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Deep in the Ozark Mountains, in places scarcely changed through nine decades, there are legends of a monster. Though few, if any, still live to tell the tale first-hand, the tradition persists, straddling the line between fact and myth. In the Shawnee Hills of Southern Illinois, too, old-timers pass on the legend. Indeed, across three states and more than 200 miles, folks of a certain generation recall harrowing accounts by those who witnessed death drop from the sapphire sky one balmy pre-spring afternoon in 1925. Over three and a half hours, the Great Tri-State Tornado roared through the southern portions of Missouri, Illinois and Indiana, wiping town after town off the map as it ripped through forests and farmlands, over peaks and hollows, and across the mighty Mississippi River at speeds sometimes exceeding 70 mph. When the greatest tornado disaster in recorded history finally came to an end some 219 miles later, 695 people laid dead and more than a dozen towns and hundreds of farmsteads were left in splinters.
The morning sky was odd, choking the sun out with blankets of low, leaden clouds. The ground was soft and spongy from the pitter-patter of rain that had broken out just before dawn, and although the skies had begun clearing up as the noon hour approached, intuition told 49-year-old Samuel Flowers that more was to come. As with most other residents in the hills and valleys north of Ellington, Mo., Sam had developed a keen sense for the weather through decades of working the land. Despite the dreary morning, a steady south-southeast wind had ushered in unseasonably balmy temperatures. The whites and pale pinks of wildflowers had already begun to sprout up across the rolling, muted brown fields, and the sun sparkling through mostly cloudless skies created the distinct impression that a beautiful spring day was in store for the Mid-Mississippi and Ohio Valleys. But Sam knew better. Just before 1:00pm, rumbles of thunder rolling in from the southwest confirmed his suspicion — a storm was coming.
What Sam Flowers couldn’t know as he urged his horse toward home was that a broad area of low pressure had descended from Canada several days earlier and begun to deepen in the lee of the Rocky Mountains. After dropping southeast into the Central Plains the previous day, the fully-developed cyclone began pulling in vast quantities of warm, moisture-laden air on its eastern flank as it accelerated toward the Ozarks. Directly to the east of the surface low, a warm front pushed north across the Ohio River and into southern Illinois. A dryline extended to the south, with a weak cold front trailing to the southwest. Higher in the atmosphere, a fast-moving shortwave trough traversed the Rockies and began to dig into the Central and Southern Plains and take on a slight negative tilt. At the same time, a strong jet streak nosed into the Ozarks from the southwest. Warm, dry air in the mid-levels spread east across the Mississippi, setting up a strong capping inversion.
Thunderstorm activity began just after midnight as several cells erupted to produce large hail across eastern Oklahoma and Kansas, as well as a brief tornado that damaged several structures west of Coffeyville. Light rain broke out shortly before daybreak across much of Missouri, Illinois and the southern half of Indiana, creating a pool of rain-cooled air to the north of the advancing warm front. By midday, the surging warm front had brought temperatures into the middle and upper 60s. Plumes of unstable air near the surface began to rise into the atmosphere, eventually bumping into the warm, dry cap. Just minutes after noon, near the triple point where the warm front, cold front and dryline merged in south-central Missouri, a lone thunderhead burst into the sky. Whipped and twisted by the strong wind shear throughout the atmosphere, the thunderstorm quickly became supercellular as it raced northeastward.
Shortly before 1:00pm, a low, ragged cloud descended over the forests northwest of Ellington in Reynolds County, Mo. As Sam Flowers spurred his horse on toward his farmhouse, a low rumble grew on the horizon. The sky to the southwest had grown dark and menacing, and a warm wind had begun whistling through the tall oaks and shortleaf pines. The horse, affectionately named Babe, broke into a full gallop as Sam grasped desperately at his saddle horn. Large hailstones pummeled the earth and left divots in the soft grass. Within seconds, the distant rumble bore down with a tremendous roar. What happened next is not clear, but a short while later Babe returned to the Flowers farm without her rider. Sam was found several hours later some distance from the road, his head smashed beneath a tree. The most devastating tornado in United States history had claimed its first victim.
