Monday, February 23, 2015

When Lightning Strikes

by Erin Doane, Curator

Trinity Episcopal Church on North Main Street in Elmira was struck by lightning on June 2, 1916. It is not at all unusual for churches to be struck by lightning. Churches are often the tallest buildings in an area so are more likely to be struck. Quite a few articles about lightning strikes show up in old issues of the Star Gazette newspaper. The Christ Episcopal Church in Wellsburg had to have its 80-foot tall spire repaired after lightning tore part of it away and a June 29, 1945 strike on the tower of the German Evangelical Church on Madison Avenue tore off shingles and wooden roofing though the copper cross at the top of the tower was not damaged.

First German Evangelical Church, c. 1910s
Lightning strikes are, obviously, not limited to houses of worship. Any relatively tall structure can be a target. On June 20, 1913, the flag pole on the main building of the County Home in Breesport was struck by lightning. The strike tore the large metal ball at the top of the pole from its fastenings and melted some of the mountings. Inside the ball, Superintendent George Clark found a copy of the Chemung Valley Reporter and other documents that had been placed there when the pole was first installed. During a storm on July 22, 1938, a home on Harrick Street was struck. The bolt followed the chimney into the house, blew lids off cooking pots on the stove, and knocked over a small child. The strike destroyed the chimney, broke rafters in the attic, and damaged an upstairs bedroom and hallway. Fortunately, no one was hurt.

Trinity Episcopal Church, 1907
Countless other lightning strikes on buildings, poles, and trees have been reported in the local newspaper. The 1916 Trinity lightning strike is special, though, because of all the wonderful details that were reported. Nearly sixty members of the church choir were meeting for their weekly rehearsal. The storm came without warning and when lightning struck the steeple many inside through some fanatic had planted a bomb in the church. Outside the building, the bolt tore bricks out of the southeast corner of the steeple and left a crack several feet long. It then followed the steel snow breaker, leaving holes in the slate roof. Inside it chased down the wires to the electric switchboard where it blew up fuses and sent out blue flames. James G. Breed was sitting near the switchboard at the time and the flames burned the back of his coat.

Star Gazette headline from June 3, 1916
The moment the lightning struck, there was a deafening crash and all the lights went out. Plaster rained down on the choir members, the force of the lightning strike whisked sheet music from their hands, and their frightened screams filled the air. One woman lost consciousness but was soon revived. The organist suffered a severe shock to his legs and others reported numbness and aches and pains. Several were so affected by the events that they were taken home in automobiles. Most had fully recovered by the next day. All those present were commended for their calm during the incident. They managed to make an orderly exit in complete darkness thanks to the men of the choir who “acted courageously like true Americans.”

1 comment:

  1. According to the conventional rhetoric of the times, anything done well was done "like a true American." Seems quaint today, doesn"t it?