Easter Disaster in Wellsburg, West Virginia, 1902

Easter 2020 will be among the strangest in modern history. Most churches have closed their doors and are using virtual services in order to protect parishioners from the Covid19 virus. And down in Dixie the threat of severe weather hangs over the day like a giant anvil waiting to drop. All this reminded me of a story I originally related as my “Once, Long Ago” column in the Clarksburg (WV) Exponent Telegram newspaper on Easter Sunday, March 27, 2005, “Easter Services Ended in Tragedy at Wellsburg.” Minor changes have been made for readers not familiar with locations of towns and counties in the Mountain State.

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Easter, highest holy day of the Christian religion, is a time of rejoicing among the faithful, but the day’s joy once turned to mourning in Brooke County near the base of the Northern Panhandle.

Easter Sunday, Mar. 30, 1902, started out under sunny skies across northern West Virginia, according to accounts in Wheeling’s The Intelligencer on Mar. 31 and Apr. 1.

In Wheeling an unprecedented number of flowers blossomed in nearly every window in town. White Easter lilies predominated, of course, but azaleas and hyacinth spread their colors across the city as well.

Even the poorest family managed to buy a potted plant, and lovesick swains spent a half-week’s salary to give corsages to their ladies, The Intelligencer observed.

Church services were widely attended across the state. Perhaps worshippers were asked to pray for those who were under siege by harsh weather from North Dakota to Alabama.

The New York Times reported that morning that Middle Tennessee was enduring its worst floods in over a decade, destroying property from the small town of Murfreesboro to the tiny hamlet of Bell Buckle. Harriman, in East Tennessee, virtually washed away. Eastern Kentucky was afloat after three days and nights of rainfall.

But clear skies over West Virginia promised a bright day for church services and Easter parades. As the morning progressed, clouds and sun began a game of tag across the heavens. High winds “caused the plumes and feathers on the hats and skirts to fly and wave in such a manner as to give the wearers no end of trouble,” The Intelligencer reported.

About 11 a. m., when many church services were ending, a storm broke over most of the northern part of the state, raging with wind and rain for 30 – 45 minutes. Churchgoers elected to remain in their pews a while longer in Wheeling, Mannington, Fairmont and other communities.

Then the storm was gone. By afternoon, Morgantown, about 75 miles south of Pittsburgh, Penn., was able to hold its annual parade, and thousands strolled through South Park. Evening services went ahead as scheduled nearly everywhere. For most folks around the state, the nasty weather merely soaked Spring outfits and delayed Sunday dinner.

Not so in Brooke County.

About four miles east of Wellsburg, the faithful had gathered for Easter services at the Franklin Methodist Church. It was a venerable brick building, erected in 1852 to replace the original 1832 log cabin where the church began, according to A History of Brooke County, by Nancy Lee Caldwell (Brooke County Historical Society, 1975). Caldwell wrote that it had two front doors and divided pews—one side for women, one for men, although I suspect the practice of segregated seating had ended by 1902.

Reverend Allshouse (I could not find an account that included his first name.) was just at the conclusion of his sermon on the Resurrection when the gable end of the church blew in. Falling timbers and debris flew around him, causing serious injury to his head.

Panic-stricken worshippers fled the building, but some were still inside when a gale lifted the roof off, then dropped it back on top of them.

Friends, families, neighbors scrambled to help the fallen. Most injuries were not serious, but Melvin Harvey had a broken arm and gashes on his head. Russell Gist also had head and body wounds.

Estella Brady, just 16, was not so lucky. She had been killed instantly. Rescuers lifted 10-year-old Robert Gist from the wreckage and carried him to his home, but he died en route.

There had been no tornadic funnel, according to the Weather Bureau office at Pittsburgh. Although cyclonic conditions existed, winds in the storm generally only reached 35 miles an hour, with some 50 – 60 mph gales.

Churches across Eastern Ohio, West Virginia and Pennsylvania seemed to be targeted by the tempest, probably because of steeples and higher silhouettes that caught the winds. Eleven were damaged around Pittsburgh alone.

Near Wellsburg, a day that began in joy ended in mourning.

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