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In the small mining village of Annapolis, most residents had just returned to work from their lunch breaks. Just east of town in the tiny outpost of Leadanna — named after the ubiquitous mineral harvested throughout the area — many of the men had returned to toil in the mines deep below ground. Children had just been called in from recess at Annapolis School and were streaming back into the small, two-story brick structure. The first indication of trouble came from residents just outside of town, who were afforded a relatively clear view of the rolling hills to the west. The skies in that direction had taken on a strange, bruised appearance, the type that often preceded the strong storms that lashed the region at least a few times each spring. Suddenly, a murky figure emerged atop the nearest hill. More resembling a great, billowing fog than a funnel cloud, the tornado ripped through the valley and engulfed the tiny town and its residents in seconds.
The children at Annapolis School became frightened by the rapidly deteriorating weather. The sun disappeared in a torrent of rain and hail. Wind shook the trees outside the schoolhouse windows. The teacher, fighting back her own trepidation, gathered the children around her desk in an attempt to comfort them. The cries of the 25 students were drowned out by the furious roar as the tornado blasted through, taking just seconds to reduce much of the brick schoolhouse to rubble. Miraculously, all of the children survived with only minor injuries. The mines in Leadanna also sustained heavy damage. Offices, medical buildings, grocers and other structures were destroyed, and much of the mining machinery was ripped up and mangled beyond repair.
As the school children and the miners rushed back to town to check on their families, they were greeted with a scene of total devastation. Residents wandered in a daze. Children cried for their parents. Survivors climbed out from mountains of broken timber and other debris. Those who witnessed the aftermath later recounted that, of the town’s approximately 400 buildings, more than 90 percent were damaged or destroyed. The tornado was likely only of moderate intensity as it struck the town, but it left a trail of damage perhaps a mile wide. Four people were killed in all, two in Annapolis and two in Leadanna who were caught above ground and struck by flying timbers. A marriage certificate for Nell and Osro Kelly, the latter of whom was among the tornado’s victims, was later found 77 miles away in Murphysboro. The local lead industry was nearly ruined. The mine continued to operate in limited capacity until the 1940s, but it never again matched the production it had achieved before the tornado.
Because of its resemblance to the low hills of southwest Germany’s Black Forest region, the Ozark hills of Iron, Madison and western Bollinger Counties were populated largely by German immigrants. Most had become farmers, and the grapes that many of them grew were among the finest in the United States for producing high-quality wine. The terrain was rough, forested and sparsely populated, leading to a number of gaps in the documented track of the tornado. It’s not clear whether any of the gaps represents an actual break in the tornado path, but what is clear is that, where the swirling vortex did strike, it had lost none of its violent intensity. Dozens of homes were destroyed across about 50 miles of Iron, Madison and Bollinger Counties, and 32 children were injured when two schools were destroyed in Bollinger County. About ten miles west of Sedgewickville in northwestern Bollinger County, grass and several inches of soil were reportedly scoured from the ground near the home of Emily Shrum, which was completely leveled.
After claiming several victims in Bollinger County, the tornado struck western Perry County as a “double funnel.” The massive tornado churned through the tiny village of Biehle, joined by a satellite vortex that traveled on a nearly parallel track for about three miles. Between the two tornadoes, dozens of homes were destroyed and four of Biehle’s residents were killed. To the northeast, in the unincorporated community of Ridge, the Ridge Parochial School was squarely in the path of the violent twister. The wind began driving sheets of rain against the roof, and soon it blew the thick wooden door open. The teacher, determined not to let a little storm ruin her classes, ordered the students to hold the door closed against the storm. As the tornado bore down, it ripped the school from its foundation and sent it hurtling several yards into a nearby hillside. Miraculously, despite the complete destruction of the structure and dozens of serious injuries, none of the school’s occupants were killed.
As the tornado tore across the more populous rolling hills and lowlands of Perry County and toward the banks of the Mississippi River, the tornado again began to claim lives. About four miles northeast of Frohna, the very large, well-built home of Perry County District Judge Claus Stueve was completely demolished. He sustained various injuries, while his wife and a houseguest were killed. Just to the west, the home and barn of Theo Holschen were obliterated and three family members were seriously injured. In total, the tornado killed at least thirteen Missourians and left a path of devastation at least 85 miles long — perhaps up to 100 miles — and at times more than a mile wide. This alone would have been an impressive feat, but far worse was yet to come. The next 45 minutes were to bring perhaps the most horrifying display of sustained tornadic violence in recorded history.
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On the Illinois side of the Mississippi River, towering riverside bluffs skirt the southern extent of a broad, flat floodplain. Fertile farmland spreads like a patchwork quilt across the plain, broken only by a spiderweb of rail lines which converge on the little river town of Gorham. In 1925, Gorham was a vital stop along the Missouri Pacific and Illinois Central railroads, where coal from across the region was funneled through the rail yards on the town’s south side on its way to the larger markets from St. Louis to Texas. The influx of rail traffic brought welcome business to sleepy Gorham, as general stores, restaurants, hotels and other amenities popped up to serve the railroad crews when they stopped to refuel and cool the engines. The permanent population was between 500 and 700, but Gorham was a town on the rise.
Like so many others, the first warning of the approaching catastrophe that Gorham’s residents received was a dark, menacing mass of cloud approaching from atop the bluffs southwest of town. After spending nearly an hour and a half tearing across southeastern Missouri, the tornado crossed the half-mile span of the mighty Mississippi River in seconds and barreled into Jackson County in southwest Illinois. The tornado roared across the fields west of Gorham with such tremendous force that it scoured a large patch of ground, stripping the grass from the earth and plowing up several inches of soil in a shallow gully. Trees on the outskirts of town were stripped of bark and limbs, with many ripped from the ground or snapped off. Those in Gorham had only seconds to react as the thundering black mass bore down on the town at more than 60 mph.
The tornado entered town near the rail yards, throwing boxcars and demolishing the nearby depots and office buildings. A section of train tracks was torn from the ground and some of the crossties were thrown into the rubble of surrounding buildings. A row of homes and businesses along Main Street virtually exploded in a cloud of shattered timbers and roofing. The rest of the town met the same fate, as rows of homes, apartments and other buildings were reduced to rubble in a matter of seconds. One child was thrown nearly a quarter of a mile into the ruins of a business. In the words of a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:
“All morning, before the tornado, it had rained. The day was dark and gloomy. The air was heavy. There was no wind. Then the drizzle increased. The heavens seemed to open, pouring down a flood. The day grew black…
Then the air was filled with 10,000 things. Boards, poles, cans, garments, stoves, whole sides of the little frame houses, in some cases the houses themselves, were picked up and smashed to earth. And living beings, too. A baby was blown from its mother’s arms. A cow, picked up by the wind, was hurled into the village restaurant.”
Near the center of town, a large building housed both the grade school and high school. The tornado tore off the roof and battered the thick walls, collapsing them in on the children and teachers sheltering inside. Thirteen year old Margaret Brown, daughter of school superintendent Lewis Watson Brown, was killed when she was reportedly “cut in two” by a large brass bell that had fallen from the peak of the roof. Brown’s wife, Della, was also killed when their home was swept away. Two other families also suffered tremendous losses. Seventy-three year old Mary Moschenrosen and three of her adult children were killed by the swirling vortex, as were four members of the Needham family. A pair of pants containing scraps of paper bearing the name Moschenrosen were subsequently found nearly 20 miles to the northeast of Gorham. A husband and wife were thrown some distance from their home, shards of timber impaled through the wife’s abdomen.
