by Edward Dalton

What, no loaves?

The following article originally appeared in the July 1992 issue of Old Rhode Island magazine. It is reprinted here with permission of the author.

1555 engraving of rain of fish.
Image from Wikipedia Commons.

It was, as The Providence Daily Journal reported, "a day for the lightest of clothing, for the glorious outing shirt and for straw hats and long, cool drinks." It was the kind of day to lazily sit by a stream with a fishing pole and watch for the elusive fish or two to come popping up from the water—but it certainly wasn't a day for fish to come raining down from the heavens.

But on that Tuesday afternoon of May 15, 1900, fish did rain from the sky at two places in Olneyville in Rhode Island. And so many fish rained down that people collected them in buckets, displayed them in their homes, and brought them into saloons to gawk at.

Rhode Islanders have endured many strange ordeals, but none had ever lived through a rainfall of fish.

To, er, go upstream a bit:

The week before, temperatures had been near freezing and had ruined the state's early crops of vegetables and strawberries. But that turn-of-the-century day in mid-May had been an extremely hot one, with the mercury peaking at ninety-three degrees at 3pm and almost topping a then twenty-year record-high temperature. The day was so hot, the rails of the recently constructed Washington Street drawbridge had expanded and the bridge would not go completely down. Despite the low humidity which made the day's soaring temperatures bearable, The Providence Daily Journal reported that there had been a land-office business in soft drink sales due to the weather and that thick woolen jackets were "an abomination."

At about 4pm, though, the weather changed drastically: The temperature, then at ninety degrees, dropped in a few minutes to seventy-three degrees. The wind started blowing at gale force, the sky grew so dark it was as though an eclipse was happening; lightning flashed non-stop and hailstones fell from the sky.

Horses were unable to move forward because of the wind; some carriages, along with their horses, were blown onto their sides. The heavy wooden top of a water tower at the Lederer Building on Stewart and Conduit Streets in Providence was flung into the air like a giant disk and landed in the front parlor of a nearby home (nobody was injured). A large billboard at 42 Exchange Place (apparently a bawdy entertainment venue) advertising a performance of "Sappho" or some other play, was, according to The Journal, "compelled to cease its wicked occupation" and ended up in the street. Some women became hysterical due to the wildly stormy weather.

And in Olneyville, fish rained down—in a swirling motion—like manna from the heavens.

"So far as reported," said the Journal, "the rainfall of fish occurred in two places. The better fishing ground was on Harris Avenue, near Grove Street railroad crossing. Here hundreds of pout, from 2 inches to 4.5 inches in length, fell on an area of about a quarter of an acre."

"The other fishing ground was on Joslin Street, near Manton Avenue, on high ground, far above the tops of the mill chimneys situated on the lower level of Harris Avenue. Here the fall of fish was comparatively small. But there was a much better variety, for there were small perch as well as pout and a pail was half filled with them."

View Possible Path of Tornado in a larger map

As to how many fish did rain from the sky, it was hard to determine. Yet enough fish had rained that they were being found in the street as late as 10pm. As further testimony to their abundance, most Olneyville families living near the fish falls had at least one put on display after the storm. (For posterity, the downtown office of The Journal had one of these fish in its front window to show doubting readers the next day.)

One "Policeman Sullivan," said the Journal, "whose sturdy character and reputation for veracity in his many years of service in that locality (Olneyville) has been considered as firm as a rock, was one who vouched for the truth of the declaration that it rained fishes on Harris Avenue and Grove Street, for he saw them fall and he secured one wriggling pout at least four inches in length..."

Many boys gathered as many of the fish as they could and sold them for souvenirs. Some folk wouldn't go near these raining fish due to "superstitious dread." And at least one of these usually underwater creatures became larger than life. Reported the Journal:

"A young man name Hanivan seized upon a lively pout as soon as it fell and took it to Corcoran and O'Garra's Saloon at the corner of Broadway and Valley Streets, where it was placed in a tank of water and spent the evening swimming about contentedly while customers sipped their beer and gazed at it and sipped and talked until some of them were inclined to go out and tell their friends that the tank was full of fishes with horns and other queer things. But they did see one of the remarkable fish that rained down on Olneyville and it was still alive at midnight. Before closing time many a man who had heard late of the [phenomenon] developed a great thirst and saw the one that was preserved alive."

And as if the rain of fish was not strange enough for Olneyville to cope with in one day, several people reported that something else unusual rained from the sky while fish were pummeling everyone: ice-covered pebbles, which supposedly rained down in Olneyville Square. Perhaps because no ice-covered pebbles were preserved and because few witnesses of this event could be located, the Journal seemed to doubt the authenticity of this second phenomenon:

"There are stories that this man or that man was prompt to gather hailstones and holding them in his hands was surprised to find when the icy covering melted away he still had a little white pebble such as are found on the shores of rivers or ponds. But no one has thus far been found who actually had hail melt in his hand and leave a shining white pebble."

Most people suggested that the reason it rained fish (and possibly pebbles) is because the storm somehow scooped up these things from a nearby pond and later dumped them upon Olneyville. Generally speaking, that's what must have happened... as a few worldly people back then suggested, the weird rainfall was probably the result of a tornado.

Though The Journal didn't say one occurred and no one actually saw one, because of the gale-force winds and the rapid drop in temperature—events usually associated with tornados—weather people recently contacted think a tornado must have happened. And if a tornado had occurred somewhere that day, it had, like tornados often do, doubtlessly sucked up the objects in its path like a gigantic vacuum cleaner. Later, these fish (and pebbles) were poured upon Olneyville, where they fell, oddly enough, in swirling, tornado-like motions.

According to Soviet scientist D.V. Nalivkin, in fact, fishy rainfalls (that are probably the result of tornados which sometimes happen miles away from the place where fish drop from the sky) are relatively common happenings. In his 1983 book Hurricanes, Storms and Tornados, Nalivkin recounted numerous times when fish have similarly fallen from the sky—as well as other times when it rained crabs in England, rats in Norway, hopping toads (which fell on Napoleon's army), and the wonderful day in 1940 when one thousand silver coins fell upon the Soviet Union.

Edward Dalton is a Providence cab driver and the author of Real Cab Rides, a non-fiction book and web site in which the wildest rides of a taxi driver are remembered. His articles have appeared everywhere from the New York Times to East Side Monthly. In the name of Osiris, he wishes you peace.

This article last edited November 28, 2015

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