Rock Hill's Destructive Tornado & Fires, 1926

by Louise Pettus

A destructive tornado struck downtown Rock Hill on the afternoon of Nov. 26, 1926. It was the day after Thanksgiving, rather late in the season for such a violent storm. The "black as ink twister" took less than 10 minutes to change the face of the business section.

Beginning on the west side of the town, the twister cut a path about three blocks wide. The main force of the tornado hit Main, Hampton, Johnston, Saluda and Moore streets. Everything not nailed down was blown away. Trees toppled. Electric and telephone wires were whipped loose. Every automobile parked downtown was severely damaged. Some were moved up on the sidewalks; others were smashed. Lyle Hospital had its roof lifted off, and the whole building was flooded. The First Presbyterian Church tower was ripped away and set down on the church lawn. Every house on Quantz Street in the Aragon Mill village was damaged. The Aragon Mill baseball stands were scattered to the winds. The mill lost 35 bales of cotton in a fire started by the storm.

The Industrial Mill was even worse off. The main roof was taken off by the twister. The boiler room was torn apart. The final estimate was $100,000 in damage. The smokestack of the city water and light plant toppled onto the roof of the office building. Practically every house and office building lost chimneys, if nothing else. The southside of the Episcopal rectory was torn off, and part of the roof went with it. The porch of St. John's Methodist Church was lost to the wind. The First Baptist Church skylight was broken, and the First Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church lost a memorial window. Bethel Church was destroyed. A recently released prison inmate became a hero by rescueing two small children from the middle of the street.

One person was killed. Joe Crockett, an employee of Southern Railway, lost his life when the storm picked up two railroad cars and slammed them against an embankment. The following day, visitors swarmed Rock Hill to view the damage. One of the gawking sightseers ran over a 5-year-old boy sitting on a curb. The boy's foot later had to be amputated. With only one life lost, Rock Hill was luckier than many other towns.

The great storm which had started in the Ozarks and whipped across five states, killed 74 people and injured 200. On each side of the three-block-wide swath there was very little damage. Winthrop College and houses along Oakland Avenue were not touched. Fort Mill reported high winds but no damage. York had neither wind nor rain. About the time downtown Rock Hill was repaired, another disaster struck.

This time it was fire. On Jan. 31, 1927, four buildings were destroyed including two drugstores -- J. L. Phillips Drug and Rock Hill Drug. Doctors Blackmon, Strait, Massey, Hay, Walker and Stevens all lost their offices, which were located on the second floor over two drugstores. The fire was believed to have started in the Manhattan Cafe. The Friedheim Building adjacent to the cafe had a fire wall that saved it. The London Building was lost. On March 5, 1927, another fire hit Main Street. This time the A & P store and the Western Union building were damaged extensively. The Elks club and Morris Jewelry were destroyed. The feeling was that the whole block would have burned if the fire had not been spotted by Anna Poe, who was serving a late supper at the Rose-Ann Tea Room to members of the cast of the Denishawn Dancers, who had performed earlier in the evening at Winthrop College. On April 25, 1927, another fire burned City Wholesale Co. Oil-soaked was found there and at R. T. Fewell's lumber yard. Fire Chief T. O. Flowers was convinced that Rock Hill had a "firebug." All fires had occurred on a Friday night. The last fire was May 12. The arsonist, if there ever was one, was never caught.

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