Courtesy of the Woodhaven Cultural and Historical Society
Public School 59 on Rockaway Boulevard in Old Woodhaven South (now Ozone Park) in the aftermath of the cyclone that struck with devastation force 125 years ago, on July 13, 1895.

It came from the west, through East New York and Cypress Hills. The force of the winds uprooted trees and toppled tombstones in the cemetery before descending its force upon Woodhaven. It was just after 4 in the afternoon and in the space of just a few minutes, the storm would cut a path of destruction with tragic results.

Next month marks the 125th anniversary of that memorable day. If you grew up in the area, you may have heard tales about the terrific storm that tore Woodhaven apart. Growing up, you may have heard about the young woman who died.

And you may have heard about the thousands and thousands of people who traveled all the way to Woodhaven to view the destruction the storm left behind.

It was July 13, 1895, and Woodhaven was still renowned for and shaped by its famed Union Course track, where races between horses bred in the North and the South drew crowds of 70,000 people or more.

The track closed in the 1860s and the land sat empty for many years. Much of Woodhaven North (the land north of Atlantic Avenue) was wide open in those days as it consisted of a lot of farmland.

Woodhaven South, on the other hand, was more densely populated, with buildings, factories and a large recently constructed school. It’s also important to note that much of what was Woodhaven South back then is now Ozone Park.

The storm appeared with no warning, first striking Woodhaven at Jamaica Avenue and Elderts Lane, near the home for truants (future home of Franklin K. Lane High School). Passengers on the Brooklyn, Queens County and Suburban Railroad, which had just been electrified the year before, huddled inside their derailed cars as telegraph and trolley poles came crashing down around them.

The storm cloud, which was estimated to cover an area of 300 square yards, moved swiftly south injuring residents who were being battered by a massive amount of debris that was flying through the air. Once the storm began to hit the houses in Woodhaven, the debris that began to fly became decidedly more dangerous.

Eyewitnesses described the cloud as massive and dark, and some said it was shaped like a funnel. Many others described a soft red glow within the cloud. They said that trees and chimneys were ripped from their foundations and flew through the air as if they were no heavier than feathers. Several persons found themselves lifted off their feet and carried through the air, landing a block or two away.

Newspaper accounts at the time described one woman who was in an outhouse at the time the storm struck. The outhouse was ripped from the ground and hurled a full block away. The poor woman was carried away with the outhouse, and was flung away from it before it crashed to the ground. That she suffered only a cut on her forehead was rightfully described as a miracle.

The worst scene of destruction was at the newly built two-story brick schoolhouse at University Place (95th Avenue) and Rockaway Road (today, a boulevard). P.S. 59 had been built in 1890 on land purchased from manufacturer Florian Grosjean, whose legendary factory and clocktower still stands on the border of Woodhaven and Ozone Park.

The roof of the schoolhouse was ripped off and the upper-half of the building collapsed. “I could see flying bricks and debris of all kinds, and then the whole landscape was obscured by clouds of dust,” said one eyewitness. “Great beams and roofs blew about for the space of fully half a minute.”

Only that this storm struck on a Summer Saturday afternoon prevented this from being a far more tragic tale. But Woodhaven was not spared tragedy on that day 125 years ago.


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