The Gilliam Cyclone of 1908
By Ann Middleton
In 1957 when he was 84 years old, a Mr. R. T. Douglas recounts a visit to John Glassell, a cousin of Douglas' mother. He made the visit in 1891 when many of the old plantation homes were still in existence and he describes many of those and other landmarks on both the Caddo and Bossier sides of the Red River. Glassell's home was called "Briarfield" and was on the Caddo side of the river. John Glassell was a Caddo Parish planter in the mid to late 1800s.
Among his descriptions Douglas includes the small town of Gilliam in Caddo Parish. Gilliam was proud of its fine citizens, three churches, many stores, garages and oil stations. Then, in 1908, disaster struck Gilliam.
In the late afternoon of May 13th, it had been raining most of the day, and there were many people in town. A very good setting for a cyclone. There had been an overflow six years ago, 1902, from a break in the levee just below the Thompson Place.
This was on December 2nd but as the crop was no so good that year, the net loss was not so bad. But this cyclone knew its business and did not fail to attend to it. It started down in the Lake Country east of Oil City, traveled northeast taking its time. It was a funnel-shaped cloud, black as ink, small at the bottom but wider as it rose to a great height.
It did a good job of destruction, leaving almost nothing. There were some forty killed outright and some one hundred and forty sent to the hospitals.
One lady with two children with her had this to say. Someone came in the room and said, "Everybody sit down, there is a cyclone coming. She did so, holding one child on her lap and the other by the hand. Just a moment later the piano came dancing across the floor, and before it reached her the house just simply flew to pieces, three were killed in this room. There was only one house left undisturbed, one was flown off its foundation, and all the rest were flown away. There were a lot of people in the store and so close was the storm that they did not have time to close the safe; so it was flown over butter side down. The wind was so severe that in the fields all loose dirt left by the plows was flown away. A cyclone does peculiar things, many past believing. Arthur Vaughan, with a lot of other[s] ran to the bayou for safety, but once there he had to look up to see what was going on. He saw all right, for when he looked up, a Negro man just behind him jerked him down as a piece of timber passed over parting his hair in a neat part from front to back, skin and all, and it never grew back. The Negro's interference saved his life. Mr. Gardner had two mules in his lot near the bayou. One was not injured but the other was killed and was found dead on top of what had been his residence. It seems incredible but true.
Douglas goes on to say that it took ten years to get over this major disaster. "But undaunted, Phoenix-like, they rose from the ashes of disaster to rebuild."
Douglas admitted that he had only his memory to document all that he wrote about-"only memory that is a deceitful[sic] jade." However, his recollections of people and places are commendable. For researchers needing to locate plantations and farms on the Red River in Caddo and Bossier Parishes, this memoir may serve as a good starting point.
For the rest of Mr. Douglas' story, visit the Bossier Parish Library Historical Center.