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From the Archives

A 19th century waterspout

J.N. Chamberlain

August 19, 1896: A rare photograph taken by J.N. Chamberlain in Cottage City, Mass. shows a waterspout off of Vineyard Sound in 1896. Cottage City’s name was changed to Oak Bluffs in 1907. The picture was sent to the Globe from a Mr. Fred F. Farnsworth from Newton Center and is now in the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. This was the explanation of how the picture came to be made which appeared in the Boston Globe on April 25, 1934.

— Leanne Burden Seidel and Lisa Tuite

A rare picture of a rare event in these latitudes

A photographer from Woonsocket was at Cottage City on the Vineyard — now called Oak Bluffs — on Aug. 19, 1896, and was making pictures all over the place.

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He saw this phenomenon at just 12:30 p.m., and got his cameral into action, making one of the most perfect photographs of a water-spout ever known. The calm day, the heavy black clouds overhead and the schooner peacefully plowing along in the horizon, are to be noticed, as well as the two people at the right, who couldn't be annoyed stopping to look at the thing, but are on their way home.

Waterspouts are not uncommon sights at sea, and they correspond to the small tornadoes ashore. The columns of water are said by various authorities to vary from 20 to 50 feet thick, and from 200 to 250 feet high.

What nobody has settled is whether they suck up or suck down. One of the authorities says they suck up, and the old fashioned drawings of them sometimes show boats and even vessels climbing up the spout. On eht back of this photograph “Dr F C v Hv S”— who may have been Herr Doktor Franz Constantin von Hofburg von Schauenschein— says that this one sucked down.

Anyway, the usual thing is, especially in the tropics, for heavy clouds on a calm, hot day, to extend the long tunnel downwards — and the spray around the foot of the column seems to hint here that it did suck down.

In the old days, sailing ships that couldn’t get out of the way — for these columns march along for 30 minutes—used to fire cannon to break them.

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