This is the story of the oldest recorded tornado in Canada.
On the afternoon of July 1st, 1792, a tornado ripped through the Niagara Region; a peninsula located in southern Ontario and known for its temperate climate as one of the province’s prime fruit growing regions. The region had just become home to hundreds of United Empire Loyalist refugees following the American Revolution. This influx of families throughout the 1780s and 90s signaled the beginning of an organized colonial inhabitation of the region. While this part of Canada is no Tornado Alley, it’s seen more tornado action than one might think. In fact, southern Ontario is one of the most common places for tornadoes to occur in the country, along with the southern regions of our prairie provinces.1
Stretching diagonally from Lake Ontario to Lake Erie, this 1792 tornado flattened trees and homes over a two-mile wide stretch of land, according to eyewitnesses. Niagara resident Francis Goring’s first-person journal account details the destruction, and, in the decade that followed, land petitions from local farmers and the diaries of visiting Quakers reveal more about the impacts of this natural disaster. Miraculously nobody perished, but for a few cattle.
Traces of this tornado still exist today. The aptly named “Hurricane Road” stretching almost five miles between Fonthill and Port Robinson in the centre of the peninsula follows part of this historic path carved over 230 years ago.
The Eyewitness Account
I’ve only come across one direct retelling of this event; a wonderfully detailed first-hand account. It was written by an Englishman named Francis Goring, who arrived at Fort Niagara in 1777 where he worked as a clerk.2 He was part of the Loyalist settlement of Niagara in the aftermath of the American Revolution, crossing the Niagara River with his family and taking up farming in southwest Niagara Township.
Goring stands out as one of Niagara’s more literate individuals at that time, hired by his neighbours on occasion to compose official documents including a will, a bill of sale, a deputy lieutenant’s commission, and a formal petition.3 He also kept regular accounts of farm activity completed by both himself and his wife Lucy, recording important information such as the weather, amount of rainfall, planting dates and harvest quantities. Of course, when the tornado touched down in 1792, it received a full page of his attention.
His diary entry for July 1st, 1792 is an account of a “hurricane” sweeping through Niagara. He was, of course, speaking of a tornado, but at that time it was common for people to refer to tornadoes and funnel clouds as “hurricanes.” He wrote:
“Sunday July 1st, 1792. A violant Hurricane happend this day about 2 & 3 oclock in the afternoon which begun at the little Lake (at the head of Lake Ontario) which drove with such violance towards Fort Erie as left hardly a Tree standing for two mile in width: the heavyest part fell among the short hills, between the fifteen & thirty mile creeks in some places, for near five mile wide there is not so much as a sapling but what is torn up by the Roots, who Trees carry a Considerable distance, some thrifty trees a foot & half thick twisted like a whith [?] – every house disroofed and many blown down, in some places the hail was as large as a mans fist in other places their was neither hail nor rain. The Woods now is renderd impassable, till roads can be cut through, forty men was three days cuting so as to get out five families and their Cattle, the whole way it went was as a wirld wind, the Trees falling different ways. There is no appearance by the Woods that such a Storm has ever happen’d in this Country before, what is very remarkable we hear of no lives being lost except those of Cattle.”
Library and Archives Canada, Francis Goring Collection MG 24 – D4 Notebooks..
The first important detail to note here is the trajectory of the tornado. It began “at the little Lake”, the precise location of which is not certain but is likely Burlington Bay, which at that time was often referred to as the Little Lake.4 In the accounts following the event, people who experienced tornado damage to their land came from a variety of townships including Grimsby, Gainsborough, Clinton, Pelham, and Thorold. This supports the hypothesis that the tornado traveled diagonally from Burlington to Fort Erie.
Short Hills today. Photos by Jessica Linzel.
The second detail to note is that the tornado “left hardly a Tree standing for two mile in width,” and around the Short Hills area it leveled a path almost five miles wide! It was so powerful that it carried trees “a considerable distance,” disroofing houses and blowing others down. There would not have been very many houses standing in the first place, with the entire region only containing approximately 800 families of European descent at this time.5 Even in the heaviest hit area near the Short Hills, there lived only “ten or a dozen families, whose houses were all shattered, and some of them blown down and entirely ruined.”6 Still, for those who had come to Niagara to start their lives over, this would have been devastating.
