TBT: A Tragic Hour

Ruins of the Longfellow School in Murphysboro
A mid-March day in Illinois which features temperatures in the mid-60s would usually be considered quite pleasant, even though some rain was falling. Such was the case early in the afternoon on March 18, 1925, as unseasonably warm weather was recorded throughout the southern part of the state. But this day was different. Those warm temperatures and the rainfall were among the few warning signs of the storm that was coming. The state of Illinois was about to endure one of the most tragic hours in its history.

Today, meteorologists would have filled the air with warnings about this storm, likely many hours in advance and with increasing specificity as the storm grew nearer. Modern communications and construction technology would prevent much of the horror that tore across Illinois that day. But in the early days of radio, without television, cell phones, weather satellites or tornado sirens, with wooden and masonry structures, without safe rooms or many storm cellars, the scene was set for disaster.

In and around small towns like Gorham, Murphysboro and West Frankfort, students were in their schools that afternoon, while their parents and neighbors worked in their farm fields, homes or places of business. Meanwhile, a tornado touched down near Ellington, Missouri, at 1:01 p.m. and began to tear eastward at close to 70 miles per hour. It moved on a steady course—almost a straight line—at high speed across Missouri, killing eleven people in the small towns and farm fields it struck.

What awaited Illinois over the next hour was far worse.

At 2:26 p.m., the tornado crossed the Mississippi River and struck Gorham, Illinois. In the blink of an eye, the entire town was devastated: not a single building escaped destruction. The storm hit the local school, where a surviving student would later tell the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “The walls seemed to fall in on us. Then the floor at one end of the building gave way. We all slipped or slid in that direction….I can’t tell you what happened then. I can’t describe it. I can’t bear to think about it….It was something awful. I had to close my eyes.” The storm took 34 lives in Gorham, but the worst was yet to come.

Photo from the Jackson County Historical Society
Over the next 40 minutes, one town after another was struck by the relentless tornado, advancing like a steamroller across the countryside. Children who survived the tornado in different towns tell similar stories of being on their school playgrounds for afternoon recess, then being hustled into the building as the storm approached, only to have the building itself come down on top of them. One right after another, entire towns were demolished. During those 40 minutes, 541 people lost their lives and more than 1400 were seriously injured.

Hardest hit was the Jackson County seat of Murphysboro where 234 people died, still the most ever to be killed by a tornado in a single community. The tornado track was nearly a mile wide, and it spared little. At the Mobile and Ohio rail yard in town, 500 workers were trapped when the roof collapsed; 35 of them were killed and many more were seriously injured. The rail workers who escaped from the building raced to the collapsed Longfellow School nearby to begin digging through the rubble to rescue trapped students and teachers. Eleven did not survive.

Half of the survivors in Murphysboro were left homeless and more than 150 city blocks were destroyed by the storm and by the fire that broke out in the hours afterward. The city’s water supply had been cut off by the storm, making it impossible to fight the fire.

Aside from the staggering death toll, the element that shocks historians and meteorologists alike about this storm was its longevity. Even after the devastation in Murphysboro, it continued east with equal intensity. Another 69 were killed by the storm when it reached DeSoto at 2:38, including 33 at the local school.

From there, the account of the tornado continues like a grim roster: seven killed in the small Williamson County town of Bush; in Franklin County 150 dead in West Frankfort where enormous coal mining equipment and a railroad trestle were thrown about like twigs. The death toll in West Frankfort and the surrounding area might have been higher if not for the large number of local residents who were working underground in coal mines. However, after the storm, with no power to operate the elevators, the miners were forced to climb to the exits of the 500-foot shaft to discover the extent of the damage.

The heartbreaking account in the Post-Dispatch compared the devastation to images from the trenches of Western Europe. “The scene resembles that of a World War battlefield, except that on a battlefield the victims are men. Here they are mostly women and children.”

Another 22 people died in Parrish, a town so devastated that it was never rebuilt. Dozens more died in rural areas of Hamilton and White counties to the east. When the storm finally exited Illinois at about 4 p.m. it continued into Indiana where it took more than 70 lives and wrought more devastated communities.

For almost the entirety of its 219 mile path, the storm which came to be known as the Tri-State Tornado moved on a very steady course of 069 degrees – northeast. It moved at an average speed of 62 miles per hour and stayed on the ground for three and a half hours. Wind speeds reached 300 miles per hour, which would have made the storm an EF-5 on the modern-day Fujita scale, a system of measurement which did not exist in 1925.

Nearly a century later, the Tri-State Tornado still claims the highest death toll and the longest continuous on-the-ground track of any tornado in American history. The final death toll across the three states was 695. More than 2000 people were injured and 15,000 homes were destroyed. This scale of destruction from a single tornado is almost impossible to comprehend.

For more than 90 years, researchers have tried to determine whether the Tri-State Tornado really was just a single tornado, or a fast-moving system of tornadoes, a “cyclical supercell” that moves along a path with individual tornadoes dropping down and then rising back up into the clouds. A National Weather Service analysis on the 75th anniversary of the tornado noted the problem with this hypothesis: “…a cyclical supercell tends to exhibit breaks in its damage path as the storm evolves. However, the Tri-State Tornado’s path of destruction was continuous. Only twice in the storm’s path—near the onset and demise—did a slight decrease in the tornado’s damage suggest that the event may have been not one—but a family of tornadoes.”

In the aftermath, individuals and agencies raced in to help with rescues and relief. The Red Cross helped rebuild homes. Governor Len Small activated units of the National Guard to prevent looting and keep order. Hospitals in neighboring communities quickly filled up with the injured. Emergency trains evacuated injured residents to hospitals as far away as St. Louis. Author Wallace Akin, who survived the tornado in Murphysboro at the age of 2, wrote in his book The Forgotten Storm that Murphysboro did not fully recover for 20 years.

Today, the National Weather Service works 24/7, with the latest technology and information, to keep Illinoisans and all Americans safe from the kind of catastrophe that struck Illinois in 1925. The agency maintains a list of tornado safety tips, including steps to take before and after a storm hits in order to keep you and your family safe.

American severe weather science has made great advances over the decades. Many of those advances come directly from lessons learned in Illinois on that Wednesday afternoon in March 1925.