I, like many others, enjoy watching a lightning storm across the lake on a hot summer night. The flashes, bolts and flickers are mesmerizing much like the northern lights. Nature’s fireworks. And, given the record hot weather we are having so early in the summer, there may be a lot of lightning displays in the coming months.
My dad recently shared with me a memory he has of seeing a flash of fire shoot out of the family’s crank style wall telephone. Fortunately, that was it, though he cannot recall whether the phone was damaged.
The following three stories illustrate how lightning traveled through homes during the first quarter of the twentieth century. Later, materials and construction changes improved to help prevent destruction. Most amazing is the erratic and unpredictable way in which the electricity wreaked havoc.
Escape is a Miracle ~ Itasca News8-13-1904
“Thursday night at 11:15 o’clock during a brief thunderstorm in which terrific bolts struck close to the village, one shaft of lightning struck the new residence of Percy Brooks, the largest in the village, and breaks resulting are the strangest that have ever been heard of in the north half of Minnesota.
“There were several witnesses to the shot and the stories of all agree. It appears the shaft just reached the building, split in several branches and two of the main bolts made each a hole in the house, one on the northeast corner about eight by ten feet, and the other about four by ten on the east end of the roof, about three feet from the peak on the south slope. From that this bolt made an ‘s’ shaped tear under the shingles and darted through into the garret, leaving a hole about six inches square. It then passed east into Mr. Brooks room. The bolt which came through the corner and north side of the building tore out the whole side of a vacant bedroom, passed into the hallway, then to the south extremity of the hall and there forced in the door of Asa Brooks [Percy’s father’s] bedroom, the door fell upon him in bed and passed out through the window in the south side of his room. The other bolt or branch came into Asa’s room from the northeast corner and passing out tore away about eight feet of the partition in which the door came from and passed out the south window from the hallway.
“Asa was dazed for half a minute after he threw the door off him, but finally realized that a ball of fire was on the floor near the foot of his bed, and he grabbed that with his bare hands and threw it out of the window. It was discovered the next morning that the ball of fire was a bouquet of cloth flowers interwoven with wire, to which the electricity clung. Besides these main wreckages there are several small holes in the east end of the house on the upper floor which look like a huge knife had been punched through. The windows in the east end were not cracked, while two on the south and two on the north, on the upper floors were cleaned out close to the sashes.
“Downstairs, Percy Brooks, Mrs. Brooks and son Clyde, age three, slept in a bed close to the northeast corner where the wall was smashed in and covered them with lath and plaster and pieces of a large picture and frame which hung over their heads. Bernie aged seven, who slept in a bed ten feet south of them, was uninjured, as were the rest.
“After all recovered from the shock the two men went up in the garret to investigate and found quite a fire there. With two pails of water, however, they soon had the flame extinguished. Meantime, Mrs. Brooks stood on the back porch trying to revive the baby who appeared to be in a stupor, and by throwing water in his face he was awakened. Mrs. Brook’s screams alarmed the neighbors and plenty of assistance was soon at hand.
“J.M. Holdridge saw the lightning strike and sounded the fire alarm. In five minutes, the fire team and apparatus were on the spot but were not needed. The east end of the house was badly wrecked while the west half of it wholly unmolested and has not a break or crack.
“It is a truly miraculous thing that none of the family was hurt or killed, and after the fright was over Asa Brooks said he and all were most thankful but “he’d be d— if he’d go to bed so early again.”
“The darts took strange maneuvers. One struck a piece of china in a small closet off from the lower bed chamber, broke it to pieces and touched nothing near it. Another broke a wash pitcher on the commode in Mr. Brooks’ room and other things near it were not moved. The bolt in the family bedroom passed to the kitchen, cut the wires above the stove pipe, staining a few spots on the ceiling, smashed the woodbox, passed out of the back door and killed two chickens which were in a box on the step.
“By stepping on nails which were in the shingles torn from the roof Mrs. Brooks’ feet will be sore for a few days. Percy has an abrasion on the head caused by pieces of lumber or plaster hitting him. The building is insured for fifteen hundred dollars, and it is thought the damage will be about one thousand dollars.”
