Rhode Island

The Day it Rained Fish in Providence

On May 15, 1900, it rained fish in the Olneyville section of Providence. Wriggling pout as long as popsicle sticks swirled down from the sky in a piscine tornado.

They came down on Harris Avenue, near the Grove Street railroad crossing. And then on hilly Joslin Street, above the mill chimneys, it rained some more fish– not just pout, but perch as well.

When It Rained Fish

Olneyville is a neighborhood of Providence bordered by Atwells Avenue, U.S. Route 6 and Rhode Island Route 10. The Woonasquatucket River runs through it. In addition to getting rained on by fish, Olneyville is known for its New York System wiener.

When the pout and the perch swirled down on Olneyville, it was a crowded working-class neighborhood filled with textile mills and factory housing. One mill complex, the Weybosset, had become  one of the biggest producers of worsted wool in the United States. The mills offered plenty of work for immigrants from Italy, Ireland, Africa, China and elsewhere.

That spring afternoon in 1900 the temperature soared to 93 after weeks of cold weather. Then around 4 p.m. the mercury fell in a matter of minutes to 73 degrees. The sky darkened, the wind whipped up and lightning flashed. A thunderstorm pummeled Olneyville.

Along with the fish.

Boys gathered them up and sold them as souvenirs. Many families got at least one and displayed it in their homes.

Interior of an Olneyville home, 1912, by Lewis Wickes Hine. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

One young man grabbed a pout that fell in front of him and took it to Corcoran and O’Garra’s Saloon. Word spread and the fish brought in curious (and presumably thirsty) customers. It spent the evening swimming in a tank of water for the amusement of the saloon’s beer drinkers.

As late as 10 p.m., people still found fish in the street.

The day after the Providence Daily Journal reported that it rained fish, it put one in its window to prove to doubting readers that it really happened.

The newspaper also quoted a policeman named Sullivan who had a sterling reputation for truthfulness. Sullivan vouched for the rain of fish, having grabbed a writhing four-inch pout himself.

Strange Rain

It had rained fish before that day in Olneyville, and it would do it again in places around the world.

It rained fish in Singapore on Feb. 22, 1861, in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, on July 1, 1903 and in Marksville, La., on Oct. 23, 1947. In fact, two dozen instances of raining fish have been recorded since the day Singaporeans found fish flapping around in puddles. In Yoro, Honduras, people say it rains fish once a year in May or June during a large storm. They call it “lluvia de pesces.”

Fish aren’t the only things that have rained. Spiders, frogs, toads, snakes and bats have all come raining down on a surprised populace. Rats once rained on Norway, crabs on England, toads on Napoleon’s army.

In 1940, a thousand silver coins fell on the Soviet Union.

It even rained golf balls in Florida once.

Atmospheric scientists believe waterspouts — small tornadoes that form over water — can lift small animals from the water and into the air. They can then carry them long distances and drop them somewhere else. Some tornadoes can suck up whole ponds — probably what happened on that May Day in Olneyville.

With thanks to Edward Dalton in Rain of Fish, reprinted in Quahog.org.

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