Since human beings have settled in Pictou County, unpredictable natural disasters have caused loss of life and great anguish and property damage.
Weather forecasting in our area up until the 1840’s was mostly done by observing cloud formations, folklore, guessing and even animal behavior. Many popular weather customs and beliefs have been passed down from generation to generation and some are even used to this day to predict the weather, with some accuracy.
Some old weather lore phrases that are still used today are; “Red sky at night, sailors delight. Red sky in morning, sailors warning,” “Big snow, little snow. Little snow, big snow” and “Sudden storm lasts not three hours. The sharper the blast, the sooner ‘tis past.”
On the morning of July 25, 1895, thunder could be heard off in the distance. This might have been a good sign for the much needed rain in Pictou County. The area had been through a particular dry period all month long. “Brooks and streams were at their lowest ebb, scarcely enough water to make a current.”
The much needed rain did come that early afternoon and with it came one of the worst wind, thunder and hail storms to hit the eastern portion of Pictou County in nearly a century. This weather catastrophe made headline in papers across Canada and United States. In the San Francisco Call the banner heading read “Swept by a Tornado, A Terrific Storm Causes Destruction in Nova Scotia.” In the local Eastern Chronicle newspaper, it was described as “the worst storm ever known in this section.”
The McLellans Mountain and Brookville areas were the hardest hit. This tempest seemed to come out of nowhere, from the south to north east. The sky becoming very dark just after dinner and around 1:30 p.m. the calamity began. “It seemed that the clouds were opened for a time and the torrents were more like a person emptying buckets of water than anything else imaginable.”
The rain came down so hard that people ran for shelter immediately. The deluge of water laid a path of destruction, deep ravines cut into streambeds and hill sides, some measuring 10 feet deep. Every waterway in the area turned into a raging surge. Small streams that were mere trickles of water days before became torrents of destruction, carrying away soil, timber, fences, rocks and trees. Crossing points and bridges were swept away, only to be found many miles away in mangled pieces. In one report “at least a foot of water fell over an area of a mile and a half.” Streams rose to unseen heights and some bridges were completely submerged under a foot of water. Great sheets of lightning accompanied the deluge striking several houses and barns in the vicinity.
The farming communities across the storm’s path were devastated. Proud standing crops, vegetable gardens were flattened and strewn across fields or carried away with the rapid rush of water. A massive hailstorm with some of the hailstones measuring one and a half inches pelted the area.
The ground was so white at a depth of four inches, which to all appearance was in good condition for first class sleighing,” said one farmer about the incident. The hailstones lay on the ground well into the next summer day.
One of the local farmers fearing for his grazing cattle, ventured out to save them. He had pastured them in a low-lying area of his property. The farmer had to turn back; the rushing water was well up to his waist. After much anguish and to the family’s surprise, his treasured bovines swam through the flood and made it to safety. A 20-chicken hen house that was 30 feet from the brook was washed away. An old gristmill that had been through many a storm was carried downstream and its timbers strewn for miles across fields or tangled up on newly gouged embankments.
The people of these communities were eternally grateful that there was no loss of human lives. Property damage in the immediate area was estimated to be in the thousands.
John Ashton of Bridgeville is a local historian and the province’s representative to the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada.