Silver Spring Hit By Tornado 100 Years Ago Today

Several times each week I walk down the 900 block of Bonifant Street on my way to the Silver Spring Metro Station and pass under the massive co-joined structures collectively known as the Bonifant-Dixon Public Parking Garage #5. As a community historian, I am usually either blessed or depressed (depending on the situation) to be able to see in my mind’s eye what downtown Silver Spring used to look like, and I definitely feel the latter when I see these two hulking structures.

One hundred years ago this section of Bonifant Street was named Oak Avenue (and even before that, Laura Road). Present-day Dixon and Ramsey avenues that intersect Bonifant were named Maple and Cedar Avenues respectively. Situated on these bucolically named streets were once dozens of brick and wood frame bungalows constructed during the 1920s and 1930s in what is still known as the E. Brooke Lee Addition to Silver Spring.

The occupants of these humble abodes were attracted to many of the same amenities that those of us who live here today on the periphery of downtown Silver Spring enjoy 100 years later; proximity to jobs, shopping, entertainment, and public transportation. Yet, on Thursday, April 5, 1923, many in this small neighborhood feared for their lives. At approximately three o’clock that afternoon, an unprecedented tornado tore through the neighborhood, injuring four people, destroying five houses, and partially wrecking a dozen others, but miraculously killing no one. 

The twister approached Silver Spring from the southwest, arcing across the north end of Rock Creek Park in the District of Columbia. Approaching the Falkland mansion, constructed in 1854 by Montgomery Blair, the tornado only slightly damaged the roof. Damage to the grounds however was extreme, with more than fifty shade trees that surrounded the hilltop mansion being uprooted. Thirty-five years later the mansion, hilltop, and remaining trees suffered far more destruction than any tornado could cause when all were literally leveled between 1958 and 1959 for the construction of the Blair Park Shopping Center at 1290 East-West Highway.  

Upon leaving Falkland, the tornado reached its greatest velocity, obtaining an estimated wind speed of 100 to 200 miles an hour. Jumping the tracks of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad (today’s CSX/Metro), the tornado slammed into 1108 Oak Ave., owned by meat cutter Joseph Stecklein and his wife Catherine. The destructive force of the winds completely tore off the roof as well as the home’s brick facade.

Sixteen-year-old Florence Davis was at that moment walking to her home at 1106 Oak Ave., next door to the Steckleins, with her friend Delma Stanley. Both girls were lifted from their feet and thrown against a fence more than fifty feet away. Neither was injured.

The tornado next hit Stecklein’s neighbor’s house across the street. Occupied by William M. Cowell, a carpenter, and John C. Cowell, a bricklayer, the roof of 1109 Oak Ave. blew away, as did the west façade facing the railroad tracks. With the bathroom wall gone, a fine alfresco view of passing Baltimore & Ohio Railroad trains could be had!

Far more dramatic was what happened to nursemaid Leena Warren.  Warren was preparing to give two-and-a-half-year-old Margie Dudley, daughter of Dr. & Mrs. Frederick E. Dudley Jr., a bath when the wood frame home at 8404 Maple Ave. seemed to rise and pitch forward as though it was going to sink into the ground. Warren was thrown through a doorway leading into another room with Margie flung in the opposite direction.

Margie was found moments later toddling on Maple Avenue in front of the house. It was thought that the youngster was pitched to the floor when the house shook and then slid through the front door to the ground when the house tilted forward. The child was picked up by a passing neighbor and carried to safety. The April 6, 1923 Evening Star reported that Margie was “apparently unalarmed” by the incident while Warren was “scratched and shocked.”

The Dudley’s home, as well as most of the others in the neighborhood, was less than one year old when the tornado hit.  Having just moved in three weeks earlier, Dr. Dudley was quoted in the Evening Star, “We had watched it eagerly and hourly during the course of its construction and we were just getting comfortably settled.” Dr. Dudley didn’t remain in the home long, for by 1927 he is listed in the Polk’s Washington Suburban Directory as residing at 618 Sligo Ave.

