Header 1896

August 19, 1896

Wednesday, August 19, 1896. The late summer weather was pleasant in the resort island of Martha's Vineyard, on the Atlantic coast of Massachusetts, USA. The temperature was 72° F., and the sea was glassy calm under partly cloudy skies and a gentle breeze from the north. Summer visitors had returned from a morning bathe and were settling down for their mid-day meal, including Baldwin Coolidge, a professional photographer of Cottage City, who was at dinner half a mile from his studio.

Just after noon, the weather showed signs of a slow change. Cumulus clouds began to gather. Their bases became darker. A towering cumulonimbus, three miles high, with a black underside about three thousand feet above the surface of the water, formed over Nantucket Sound, ten miles to the northwest. Soon a heavy shower, streaked with lightning, was falling from this sluggish storm; but the disturbance, such as it was, remained a long way off.

At 12:45 p.m., E.H. Garret and some friends were lingering on the beach between Hyannis and Oysterville. One of the group noticed an odd-looking cloud developing under the base of the distant black thundershower. He said it looked like an icicle. After glancing at the object, the party turned to go home, when the 'icicle' began to change. It grew larger and longer, descending towards the sea as a misty veil, and, as it descended, the water of Nantucket Sound began to seethe.

Summer residents, just finishing their dinners, were suddenly alerted by a cry of "A waterspout, a waterspout!". They rushed from their hotels and cottages, but most were too late to see anything. Baldwin Coolidge had hurried to his studio to prepare a plate camera, but he was also too late. At 12:58 p.m., the waterspout disappeared. Or had it?

Second appearance of the waterspout. The schooner Avalon is on the left.

Thousands of people, including several photographers, were now watching the parent cloud. There was a bulge in it, which seemed to be rotating, and spray was still rising from the sea. They waited, and at 1 p.m., their patience was rewarded. The waterspout renewed its strength, and became gigantic. A tube extended rapidly to the sea, and became a vast, majestic black column, absolutely vertical, and over 2,800 feet high. Where the column reached the sea, the ocean rose in a mass of spray 600 feet high and 750 feet wide. The professional photographers exposed their plates, whilst tourists snapped their Kodaks. Other visitors watched the apparition with awe and unease. The thing looked suspiciously like a tornado. It was eight miles away, moving at only one mile an hour, and heading out to sea, but who could tell what it might do? The official Weather Bureau observer, W.W. Neifert remarked that "there was so much confusion, women and children crying", that he could not make accurate observations.

However, any violence was as yet far away. The spectators crowding the beach "gazed on the sight with mingled admiration and awe." The sun still shone on Martha's Vineyard, and summer cumuli dotted the deep blue sky. The shallow sea bed near the shore showed in yellow and green patches. All this contrasted strangely with the mass of blackness away in the east, 'and its absolutely perpendicular support'. All was still. The sea was calm. No sound could be heard. In fact, things were so quiet that some witnesses thought the spout must be at least twenty miles distant instead of eight.

Things were not so peaceful aboard the schooner Avalon, four miles closer to the waterspout, where those aboard were alarmed to hear the sound of the whirling vortex. The crew of a small catboat, even closer, and becalmed, were 'badly scared'.

Third appearance of the waterspout

After 18 minutes, the mighty pillar suddenly evaporated. The spectators waited. The sea beneath the parent cloud was still seething, revealing the presence of an invisible vortex. Sure enough, a few minutes later, at 1.20 p.m., another bulge formed in the cloud; and before it was more than a bulge, the waters of Nantucket Sound boiled and whirled upward under the influence of an unseen force, yearning to meet the funnel-shaped cloud descending from above. They met and joined for about five minutes, until the slanting funnel once more withdrew into the parent cloud. The spray settled, the sea grew calm, and the display was over.

The thousands of spectators departed the beaches. Thunder rumbled over the ocean behind them as the black squall which had formed the spout continued its slow advance toward Martha's Vineyard. About an hour and a half after the waterspout, there was a torrential downpour of rain for ten minutes. At several places on the island, this rain was of salt water.

Many residents and visitors, when the weather cleared at about 4 p.m., felt relief at 'having escaped some awful calamity.' Meanwhile, the meteorologists debated. They soon decided that there had not been three waterspouts, as some witnesses said, but one, with a funnel cloud which dissolved and reformed three times. Some still held to the rather old-fashioned view that a waterspout was literally that, a column of water pouring out of the clouds into the sea. Dr. F.C.V.H. Von Saal was of this opinion, believing that 'condensation was continually transforming the cloud matter into water’, which then fell into the sea, raising spray. However, the general scientific opinion dismissed this. The descent of the waterspout column happened too slowly to be a mass of falling water, and the sea was still agitated even when the column disappeared. The salt rain after seemed to show that any water in the spout was ascending, not falling. The spout was in fact a tornado at sea, a whirlwind which "lashed the sea into foam and spray and vapour, and stood it up in an invisible column; but it turned into cloud at the top first, then downward its entire length, until there it stood...before the wondering gaze of thousands, a veritable 'pillar of cloud by day'".