(95) Here comes the rain
During the late 19th century, many of the Westerners who resided in Seoul often left the city during the late summer to escape the heat and the monsoon-like rains. Many people, like Horace N. Allen, the first missionary/doctor to reside in Korea, viewed the rains as a mixed blessing.
Up until the early part of the 20th century, the streets of Seoul were generally filthy. One missionary wrote:
“All sewage runs into filthy, narrow ditches, frequently stopped up with refuse, green slimy pools of water lie undisturbed in courtyards and alongside of the roads, wells polluted with drainage, soiled apparel washed nearby, quantities of decaying vegetable matter thrown out and left to rot on the thoroughfares and under the windows of the houses.”
All of this was removed during the rainy season. The rainy season, which usually started in mid-July, often filled the streets with water horse-belly high. This water then gushed into the Cheonggye Stream causing it to become “a raging torrent, sweeping away the masses of filth that [had] been poured upon its dry sandy bed during the whole year.”
But where did all this filth wash away to? Unfortunately, a lot of the garbage and sewage was washed into the city wells causing diseases such as cholera to plague the city.
It was not only the filth that the rains washed away the foundations of some the buildings in the poorer sections of the city were also washed away causing them to collapse upon their inhabitants.
But the rich were not immune to the ravages of the rain. The rainy season in 1896 was longer than usual over two months long plaguing the inhabitants of Seoul with not only great amounts of rain but also with mould and mildew. Sallie Sill, the wife of the American Minister to Seoul John Sill, gloomily described an early August day as “hot and dark and dreary”, and that the “rains and the wind [are] never weary.” The weather took such a toll that the legation’s roof collapsed in some places and could not be repaired until the rains ceased. Sallie complained that “the corridor is filled with pails and pans and different kinds of utensils catching the internal (as well as the almost eternal rain).”
The rains also took their toll upon transportation to and from the city. The main road from Jemulpo to Seoul was nothing more than a dirt path and during the rainy season it became a mire that occasionally trapped oxen and their carts. The rains also caused the Han River to swell which made crossing it on the river ferries that much more dangerous. For the most part, the ferries were generally safe when they were not overloaded. Unfortunately, greed occasionally overruled common sense.
During the monsoon season in 1897, the Independent, the English-language newspaper published in Seoul, reported: “One of the ferryboats at King's Ferry capsized two days ago with thirty passengers and two oxen, including two boatmen and they were all drowned. The police Dep't ordered the ferrymen not to carry such a large number of passengers in their boats during the rainy season.”
There were other dangers associated with rain storms. On May 12, 1903, a “queer storm” of “severe lightning and thunder” hit Seoul striking fear in the Korean and Western communities.
According to one eyewitness, a lightning bolt struck a transformer box in front of the American ambassador’s residence and sent a “ball of fire” along the wires and played havoc throughout the city.
The “ball of fire” followed the wires into the American residence and ignited some of the curtains in the drawing and dining rooms. Other than filling the building with smoke there was no real damage. But the situation at the French legation was different. The flagstaff was shattered and a Chinese servant was struck and killed.
Robert Neff is a contributing writer for The Korea Times.