Balls of Electricity Shot Through the Storm
Bonham Daily Favorite, May 23, 1995
Official weather records for Fannin County were not kept until about the turn of the century. With this lack of information we do not know what the weather conditions were in Fannin County during the last week of May in 1880. Looking at our normal weather patterns over the years it is probably safe to assume that the last vestiges of winter were still making their presence known with periodic cold fronts to destabilize the atmosphere into periods of storminess.
At a few minutes past ten p.m., Friday May 28, 1880, when most of the inhabitants of the small west Fannin County village of Savoy were already in bed, one of the most destructive storms to ever hit the area almost totally destroyed the town. Without warning, the storm swept from the southwest to the northeast in a path estimated at about 178 yards wide.
Touching down just west of Youree's Dry Goods establishment, in the southwest quadrant of the business district, the twister continued to the northeast destroying the Texas and Pacific Railway depot and section house. In between the two points an estimated 60 structures were totally demolished including every business establishment except one.
In a town of about three hundred, twelve people were either killed outright or later died of their injuries. An estimated 60 or more persons suffered from various injuries ranging from minor to life-threatening. It was estimated that the storm lasted less than two minutes.
In an era of no telephones or public telegraph or reliable methods of transportation, the town or what remained sat there in shock, alone, isolated, and uncomprehending. However, within twenty or thirty minutes, the east bound passenger train of the Texas and Pacific arrived at the scene. Almost immediately on arriving at the outskirts of town the train crew were confronted with debris blocking the right of way. With some of the crew removing the barriers, the trained inched slowly into the town limits.
Two Bonham men, Major B.F. Hayes and Charles Blair, were passengers on the train. They later reported that the continuous lightning flashes soon revealed the total destruction of the town. With the aid of other passengers the tracks were cleared and the train was able to make some speed for Bonham.
It was nearly one o'clock in the morning before the trained steamed into the Bonham depot. The Bonham men immediately aroused town officials with the news of the disaster. Meanwhile, the train engineer telegraphed to the main office at Marshall for instructions. The immediate response was to send him to Dodd City to pick up an extra engine and return to Savoy to assist in whatever way possible.
A torrential downpour rendered transportation to the stricken town a virtual impossibility. A coterie of physicians, nurses, and other volunteers gathered at the Bonham depot awaiting the return of the train from Dodd City. After some delays the train finally returned to Bonham to take on the waiting volunteers. The party reached Savoy about five o'clock.
In the interim, the three resident physicians of Savoy, Dr. King, Dr. Stegall, and Dr. Matthews, with the aid of those uninjured residents, had found and rescued all the injured except for one small girl. Rilla Kerns had been blown some forty or fifty yards from her home and dropped injured away from any piles of debris. Through the night the search had been among the debris so she was not discovered until after daylight. She was taken to the temporary hospital at the Savoy College where she was attended by Dr. Bacon Saunders and Dr. J.S. Dorset of Bonham. Later her injuries proved to be fatal.
The engineer of the passenger train returned to Bonham twice more in the early morning to pick up supplies of medicine, ice, food, and clothing which had been collected by the citizens of Bonham soon after the news was known. Bonham also raised donations of money and the city fathers appropriated $500 and county officials earmarked $1000 for the relief of the town.
Bonham government officials also appointed R.B. Abernathy to oversee the distribution of supplies and in addition he recruited a force of cooks, washwomen, and laborers to aid in the rescue operation. The cooks labored for several days at the college facility, turning out hot nourishing meals for the injured, the displaced, and the workers.
Somewhat petulantly The Bonham News reported that assistance from both Sherman and Denison was late in arriving but the eastern press gave credit to both towns for the humanitarian effort and failed to mention Bonham's efforts.
Because of the lateness of the hour when the storm struck there were very few witnesses. Those who did observe the catastrophe reported what appeared to be a funnel descend from a swirling mass of black clouds which was outlined by lurid displays of lightning. Bursting balls of electricity seemed to shoot through the storm as it swept over the town.
One personal story was recounted by Mattie Lee Boyd in her book on Savoy College from an interview with Mrs. Mich Murry. Mr. and Mrs. Murry had already retired that evening to their bedroom at the front of the house. They were awakened by continuous claps of thunder, the roaring of the wind, and blinding sheets of rain. Fearing for a daughter who slept in a room at the back of the house next to a porch, they raced through the house and opened the door to their daughter's bedroom. The entire room and porch was gone. The Murrys rushed out and began throwing aside all manner of debris while calling for their daughter.
As the storm continued to rage they searched for the little girl. Then there was a lull in the storm and the Murrys could hear the cries of the injured and trapped. They continued to call for their daughter and finally at some distance from the house, they heard a small voice call out, "Here I am Mamma, in the pig pen." The Murrys found their daughter on her bed, unhurt but covered from head to foot with water and mud. The pig was dead.
Within a few short weeks the resilient residents of Savoy had pulled together and almost completely rebuilt the town. Except for a few mishapened trees, a vacant lot or two, and the obviously new homes and businesses, few signs of the storm remained to tell the casual observer what happened on that spring night.
Fannin County Museum of History
One Main Street, Bonham, Texas