Historical Highlights

A Devastating Summer Thunderstorm

June 21, 1857
A Devastating Summer Thunderstorm Image courtesy of the Architect of the Capitol Despite the damage from the June storm, the construction of the Capitol dome (shown in December 1857) continued.
On this date, a devastating afternoon summer thunderstorm strafed the nation’s capital dropping egg-sized hail that shattered 35 skylights in the space that would shortly become the new House Chamber. Around three o’clock that afternoon the skies darkened as the storm rolled west to east over the Potomac. For 30 minutes thunder and lightning were accompanied by the “fearful, unfamiliar, crashing sound” of huge ice balls “mercilessly” pummeling almost every inch of vegetation in a two-mile-wide swath down Pennsylvania Avenue from Georgetown to Foggy Bottom to Capitol Hill. Glass structures like the “Government Green House”—today’s National Arboretum—stood no chance, the New York Times told its readers. “The westerly windows of buildings unprotected by shutters or blinds were completely riddled; even the heavy glass—some three eights of an inch thick—in the roof of the new Halls of Congress was broken by the terrible blows inflicted by these falling masses of ice.” It was the largest storm anyone could remember since the early 1830s, if not earlier. Even the Library of Congress, which at the time was located in the Capitol, suffered major damage. “At the Capitol and the workshops attached the destruction of glass has been immense. Nearly every skylight in the main building is completely riddled; and of the beautiful panes that composed the skylights of the Congressional Library scarcely one remains in unshattered [sic] condition,” wrote the Washington-based Daily National Intelligencer. “Every pane in the temporary roof of the rotunda appears to have been broken, and the rotunda floor gives evidence of having been nearly submerged with water. The floor of the Old Hall of the House [today’s Statuary Hall] is covered with fragments of the broken glass.” Remarkably, the chandelier on the House side survived intact. Montgomery C. Meigs, who was supervising a major Capitol expansion at the time, wrote in his journal that it was “the most violent hailstorm I ever saw.” He was shocked that the glass above the new House chamber, which was “thick and strong enough to bear the weight of a man . . . gave way to these hailstones.” Builders quickly replaced the glass, and the new Hall of the House opened for business six months later in December 1857.

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