Lightning Hits Chimney ~ Itasca News 8-17-1907
“A brief electrical storm visited this immediate section last Wednesday afternoon, lasting only half an hour, but lightning struck several places nearby and great damage was feared. The only damage done, however, was to the house of K. Johtonen, in the north part of the village. The chimney was hit and cut off at the peak of the roof. From this point the bolt followed down a tamarack rafter splitting it into toothpicks but leaving the heart of the timber whole. From the foot of the rafter the exit of the bolt could not be traced. Mr. Johtonen, his wife and daughter were in the house at the time and were not hurt beyond a shock from fright. Both stove pipes were knocked down, but the chimney was not cracked below the peak of the roof. The damage will amount to about a hundred dollars, fully covered by lightning insurance.”
Narrow Escape from Lightning ~ Grand Rapids Herald-Review 7-27-1927
“Carl Nelson, head pressman at the Grand Rapids Herald-Review, had a very narrow escape from being killed by lightning last Monday evening. He was knocked unconscious and his cottage at Pokegama Lake was badly damaged by the bolt.
“When the storm arose, Mr. Nelson started to shut some windows. He was alone in the house, which is on Stony Point. A blinding flash of lightning came, and Mr. Nelson recovered himself a few seconds later on the floor. The windows were smashed, walls ripped out, wall board torn from the ceiling and walls, clothing singed and torn as though by powerful gears, waste papers from the basket driven into the ceiling, and a piece broken out of the concrete wall around his well. A bottle of cream, hung down into the well by a string on a basket, was smashed to pieces as the electricity entered the earth by this channel. Mr. Nelson considers himself fortunate that he was able to tell of the accident afterward.
“The rain, which fell for some time on Monday evening, was accompanied by a brilliant electrical display, but this is the only report of damage being done.”
Lightning Kills Lars Hope ~ Itasca News 8-31-1907
“People here were shocked Wednesday to learn through the newspapers of the horrible death meted Lars Hope by lightning near Crookston. Hope, in the company of another man, was driving on the road each in separate wagons and near Dugdale lightning struck Hope’s wagon which was ahead. The man in the wagon behind was slightly dazed, and after recovering noticed a blaze of fire ahead of his team and going to make investigation found Hope in the wagon stark naked and fire was burning around his head. His body was not marred and only his hair was slightly singed. Fragments of his clothing were found strewn hundreds of feet away; his pocketbook containing $300 was found one hundred and fifty feet from the spot and his watch was thrown a hundred feet. He was stone dead when his friend reached him.
“Lars Hope was a single man and an old settler of Wirt, forty miles north of here. He has a good claim at Wirt, upon which he has made final proof. Crookston authorities have notified relatives of the man in Iowa.”
Nine-year-old James Clark, son of Robert and Margaret was standing on a hay wagon in front of a barn in June 1916, when a bolt of lightning struck. There were two horses in the barn, one was killed instantly and the other uninjured. The shock knocked James from the wagon, and he fell on the ground, but was uninjured.
In August 1928, Jesse Cartwright and two of his sons of Morse township were returning from the potato field. They had been using a one-horse hiller when they got caught in a storm. Just as they reached home, a bolt struck nearby. Jesse was carrying a hoe over his shoulder and felt the shock on the top of his head. One boy, riding the horse, fell to the ground and was ill for some time. All three congratulated themselves on their narrow escape. The sons living at home at the time were Floyd 20, Ernest 18, and Everett 9.
This last story about lightening started in the house and ended on the outside porch where the family was gathered.
Lightning Bolt Kills Jack Daley ~ Deer River News 7-31-1941
“Jack Daley, 55 years of age, was instantly killed by a bolt of lightning about 7:30 o’clock last Friday evening as he sat in a chair on the front porch of his home at Squaw Lake, watching the fury of a storm that raged over a wide area of western Itasca County.
“Ed Leiti, sitting near him, felt a partial force of the bolt and suffered burns on one leg. Mrs. Daley and daughter, Eunice, were thrown from their chairs, but were unhurt except for minor bruises and shock.
“The bolt crashed the west side of the residence, breaking windows, followed a light wire to the front porch and down the door casing against which Daley was leaning.”
Let’s hope that the lightning strikes are few and far between this summer!