telephone and telegraph communication was crippled.”

The thunderstorm of July 30, 1913 produced 2.02" of rain in a short time period causing flash flooding in the streets of Washington. (Library of Congress)
The thunderstorm of July 30, 1913 produced 2.02″ of rain in a short time period which caused flash flooding in the streets of Washington.  Note the extensive tree damage.  (Library of Congress)

One storm-related lawsuit made the news in Washington during the days that followed the storm.  Eugene Folsom rented a house on 513 F Street NW that had its roof blown off.  Folsom’s clothes and household possessions were ruined by the heavy rain that fell into the house after the roof was blown free from the walls.  The law suit demanded $5,000 in damages and claimed that the landlord had neglected the roof before the storm which made it easier for the roof to blow free from the building.

Two days earlier, on July 28, 1913, Baltimore was struck by a severe thunderstorm that was very similar to the storm that hit Washington .  The storm occurred during the same heatwave.  There were 18 people injured in Baltimore and there was $100,000 in property damage reported.  Flash flooding also occurred in Baltimore.  The Washington Post published the following:  “Not for years has such a storm raged in Baltimore.  Wind, rain, and lightning played havoc.”


A crowd gathers in the street to examine roofing material that was blown down by the thunderstorm of July 30, 1913. This photo was taken at the Masonic Hall at 9th and F Streets, NW. (Library of Congress)

I would like to end this post by giving a shout out to the Library of Congress for supplying an amazing set of online resources for the public.  I was very happy to find a nice assortment of high-quality photos from a storm that happened 100 years ago.  Very cool, thanks LOC!

As a FYI regarding 1913, here are a few facts from infoplease:

Federal spending in 1913:   $720 million
Consumer Price Index in 1913:   9.9
Unemployment in 1913:   4.3%
Cost of a first-class stamp in 1913:   2 cents
World Series – Philadelphia A’s at NY Giants (4-1)
Stanley Cup – Quebec Bulldogs
Kentucky Derby Champion – Donerail
NCAA Football Champions – Harvard (9-0-0)

Tree damage at the White House, July 30, 1913. (Library of Congress)
An uprooted tree at the White House, July 30, 1913. (Library of Congress)
Tree and roof damage in Washington, July 30, 1913. (Library of Congress)
Tree and roof damage in Washington, July 30, 1913. (Library of Congress)
High water and tree damage in the streets of Washington, July 30, 1913. (Library of Congress)
High water and tree damage in the streets of Washington, July 30, 1913. (Library of Congress)
Tree damage at the White House, July 13, 1913. (Library of Congress)
An uprooted tree at the White House, July 30, 1913. (Library of Congress)
Tree damage in Washington, July 30, 1913. (Library of Congress)
Tree damage in Washington, July 30, 1913. (Library of Congress)
Parts of a roof were blown from a nearby building and deposited in the street, July 30, 1913. (Library of Congress)
Parts of a roof were blown down from a nearby building and deposited in the street, July 30, 1913. (Library of Congress)
Building damage at 7th and L Streets, NW., July 30, 1913. (Library of Congress)
Extensive building damage at 7th and L Streets, NW., July 30, 1913.  It is possible that a tornado caused this damage.  (Library of Congress)
A photo at the White House after the storm, July 30, 1913. (Library of Congress)
A photo at the White House after the storm, July 30, 1913. (Library of Congress)
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Jason Samenow · July 30, 2013