Seventy-nine years later, memories of the tornado were still vivid to Nellie Hewitt Stinchcomb, daughter of Captain Frank L. Hewitt. Hewitt and his family lived in a large home that faced the Brookville & Washington Turnpike (today’s Georgia Ave.). Gist Blair, son of Montgomery Blair, originally constructed the home in the late 1890s. Gist served as Silver Spring’s first postmaster in 1899 and Hewitt served as its second from 1906 to 1914. The home was demolished circa 1936 for construction of the Silver Spring Post Office at 8412 Georgia Ave.

I’ll let Mrs. Stinchcomb (more familiarly known as “Sis”) tell the story:

“I remember it well. I was out in the breakfast room. All of a sudden the wind started blowing. The maid, or the nurse it was I guess, was with Jimmy, Billy, Dick [her brothers] and me. We had a back stairway right there off the breakfast room. She dragged us into the stairway and closed the door but the glass in the window up above broke and all came down on our heads. It just seemed as if it was over in no time. I don’t know what happened to the cook. She was in the kitchen. She didn’t have time to come get in the stairwell with us but anyways nothing was damaged except that window up at the top. But the yardman was out in the yard and he ran in the garage. The garage had been a barn and it had the top on it and it was made into a garage. And it had the seven-passenger Buick in there because Daddy had gone to Rockville (in another car), which he went to every day to bank. He was coming down the road and he got as far as Sligo, which was the intersection of Georgia Avenue and Colesville Road, and he couldn’t come down any further. So, he had to walk on down. I guess he ran down then to see how everybody was and we were all right. The man in the garage said that the back end of that Buick went right straight up in the air and it came back down and didn’t damage the car at all.”

The tornado indeed was “over in no time” for the Evening Star reported that in spite of lasting less than a minute, its path of destruction measured an estimated 600 feet wide and a quarter of a mile long. Damages totaled over $100,000 ($1.8 million today). 

All of the homes were eventually rebuilt but could not withstand that other tornado known as redevelopment. By the 1950s this neighborhood of bungalows with front porch swings, neighbors talking over backyard fences, and kids playing out on the sidewalks quickly succumbed to commercial development. The site of the Cowell home is today occupied by the law offices of Greenberg & Bederman, constructed in 1963 with an address of 1111 Bonifant St. The Stecklein, Davis, and Dudley homes, along with eight others, were torn down in the late 70s to erect the two parking garages. 

Only three homes remain from this old neighborhood, yet you would never know if you looked at them. Buried inside today’s 8403, 8405, and 8407 Ramsey Ave., across from the Silver Spring Metro parking lot, are three brick bungalows. The original facades have been replaced and the spaces in between filled in, but if you look at the side of 8407 you will see the original chimney of the house. Walk around to the back and the rear elevations of the three bungalows are readily apparent. Bricked-up windows stare out into what had been the deep backyard of 1107 Oak Ave., now replaced by the multiple decking of Public Parking Garage #5

If you have any information on or photographs of the following individuals who were impacted by the Silver Spring tornado, please contact the Silver Spring Historical Society at PO Box 1160, Silver Spring, MD 20910-1160, or email [email protected]. Future historians will thank you!

Silver Spring Tornado — April 5, 1923

Injured:

  • Heath, W. R. (Washington, DC)
  • Hensley, B. Paul (1236 Irving St. NW, Washington, DC)
  • Stecklein, Mrs. Joseph (Catherine) (Silver Spring, MD)
  • Wachter, Harry (Brookville, MD)
  • Warren, Leena

Destroyed homes:

  • Carroll, John C. (large, frame barn at rear of property)
  • Cowell, John C.
  • Cowell, William M.
  • Dodge, Vernon
  • Dudley Jr., Dr. Frederick E.
  • Harden (or Hardon), Mrs. Walter
  • Hewitt, Captain Frank L. (small garage at rear of property)
  • Stecklein, Joseph

Damaged homes:

  • Alexander, Harry
  • Blair Jr., Montgomery
  • Davis, William E.
  • Hewitt, Captain Frank L.
  • Kronenbitter, Christian
  • Von Hurbulie, William
  • Woodworth, John

Jerry McCoy is president of the Silver Spring Historical Society. Photos courtesy Jerry McCoy. Above, Dudley house from the side.

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