Cyclone wreaked havoc on Niagara Falls in 1920
American Can Company cyclone damage

For the most part, we have been enjoying some pleasant weather this month in Niagara Falls. Of course, this has not always been the case. Ninety-nine years ago, it was an entirely different story.

It was a Saturday afternoon on September 11th, 1920 that the devastating weather struck. Some say it was a tornado, and others called it a cyclone.  Accompanied by torrential rains, the cyclone confined itself to a pathway approximately 1,000 feet wide that ran from Niagara Falls centre to the north end of Victoria Park. It then leapt across the Niagara River to Goat Island before returning back to Canada and following the Niagara River Parkway to Chippawa, where it eventually petered out. Newspaper accounts from that time expressed tremendous relief that no lives were lost during such a severe storm.  Unfortunately, monumental property damage occurred throughout the city.

The American Can Company on Lewis Avenue was the hardest hit by the massive storm. Employee accounts recall a stunning crash with a blinding flash of lightning before the roof of the factory was blown completely off! All told, damages to the plant totaled $20,000, which would amount to over $230,000 today!

Queen Victoria Park was also in the path of the cyclone. Hundreds of trees were felled by the storm and many park staff worked diligently to clear up the wreckage. Many visitors in the park scrambled to take refuge from the storm as their picnic tables were “smashed to matchwood”. 

The International Railway Company lost almost all of the iron trolley poles in the vicinity. Over a half mile of track was affected, stretching from the Clifton Incline Building to the Refectory. Since the main drive was blocked, Queen Victoria Park was temporarily closed until the area could be cleared of fallen trees, poles and wires. 

Perhaps the greatest loss of trees occurred on American soil on Goat Island. Newspaper accounts estimated that 1500 to 2000 large trees were either demolished or uprooted. Initial attempts were made to re-root and re-bed the larger, healthy trees, but the efforts proved to be too costly. Park Commissioner Paul A. Schoellkopf decided to close Goat Island until the cleanup was complete and the park safe for visitors once more. It was later said that the cleanup was so effective, that within weeks of the storm, you couldn’t detect the loss of the trees on the island.

It was heartening to read about the many instances of residents working together to help neighbours in need. Although the cyclone of 1920 is a distant memory, the power of Mother Nature continues to amaze and astound. 

Cathy Roy is the information resources and connections librarian, local history.

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