One of these unfortunate souls was Peter Weaver, who in 1795 submitted a petition to the Upper Canada Land Board, arguing that his land in Pelham “whereon he had a House and Dwelt, and also upwards of Ten Acres cleared” had been destroyed a few years prior “by a Hurricane.”7
Another family forced to relocate in the wake of the tornado was that of Johannes (John) Winger in Thorold, who “settled on some lands at the Short Hills, but the Hurricane laid waste the lots they then occupied…”8
The Proof in the Petitions
For those fortunate enough to be outside the tornado’s destructive path, the downed trees were an immediate nuisance. As Goring’s account states, it took 40 men three days to cut the trees out of the roadways so that five families and their cattle could be freed. As with any story though, it’s important to hear from multiple sources to get a clearer sense of the full picture. By reading the mid-1790s land petitions of those affected by “the Hurricane”, we gain a better understanding of where it touched down and how it impacted lives.
Here are three petitions from the mid-1790s.
- Jeremiah Johnson, 1796: “Humbly sheweth—That your Petitioner has received two Hundred acres of Land on the Twenty mile Creek in the Township of Clinton—the whole of which excepting about 10 acres, lies in the Hurricane (so called) which not only deprives him of living Timber, but has made the clearing for him, almost impracticable…”9
- Michael Hand/Hend, 1796: “Humbly sheweth—That your Petitioner served in Bartons Corps during the American war & that he came to this Province in the year 1786- with a wife and three children—and received a Ticket from Capt. Watson, then Commd. at Niagara for 700 acres of Land—which certificate was since lost in the Hurricane…”10
- Henry Johnson, 1797: “Respectfully Sheweth—That your petitioner has resided upwards of ten Years in this Province, and was entered up on the map for 200 acres in the Township Grimsby of which he has improved about forty acres—That your Petitioner suffered a loss of about Eighty acres from a Hurricane that took place five Years past and a large Swamp that fell within his lot – prays your Honor would be pleased to Confirm him in said lot, and allow him such further grant for the loss he has sustained as to your Honor may seem meet…”11
Similarly, a group of immigrants to Niagara from New Jersey in 1794 petitioned for 1,600 acres in Clinton, located in and around the Hurricane lands. They settled “upon a tract of Land being and laying between the twenty mile Creek and the place commonly called the Hurricane—in the County of Lincoln—the said Tract of Lands being immediately bounded in Front by the northernmost concession line of the Survey of Mr Lewis Grant Deputy Surveyor and running thence North—and bounded to the west by the Lands of James Conolly on the place commonly called the upper Settlements on the Twenty mile Creek…”
The Hurricane’s Legacy
These land petitions give us a better idea of the tornado’s path, moving southeast above the Niagara escarpment through the townships of Grimsby, Clinton, Pelham, and Thorold. This is a good start, but Francis Goring’s later accounts provide further insight as he traveled the peninsula on behalf of his employer, Robert Hamilton.
From the early 1800s until 1809, Goring worked as the secretary for Niagara’s most prevalent merchant. Much of his work involved traveling around the region and delivering letters of notice to those owing Hamilton a debt. He traveled on foot from Queenston to Ancaster (a 50-mile trek) and back each winter from 1803-1808. Fortunately for us, one of his notebooks goes so far as to list every individual he visited, the location of their farm, how much they owed Hamilton, and the individual with whom the letter was left.12
Noteworthy are his multiple references to part of Niagara as “The Hurricane.” The locals ended up referring to the most affected areas after the natural disaster itself. Here are some examples:
- John Clark lived “in the Hurricane on this side” in the Short Hills.
- Isaac Haney “moved into the Hurricane on this side.”
- Isaac Nunn lived “on the other side of the Hurricane – Pelham.”
- David Parmer lived “on a rise of the mountain 30 M. Creek in the Hurricane.”
- Samuel Taylor and his father John Taylor both lived “on the other side the Hurricane” in the Short Hills.
- Jacob Tice lived “on the west side the Hurricane – Pelham.”
- Benjamin Hill lived “on the other side the Hurricane 2 ½ miles” in the Short Hills.
- James Moor lived “on this side of the Hurricane – Short Hills.”
- Bleachey Robins lived “in the Hurricane on this side – Short Hills.”
