29 Oct 2012

Lost Capitol Hill: Hail to the Whip!

With Sandy about to hit the District, I decided to look at some old posts about previous storms to have done their worst here, and came across a story that I hope will appeal to all my readers hunkered down and awaiting the future. Stay safe everyone, and stay inside. And let’s hope that the injuries suffered will be as minor as what happened 70 years ago.

It was just after noon on April 29, 1938. The Senate was discussing an expansion to the Navy when a roar filled the chamber. Senator Nye, Republican from South Dakota, was forced to interrupt his peroration against the bill. The noise came not from disgruntled citizens, but rather from a hailstorm that was just then pounding the city. For a few minutes, hailstones fell all across the city, from Alexandria to the east side of the Anacostia. There was a brief lull, then the hailstones began to fall in earnest, and only just before 1:00 PM did the deluge subside.

Although accounts differed, with some people comparing the size of the stones to a golf ball, the Weather Bureau preferred to compare them to a quarter. However, the tear-drop shape of the stones, and the rapidity with which they melted, made it difficult to determine the exact size. Nonetheless, it was universally agreed that these were the largest hailstones to have fallen on DC in living memory.

The damage to the city was severe, with greenhouses taking the brunt. All across the city, and particularly in the southeast quadrant, with one flower grower on Minnesota Ave SE complaining of a $75,000 loss in the 15 greenhouses that had been destroyed. He was hardly alone, however. Even the Botanic Garden, just below the Capitol, had lost a number of panes of glass, and a couple flower beds were ruined.

All across the city, car owners found the roofs of their automobiles punctured “as if made from papier-mâché.” as the caption of the picture of Representative Boland put it.

Majority Whip Pat Boland protects himself from the hail in this picture from the Harris & Ewing Collection. (Library of Congress)

Fortunately, there was only one serious injury. Charles Olivet of College Park, barber to generations of University of Maryland students, went outside his shop, was blinded by the hail, and found himself in the path of a speeding automobile. He was taken to the hospital with a severely broken bone.

And as to the Naval Expansion act, in spite of Senator Nye’s efforts, it passed two weeks later and brought about the aircraft carriers that proved to be the mainstay of the US Navy during World War II. And Representative Boland continued to serve as House Whip until his untimely death in 1942.

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