The month of March can be an unpredictable time when it comes to the weather. It is a critical time between the end of winter and the beginning of spring. A time when snow thaws and the river rises, and a time the winds can turn deadly in a matter of seconds.
Tornadoes are not uncommon for Ohio as it is one of the states situated near what is commonly known as "tornado alley."
March may also be a reminder for some of the Newcomerstown area residents that recall the history, or the aftermath of the 1913 flood and the 1955 tornado. These two incidents are proof enough that even a little area like Newcomerstown is not exempt from Mother Nature's fury.
Ninety-seven years ago, the Village of Newcomerstown fell victim to a devastating flood. The problem began following a mixture of the sudden thaw to the heavy snow fall that occurred that winter and a violent storm that smashed through the central United States. The latter lasting for three days straight. In the end, the flood left death and destruction in its path throughout several states. A total of 750 lives were lost and $300 million worth of damage occurred.
Heavy rain started on Easter Sunday, March 23, 1913, and continued non-stop until Wednesday, March 26, 1913.
When the rain finally stopped, Newcomerstown found herself submerged and surrounded by a virtual ocean of water. The west end of town was hit particularly hard with water reaching fifteen feet in some areas. The railroad was heavily damaged and required extensive repair. Where village streets had once been, massive ditches filled with an array of debris were found left behind once the water receded. Although Newcomerstown did not experience any loss of life, a workman was later killed, and four other workers injured while they were attempting repair to the River Street bridge after the middle span collapsed into the rain swollen Tuscarawas River.
The 1913 flood was not only devastating but it also facilitated an end to the Ohio Canal that ran through the village. Many portions of the canal locks were destroyed throughout the state, making any repairs impossible. The repair would also have been impractical as the use of the canal was falling out of favor about this time due to the popularity of the railroad system.
While the 1913 flood was much more vivid to our ancestors, many local residents can still recall the details of the March 11, 1955, tornado that struck Newcomerstown just before dawn. The tornado reportedly cut a path from west to east through the business district.
In its wake, it left about $200,000 worth of damage. The most common recollection from the tornado appears to be the damage to the East Elementary School building. The structure was left damaged beyond repair and 289 studemts were left without a school building. The students were later transferred to the River Street Methodist, Nazarene and Calvary Baptist churches, the Masonic Temple and CIO Hall (Congress of Industrial Organization) until a new school was built. Contrary to popular belief that the Maplewood Elementary building, which sat on the corner of River and State streets was also damaged by the tornado, it in fact received no damage. This is proven through a newspaper account (dated for March 12, 1955) that stated the plan was for the East school students to temporarily be transferred to the Maplewood building with East School students attending classes in the morning and Maplewood students attending classes in the afternoon.
It was decided later that the Maplewood building was falling into disrepair and should be closed, sooner than later. The end result was the construction of two new elementary school buildings that were completed in 1957.
Other village structures damaged during the tornado were Lenzo Grocery on Bridge Street, the Lutheran Church, and the College Street Methodist Church, Cooper's Furniture Store and Bair's Furniture Store on Main Street. Telephone and power lines were damaged and out of service for about a day.
While there were no fatalities, two citizens, Clarence "Pappy" Watts and Mrs. Archie Fletcher were injured by flying debris. Oddly, at the same time the tornado was sweeping through Newcomerstown, a simultaneous tornado reportedly struck a small Pennsylvania town and took the lives of several persons.
The damage to Newcomerstown was repaired, buildings and structures have since been rebuilt and replaced. No traces of either event exist today. They only now lie in a distant memory of those who lived through it or were later told the story.