With the help of this primary source, the puzzle of the tornado’s path has gained a few more pieces. Early township surveys contain the names of most of these Loyalist landowners, so if we georeference them, overlay them atop a modern basemap of Niagara, and highlight the relevant individuals, we are left with an approximate idea of where this 1792 tornado touched down all those years ago.
Be aware this is not a perfect science. Many Loyalist families owned multiple pieces of land in different townships, and many “squatted” on land before receiving official title to it, meaning that the name on the 100-acre plot did not always accurately reflect which family lived there. What also makes this difficult is the fact that tornadoes tend to lift and touch down again, meaning it would not have been a straight path of continuous destruction, but rather dotted lines of chaos. It would be great to be able to add more data to this map as historians continue researching this event, but for now we at least have a preliminary visual.
Traveling Quakers: Further Evidence
One final group of sources from 1793, 1798, and 1800 provide a picture of how this tornado impacted the people of Niagara. In the decade following the tornado, groups of Quakers traveling to Niagara and gathering at the Pelham Quaker Meeting House saw the twisted aftermath with their own eyes and heard tales from the locals vividly recalling the terror of that summer afternoon in 1792. These sources are great to have because they provide another human element to the story. We can feel second-hand the emotions of those who experienced the tornado, see its role as a pseudo-tourist attraction, and read the authors’ words of gratitude to God for sparing the lives of their brethren.
We see this particularly in the diary entry of Rufus Hall, a Friend from New York who wrote during his visit in 1798:
“Here I think it right to give some account of a remarkable deliverance of the hand of Providence, which happened, as I was informed, about six years before. A terrible hurricane raged in this place to such a degree that it blew down and destroyed all the timber for thirty miles in length and one mile in width: insomuch that I could not discover one tree of any bigness that stood whole. It was also so violent for another mile in width that it destroyed about one half of the timber; and at that time and in this place, there lived ten or a dozen families, whose houses were all shattered, and some of them blown down and entirely ruined; yet not one person was slain among them, although several were hurt. One man was riding the road in the most dangerous spot, where the timber was very thick, and every tree was torn down around him; yet they fell so across logs and large roots of trees, that they were kept up from the ground in such a manner that neither the man nor his horse was killed, though they were both hurt. But he was obliged to remain in his deplorable situation all night (it being in the afternoon when the storm happened) and till some time in the next day; when some of his neighbours came and helped him out. The people were so affrighted that several of them told me they were not sensible of hearing any trees fall; and after the awful storm was over and the wind had ceased, they endeavoured to go to see how it fared with one another: — each supposing that their neighbours and friends were slain in the tempest. But when they met, it was with weeping for joy that their lives were preserved. The remains of the destruction were to be seen when I was there, and I thought it so remarkable a deliverance that it ought to be recorded, inasmuch as it evidently manifested the wonderful mercy of the great Preserver of mankind.”13
These accounts also corroborate Goring’s initial journal entry in terms of the tornado’s approximate width and length as well as the date and time of the event. New Jersey Quaker Joseph Moore on his way to Sandusky, Ohio in 1793 commented on the sad “wilderness situation” of his Quaker brethren in Pelham, writing: “… understanding divers Friends lived at a place called the Short Hills, about twelve miles off, we concluded to go there … We passed through some land where we saw the effects of a hurricane that was on the 1st of the 7th month last, and truly I may say, I never saw so great destruction of timber. For about two miles in width, and said to be many miles in length, there was scarce a single tree left that was not torn up by the roots, or broken off.”14
Similarly, John Hunt’s 1800 recollection reads: “This day we passed by and through what they called the Hurricane; which is a tract or vein of land though the country about two miles wide, along which a whirlwind or hurricane had lately passed, and had blown down nearly all the timber, which lay crossed and piled on one another very thick, and in every direction. We were shown the place were a man who was passing along when it happened, was stopped, by the trees falling so thick around him that he could not go on; yet neither he nor his horse was hurt; but they were so penned in by the timber that they could not get out that night, nor till about noon next day, when by people’s coming and cutting away the logs they were released. A remarkable preservation!”15
Clearly, for those living in the Short Hills area, this tornado remained in the forefront of their minds for many years after.
According to Goring, the appearance of the woods suggested that such a storm had not happened in Niagara before. Of course, consultation with the local Mississauga or members of the Haudenosaunee may have revealed otherwise, but we are not given that insight. So was this really the first tornado to touch Niagara’s soil since the formation of the landscape 4,000 years prior? Likely not. In fact, in the 230 years since, many more tornadoes have been documented in this area.
Photos from Dennis Gannon, “The day of destruction in Merritton,” Special to The Standard. September 1998, http://www.ontariostorms.com/specific/stkitts-1898/.
In 1855, an F2 touched down in Port Dalhousie and Niagara-on-the-Lake.16 Again in 1898, St. Catharines was hit and this time five people were killed in a tornado that stretched 72 kilometres; seemingly more destructive than our 1792 “hurricane.” Since the start of the 20th century there have been a number of weaker F0 or unclassed tornadoes recorded with winds ranging between 105-137 kph. I’ve also seen accounts of an earthquake in Niagara in 1796, but that’s a story for another day.
Through this study it became clear that Niagara’s environmental history was more tumultuous than I had previously imagined. I have lived in Niagara my whole life and hope to remain here for many years to come, so here’s hoping that whatever extreme weather comes our way, we continue to be spared by “so remarkable a deliverance.”
1 Environment and Climate Change Canada, Canadian National Tornado Database: Verified Tracks (1980-2009), last modified July 2021, https://open.canada.ca/data/en/dataset/65658050-7a80-4da3-9a09-da137c203a34 https://www.uwo.ca/ntp/faqs/where_do_tornadoes_occur_in_canada.html.
2 Jean A. E. Huggins, “Goring family has played important role in Niagara Township for over 100 years,” The St. Catharines Standard, September, 1956, https://vitacollections.ca/notlheritage/details.asp?ID=2689521.
3 Library and Archives Canada. Francis Goring fonds [textual record]. R4093-0-6-E, MG24-D4. Available online from Heritage Canadiana: http://heritage.canadiana.ca/view/oocihm.lac_mikan_105975.
4 Robert Malcomson, “What really happened? De-bunking the Burlington Bay Sandbar Legend.” Access Heritage Inc., accessed February 18, 2023, https://www.warof1812.ca/burlingn.htm.
5 E. A. Cruikshank, “The Register of Saint Paul’s Church at Fort Erie, 1836-1844,” Ontario Historical Society Papers and Records 27 (1931): 77-132. http://my.tbaytel.net/bmartin/forterie.htm Today the Niagara Region has over 450,000 people, but in 1792 there were only around 800 families of European descent.
6 Christopher Densmore ed., “Early Quaker Visits to the Niagara Region of Canada, 1793-1804,” The Canadian Quaker History Journal 64 (1999): 15, https://cfha.info/journal64.pdf.
7 A list of Upper Canada Land Petitions can be found online, transcribed by Robert R. Mutrie on his website The Niagara Settlers, https://sites.google.com/site/niagarasettlers/upper-canada-land-petitions.
8 Mutrie, The Niagara Settlers, https://sites.google.com/site/niagarasettlers/upper-canada-land-petitions/petitions-w/petitions-wilson-to-winter.
9 Mutrie, The Niagara Settlers, https://sites.google.com/site/niagarasettlers/upper-canada-land-petitions/petitions-j
10 Mutrie, The Niagara Settlers, https://sites.google.com/site/niagarasettlers/upper-canada-land-petitions/petitions-h/petitions-hallowell-to
11 Mutrie, The Niagara Settlers, https://sites.google.com/site/niagarasettlers/upper-canada-land-petitions/petitions-j
12 Hamilton was still owed £69,000 at the time of his death in 1809, which equals approximately $2.6 million CAD today! To read more about Francis Goring and what his diaries tell us about Niagara’s environment in the late 18th & early 19th c., see Jessica Linzel, “An Inclement Journey Across Niagara, 1803” The Brown Homestead Journal, February, 2022, https://thebrownhomestead.ca/journal/an-inclement-journey-across-niagara-1803.
13 Densmore ed., “Early Quaker Visits to the Niagara Region of Canada, 1793-1804,” 15.
14 Densmore ed., “Early Quaker Visits to the Niagara Region of Canada, 1793-1804,” 2.
15 Densmore ed., “Early Quaker Visits to the Niagara Region of Canada, 1793-1804,” 18.
16 An excerpt from The Niagara Mail: April 25th, 1855. Niagara Historical Society, Notes on Niagara 1759-1860, no. 32, 1920, accessed from https://studylib.net/doc/8782264/publication-no.32—niagara-historical-society-museum.
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