I have never thought of cemeteries as morbid places. They have never frightened me.
I believe this stems from the proximity of my grandparents’ house in Huntsville to Maple Hill, the city’s large antebellum cemetery. This was my playground as a child so naturally, for me graveyards have held a park-like attraction.
When I moved back to Athens in 2006, I leased an apartment and eventually bought a house near Athens State University. It’s a wonderful place to live and the location affords me walks down streets that haven’t entered my mind since I left Athens in the late 1970s. These walks have a way of heightening my senses and recharging old memories of Athens from when I knew it from a child’s perspective.
Athens City Cemetery has become a favorite “haunt.” The winding, elevated paths of the newer section, with its paved streets and pristine tombstones, have an orderly and well-maintained feel – much like the town’s newer suburban neighborhoods. The shaded older section has time rutted gravel roads and aged headstones – reminiscent of the imperfect charm of Athens’ historic plats.
The tombstones, grave markers, and statuary in the older section are truly forms of art indicative of the individual and changing styles of times past.
One plot caught my eye for the collection of extraordinary stonework over a broad period – that being the Pryor family plot.
Each stone is different, yet appropriate, and each shows a great deal of tradition, elegance and panache. Knowing this generation of the Pryor family, I realized that these traits reflect the family perfectly.
Within the antique, wrought iron fencing that binds the past Pryors together, one stone interested me from a historic perspective.
Harriet Pryor Lowe died March 25, 1901. Her death is chronicled on her headstone as the result of a “cyclone” that destroyed her home on that Monday morning and also killed her infant child, aged 23 days. The child is buried with her.
I knew I had to find out more about this event and this lady, and I knew exactly where to begin — Google.
The online digital collection of the Birmingham Public Library includes scans of a souvenir booklet that details the account of the storm.
The book stated, “The heaviest storm ever known in Alabama was that which passed over the southern portion of Birmingham, Monday March 25, which laid homes low by the score in its path and slaughtered human beings with a relentless fury that would make it appear that the wild wind and conscious-less storm in its fury had determined that the city should no longer exist.”
The commemorative booklet went on to say that the number of lives lost in the Birmingham storm numbered 13, with an additional three persons killed in neighboring Irondale. Later accounts would raise the death toll to 25. The estimated number of buildings destroyed in the two cities was 531, with a total monetary property loss of $143,000, a mere fraction of the cost at today’s standards.
The book included many photos and detailed descriptions of the wrath of the storm – actually they are beautifully written accounts of the families affected and the communities and neighborhoods destroyed.
Within the many photographs of the destruction, I happened across a photo of the house where Harriet Pryor Lowe had lived — up until that morning — when she and her infant child became statistics of the storm.
The photograph was titled “Ruins of Residence of R.J. Lowe near Lakeview.” The fact that with a few quick strikes of a keyboard, I could retrieve so much pertinent information about a particular date astounded me. I was actually looking at the pile of debris that was mentioned on a tombstone, some 90 miles to the north of where the tornado struck, more than 100 years ago.
Googling further, this time by including the name of Harriet Lowe’s husband, R.J. Lowe, I found the following account from the Atlanta Constitution under the headline “Chairman R.J. Lowe loses wife and babe:”
“The storm plowed its way eastward and struck the residence of Robert J. Lowe, at No. 815 South Thirtieth Street, leveling it to the ground and instantly killing Mr. Lowe’s four-week-old child and fatally crushing Mrs. Lowe, who died within fifteen minutes after being removed from the wreckage. The cook was badly hurt and may die. Mr. Lowe and the nurse escaped with slight bruises.”
After all is said and done, I now know more than I expected to about the words that were carved into that tombstone in 1901.
The loss of life and destruction caused in that early 20th-century storm would pale in comparison to those destined to rumble through the state in the years to come – most notably the storms of April 3, 1974, or even most recently in Albertville. But with a few words carved into an ancient headstone, and with the power of Google, Harriet Pryor Lowe and her infant child are remembered – 109 years later.
The online digital document can be found by searching the date from the Birmingham Public Library website at http://www.bplonline.org/resources/Digital_Project/ or typing in the url http://bplonline.cdmhost.com/u?/p4017coll6,1243
Guy McClure is director of public relations, marketing and publications at Athens State University.