Updated: Oct 11, 2021
A YEAR OF CONTRASTS
In the spring of 1906, the city of Mobile appeared to prosper as never before, abounding in new construction and public investment. One reporter called it the "Queen City of the Gulf...enthroned, opulent, inviting..."1 The Detroit Publishing Company, early leaders in photographic technology, visited Mobile at this time, creating symbolic images of the city's golden era. 2 Ironically, they provide a sharp contrast to images following the "Hurricane of 1906," which arrived in Mobile only a few months later.
On the morning of September 25, 1906 the United States military was ready to set sail for Cuba but it's mission to occupy and secure American interests there was delayed as a destructive storm, then moving toward the Gulf Coast, passed just south of the island.
National and even international headlines were dominated however by race riots in Atlanta, which began three days earlier, touching off conflicts in other cities around the country. In Mobile, fear of spreading racial violence dominated local conversations. One national headline read, "Assault at Mobile: Great Excitement Caused by a Negro's Deed."3
Mobilians had little concern for weather reports of continued rainfall. But news was then coming out of Washington about the tropical disturbance holding up United States military operations in Florida. The New York Times reported
Two great storms are moving toward the Eastern United States from opposite directions...One of the disturbances is another West Indian hurricane, which was reported to the Weather Bureau this morning to be off the western end of Cuba… the hurricane is moving northward and the northeast storm is moving southward, so that, in the natural order of things, they are expected to meet, and considerable damage is likely to result.
Albert Ashenberger a well-known weather forecaster in Mobile, reported a “heavy blow” off the southeast coast but there was “doubt as yet as to just which way the storm would travel.” He did however appoint someone to hoist weather signals and turn on tower lights, that job having been vacant since the most recent “displayman” left the city.
The threat they faced was unexpected and the city was unprepared. On the morning of Friday, September 28th, the Associated Press reported “In the direction of Mobile and Pensacola communication is impossible. Not a word has come from that part of the country since last accounts appeared in newspapers across the country."
Evening Times (Marshaltown, Iowa), September 29, 1906
The hurricane rendered significant damage particularly along Bay Shell Road and in Bienville Square, where the water reached its highest point. On Saturday, September 29th, the St. Louis Dispatch published a hand-drawn map illustrating areas of the city under at least 4 feet of water along with this description.
The suffering in Mobile is severe. The annihilation of transportation facilities has shut off all supplies, and unless help reaches the city soon great distress will result....The water from Mobile Bay was blown into the city by the gale, and for a time was seven feet deep in the wholesale district, which includes that section from Royal Street to the Alabama River.
Every church in Mobile was damaged. Christ Church Cathedral and St. Francis Street Baptist Church suffered more than others. The damage to the former is estimated at $40,000 and St. Francis Baptist Church at $10,000.
For days Mobile was in lock down. Only the press and militia were allowed on the streets. By Monday, October 1st, recovery commenced. In the long run, the storm's economic impact was severe though not devastating. Yet the added factors of economic stress on a community already beset by simmering social tensions were revealed in the days and weeks that followed. Stay tuned for "The Aftermath."
1 Marshfield News and Wisconsin Hub, February 1, 1906.
2 Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Detroit Publishing Company Digital Collection. Click to view more or order prints.
3 Evening Star (Washington, D.C.), September 25, 1906.