By the time the fury of the wind had passed, Gorham had become the first, but unfortunately not the last, to bear a grim distinction: 100 percent destruction. Nearly every single structure in town was damaged or destroyed, the majority of them reduced to splinters and scattered to the wind. In the chaos that followed, as would be the case in many areas, no accurate list of the dead was kept. As best as can be discerned through newspaper reports and cemetery listings, between 32 and 37 of Gorham’s residents were killed and about 170 others seriously injured. Dozens of horses and cattle were also killed, and one horse from near Gorham was allegedly found at Sand Ridge, nearly two and a half miles to the northeast. In the span of minutes, thriving Gorham had been reduced to an utter wreck from which it would never fully recover.
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If Gorham was a town on the rise, Murphysboro was what it aspired to. A modest but thriving city, Murphysboro was home to more than 15,000 people in the early part of the 20th Century. The Big Muddy River, a tributary of the Mississippi, wound its way through the western part of town. Business was booming, and much of it was centered in a relatively small, densely populated industrial sector in the northwest quadrant of the city. The industrial sector was the lifeblood of the growing city, providing jobs and rapid economic growth that had made Murphysboro a fixture in southern Illinois. The city also held appeal for some because of its nonchalant attitude toward prohibition. While neighboring towns cracked down on illegal production facilities and speakeasies, alcohol was rarely difficult to find in Murphysboro.
At 2:34pm, less than eight minutes after laying waste to the town of Gorham, the monstrous storm thundered into the southwest edge of Murphysboro. After leveling a number of homes outside of town, the tornado crossed the Big Muddy River and almost immediately began destroying homes along Clay and Dewey Streets. At Lincoln School, where children had recently been called in from recess, the windows shattered almost simultaneously as the outer fringe of the circulation passed to the northwest. A wall on the second floor collapsed and crumbled outward. Thanks to the quick thinking of the school’s officials, however, students were moved to the northwest corner of the building and there were no injuries. Just to the north and closer to the center of the path, enormous hardwood trees were snapped just feet above ground level. Some were stripped bare, or uprooted and thrown hundreds of feet.
As the tornado approached the intersection of Walnut and 20th Streets, the damage became catastrophic. Several rows of homes were completely demolished with some partially swept away, and trees in the area were debarked and denuded. Six members of the Miller family, including children of one, three, five and nine years old, were killed at one home along Walnut Street when their home was completely flattened. Along Logan Street to north, 17 children were killed when the Longfellow School partially collapsed from the force of the wind. The Mobile and Ohio Railroad shop and roundhouse, about a block to the east of the school, was severely damaged. Some workers survived by taking shelter under the heavy machinery and structures, but 35 were killed by building collapses and flying debris. A number of locomotives were rolled or thrown from the tracks, causing further death and destruction.
At 15th and Logan, a funeral was in progress in the basement of the First Baptist Church. Construction had been in progress on the church building and was nearing completion at the time. According to the Reverend H. T. Abbott, he had just begun reciting the popular funeral sermon “Yea, though ye walk in the valley and the shadow..” when a “thunderous noise” overtook the church and collapsed a large section of the sturdy building. Being assembled in the basement, there were no injuries among the funeral crowd. Immediately upon exiting the rubble of the building, however, the funeral-goers was confronted with a sight of utter devastation. About a block to the northeast, the Logan School had suffered heavy damage. Many in the crowd sprinted to the school to aid in rescuing children and staff from the rubble. Nine children were killed at the Logan School.
The tornado continued northeast, chewing through the residential heart of the city. Hundreds of homes were completely leveled, crushing or throwing those inside. Many families suffered multiple casualties. When a horse and buggy was caught in the tornado near Manning Street, the horse was found more than half a mile away. The buggy was never found. In all, at least 120 city blocks were completely demolished by the tornado’s unbridled fury. Once the tornado had passed, another disaster began to unfold. Coal-burning stoves throughout the city, toppled or thrown by the wind, ignited fires that quickly turned the shattered piles of rubble into a great inferno. Many of those who were fortunate enough to survive the initial onslaught burned to death as the fire erupted out of control. Eighteen people were killed by fire at the Blue Front Hotel after becoming trapped in the basement.
By the time the fires had been extinguished, Murphysboro was in ruin. Two hundred and thirty-four people laid dead, the largest death toll in a single city in United States history. More than 600 others were seriously injured. According to contemporary reports in local newspapers, various receipts, checks, certificates and other paper items from Murphysboro were found as far away as Bloomington, Ind., 180 miles to the northeast. The industrial sector of the city was destroyed, as was the railroad and many of the businesses in town. The tornado had torn a complex path of destruction through the city nearly a mile wide. In some cases moderately damaged homes stood across the street from areas of total devastation, suggesting the tornado had a multivortex structure. A number of homes well to the south of the primary path also suffered moderate damage, apparently caused by intense inflow or rear-flank downdraft winds associated with the supercell. The tornado had already tracked more than 110 miles and claimed nearly 300 lives, yet a full two hours of death and destruction still lay ahead.
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After exiting Murphysboro, the tornado tore across the countryside with undiminished ferocity. The Will School, about two miles northeast of town, was razed to its foundation. A few miles beyond the school, Electra Beasley and her son Richard were killed when their farmstead was destroyed and swept away. The tornado narrowed slightly as it approached the west side of De Soto, but its destructive power was on full display. As in Murphysboro, whole sections of homes were completely flattened and swept away. Trees were debarked, denuded and snapped, leading one resident to remark that “not a tree was left standing taller than a man’s knee” in the main damage path. One couple was killed when their car was thrown 50 yards from the main highway. Several other vehicles were thrown or rolled and left completely mangled, and wind rowing of debris was evident in several areas.
At the Albon State Bank, many residents took shelter in the reinforced concrete vault. The bank and surrounding buildings were largely destroyed despite being on the southern edge of the worst damage, but those who sheltered inside survived. Many others in town were not so lucky, as 36 lives were lost in the devastation of downtown De Soto. An even greater tragedy was looming, however. At the De Soto School just northeast of downtown, the threatening skies prompted officials to rush the children in from recess. The girls were quickly ushered back to their desks, while the boys were assigned to close the many windows along the outside walls of their classrooms. Moments later, the windows exploded in a hail of shattered glass and debris.
Battered by the extreme wind, the top floor and a number of walls collapsed. Tons of bricks crumbled and fell atop the schoolchildren and faculty inside, crushing nearly 30 of the students to death and severely injuring many more. Because they were along the exterior walls closing windows, the majority of the victims were boys. Four more children were caught outside when the tornado struck. Three young girls were using the school’s outhouses when they were picked up and thrown nearly two-tenths of a mile across the railroad tracks. Another girl was cut in half when she was picked up by the tornado and thrown some distance into a steel lightpost. In all, 33 children were killed at the De Soto School, the greatest tornado-related death toll ever recorded at a school. After the bodies were pulled from the rubble, so many of the children’s parents were injured or killed that the principal was tasked with identifying many of the students. All told, 69 people would die in De Soto.
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Four miles northeast of De Soto, the community of Hurst and the mining camp at Bush experienced significant damage. Just southeast of Royalton, the Royalton-Colp Road bridge and a nearby swinging bridge were thrown from their pillars. Dozens of people were killed when about a dozen homes were damaged or destroyed in the rural areas between Royalton and Plumfield. In the small village of Plumfield, the local school was obliterated by the mile-wide tornado. Students Barbara Hamon and Anna Johnson were killed. Sarah Davis, who had been attending a meeting at the nearby church, ran to the school to comfort the children and was killed. Sarah’s husband Jefferson was killed moments later when the Davis farm was demolished and he was thrown hundreds of yards into a nearby field.
About 15 miles northeast of De Soto, the town of West Frankfort sprawled in a west-to-east direction. The Orient Mine #2, recently established on the northwest side of town, had brought an influx of population and growth. A new subdivision, complete with brand new homes and streets, sprang up to house miners and their families. As the massive vortex departed Plumfield and continued its northeastward path of destruction, the Orient Mine and its associated subdivision were squarely in its sights. On the western edge of town, two school buildings were torn from their foundations and destroyed. The newly-built homes in the area were no match for the ferocious wind, and most were obliterated. Large church buildings were also flattened, and vehicles were thrown several blocks. The home of Clyde Reed was reduced to splinters, killing a young child and injuring his wife and several other children.
Many of West Frankfort’s men were several hundred feet beneath the surface in the Orient and Caldwell mines when the tornado struck. An intense suction caused the air to rush from the mine, accompanied by a terrific roaring and shaking. One man was killed when he was caught above-ground in one of the mine buildings. When the miners emerged, they were greeted with a heartbreaking scene of abject devastation. Nearly every home in sight, most belonging to the miners and their families, was utterly decimated. In the words of one person, “everything in view was brought level to the ground.” Screams of desperation issued from heaps of rubble. Those who were fortunate enough to survive without being trapped wandered the streets in a daze, most of them battered and bloody. Miners frantically clawed through the debris in search of their wives and children. Amid the remains of one home, a mother was found with her chest torn open by flying debris, her infant daughter still trying to nurse.
The destruction was no less complete at the mines, where offices, manufacturing plants, equipment and other structures were completely wrecked. A mine tipple weighing several tons was pushed over and rolled some distance, and a large water tower was destroyed. A line of boxcars was thrown from the tracks just south of the mines. The nearby home of Elisha and Emma Clark, out of which the couple operated a small grocery store, was completely leveled. Elisha was blown some distance from the home and into a pile of uprooted apple trees and suffered several injuries. His wife Emma and daughter Lelia were both killed. Continuing northeastward, the tornado destroyed the Chicago & Eastern Illinois railroad roundhouse and several of the buildings at the Peabody Mine #19. Several loaded coal cars were blown from the tracks just east of Peabody #19. To the north, a bridge was blown from its piers along the C. E. I. railroad and 300 feet of track was torn from the ground. A small village of homes, stores and other buildings was destroyed to the northeast near the Peabody Mine #18, where 52 people were killed.
In total, despite only impacting the north and west sides of the town, the tornado claimed 132 lives in and around West Frankfort. More than 500 homes, three churches, two schools and numerous other buildings were demolished. Because most of the town’s men worked in the mines, the majority of the fatalities were women and children. Several eyewitnesses reported that bodies from West Frankfort were later found more than a mile and a half from their original locations. According to conflicting reports, either seven or eleven members of the Karnes family were killed, including Mrs. Oscar Karnes and four of her children who were thrown into a lake near the Peabody Mine #18. Just north of Crawford Cemetery, James Kerley’s home was razed to the ground and swept away. James survived, but Ettie Kerley and her children, Homer, Otto and Bertha, were killed.
Just six miles to the northeast, the scene of death and destruction repeated itself in the town of Parrish. Twenty lives were lost in the small mining village as virtually every structure was leveled. Half a mile east of Parrish, the home of Randell Smith was obliterated. Randell and a relative, William Biggs, survived the tornado by clinging to a small grove of trees until the storm passed. Randell was blinded and his wife was badly injured, and their seven year old daughter Hattie was killed. Several dozen additional homes were destroyed as the tornado tore a mile-wide path toward the Hamilton County border. Trees along Ewing Creek were reportedly debarked and shredded, and several horses and a buggy near the Willow Branch School were “blown away.” Between Gorham and Parrish, the tornado carved a path of devastation through 47 miles of southern Illinois. In just 40 minutes, the tornado killed at least 540 people, injured nearly 1,500 and produced $11.8 million dollars of damage — just over a billion dollars in 2000 USD.
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By 1925, the mining industry that defined much of southwestern Illinois had lost its grip in Hamilton and White Counties. Though a handful of small mines still dotted the pancake-flat land, farming had grown to become the driving force of the local economy. The area was rural, but hardly unpopulated. Farmhouses were scattered along nearly every road throughout both counties. The tornado thundered into Hamilton County shortly after 3:10pm, and almost immediately continued its path of destruction. Ollie Flannigan’s home and barn were destroyed, killing her and her brother Sam. A photograph from the Flannigan home was later found in Bone Gap, Illinois, 50 miles to the northeast. Just to the east, Columbus Hicks and his daughter-in-law Martha were killed when the family farmhouse was swept away. Lonnie Smith’s farmstead was also obliterated, killing four in the Smith family and severely injuring another. A home was destroyed to the southeast of the main path by a brief but strong satellite tornado.
In the small community of Olga, several homes were damaged or destroyed. A church was moderately damaged and the Olga School was blown off its foundation. Numerous trees were heavily damaged just southwest of town. To the northeast at the Parkers Prairie School, one student was thrown into a stand of trees and killed and Wesley Cluck, who had arrived at the school to pick up his children, was also thrown by the tornado and killed. A short distance east of the school, Chalon Cheek had gone south to a neighbor’s home when they noticed billowing black clouds in the distance. Chalon watched from the neighbor’s porch as the violently rotating wedge tornado bore down on his property and ripped his home from its foundation. His wife, stepdaughter and brother were in the home at the time, and all three were killed. Immediately east of the Cheek family home, the Lick Creek Bridge was lifted and thrown 300 feet into the creek. A patch of young trees and shrubs were stripped and uprooted, and grass was scoured from the ground on the Lawrence Dolan farm. At least a dozen people were killed nearby.
The tornado continued an unbroken path of destruction into White County. Just southeast of the town of Enfield, the Trousdale School collapsed on the students inside and then was swept away. Reportedly all but one of the students was seriously injured. Throughout the Enfield area, dozens of homes were destroyed and swept away. Fifteen people were killed and several dozen others injured. A thick, 18-acre patch of woods near the C. S. Conger farm was almost entirely snapped and uprooted. Just to the north of the damage path there were reports of hail as large as three to four inches, occasionally so heavy that it covered the ground. Several eyewitnesses in this area described the tornado as a “rolling black mass,” swirling with thousands of pieces of debris. In some cases the approach of the tornado was preceded by pieces of debris raining from the sky.
At the Newman School, several miles northwest of Carmi, teacher Jasper Mossberger noticed the skies had become dark and menacing. Sheets of rain spattered the windows, and a stiff wind rattled the door and threatened to blow it open. The students huddled around their teacher to hold the door against the approaching storm. Within moments, the roaring wind shattered the flimsy building and reduced it to rubble. Nearly every child was injured, some critically, but all survived. Teacher Jasper Mossberger initially survived, but died weeks later from complications of his injuries. Next door to the school, a mother and small child were killed when their home was destroyed and they were thrown into a ditch several hundred yards away. At this point, the tornado may have been more than 1.3 miles wide.
Continuing ceaselessly to the northeast, the tornado chewed up dozens of homes, schools and churches scattered throughout central and eastern White County. Just southwest of Crossville, several cars were blown from the state road and train cars were blown off the tracks nearby. The Graves School was completely decimated and several students were thrown from the wreckage. As in Murphysboro and elsewhere, wrecked homes and their occupants occasionally faced further danger from tipped-over coal stoves that ignited the shattered piles of wood and debris. The village of Crossville itself was spared, but those immediately to the south were not so lucky. The number of deaths varies, but several homes were completely destroyed in the area. In total, 65 residents of Hamilton and White counties were killed, including more than 30 farm owners. The exceptional intensity, forward speed and unusually large and occasionally obscured appearance conspired to catch even the most weather-wise farmers off-guard. The monstrous vortex had already done the worst of its terrible work, but still more was to come upon crossing the Wabash River into Indiana.
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Just before 4:00pm, the twister raced across the Wabash River, destroying homes on both banks, and bore down on the little village of Griffin. Measuring only half a mile north to south, Griffin was no match for the massive, mile-wide tempest. A number of farm homes just south and west of town were immediately swept clean. At Bethel Township School, the school’s only bus had left to deliver half the children on the west part of town before circling back to pick up the others. As the bus made its first stop to drop off the Vanway children — Harry, Ellen, Hellen and Evelyn — bus driver Chick Oller noticed objects of various sizes falling from the sky. Within seconds the massive funnel barrelled across Matz Road, tossing and tumbling the bus and tearing at the sheet metal exterior. When the bus came to rest in a nearby field, the mangled frame rested atop two children who had been crushed beneath it. Harry and Hellen Vanway were caught in the violent storm of debris just outside their home. Harry was struck in the head by a flying timber and killed instantly, while Hellen was gravely injured and died within hours.
In Griffin proper, the destruction was complete. As in Gorham, 100 percent of the structures in town were damaged or destroyed, most of them leveled. Eyewitnesses described a very large, multivortex tornado that produced several funnels that “moved around and then came together.” Several stores, a gas station, a theater, an electric light plant and several churches were also destroyed. The large brick Bethel Township School was heavily damaged but not destroyed. Many of the structures that escaped heavy damage from the initial strike of the tornado were destroyed when one subvortex reportedly wrapped around the southwest flank and raked the eastern and central portions of the town. Dark, fine silt and mud, picked up from the Wabash River as the tornado crossed it, was plastered to both people and homes. Several poles were snapped just above ground level, and the railroad tracks were once again pulled from the ground and bent at odd angles. In the few seconds it took the tornado to plow through the three-block width of Griffin, a full 60% of its 400 citizens were counted among the casualties, including dozens of fatalities.
After devastating Griffin, the tornado continued on across northern Posey and southwestern Gibson counties, destroying rural homes in much the same way as it had done in Hamilton and White counties earlier. It clipped the northwest edge of Owensville, destroying the Christian Church and several homes. At one home, William King and his son Walter were killed, as were their wives Elizabeth and Lora. Many trees were stripped and mangled at an apple orchard just north of Owensville. A forest nearby also suffered heavy damage. Dozens of other homes and barns were damaged or destroyed across central Gibson County as the tornado continued at a width of nearly one mile. Several vehicles were thrown or rolled great distances from the road, and a locomotive and its railcars were pushed from the tracks just outside of town. Vegetation may also have been scoured from the ground in nearby rural areas.
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It was 4:18pm — a full three hours after the great storm had first begun its path of apocalyptic destruction — and yet the tornado had lost none of its power when it emerged on the horizon west of Princeton, Indiana. With a population of just over 6,000 in 1925, Princeton was famed for its excellent tomato farms. The H. J. Heinz Company quickly became one of the area’s largest employers, using local tomatoes to produce its ketchup and other products in a pair of large brick buildings on the south side of town. Like so many other towns in Indiana and Illinois, Princeton also benefitted greatly from the rich coal seams atop which it sat.
On the afternoon of March 18, downtown Princeton was buzzing with activity. Like any other Wednesday, it was “Bargain Day,” when people from all around came to shop at the many stores that offered sales and raffles. At about 4:00pm, small bits of debris began to drift down from the sky like snowflakes. The western sky became bruised and menacing, the black clouds flickering with constant lightning. When the swirling funnel came into view, it was choked with debris. It had already wiped dozens of homes from the earth on its way from Owensville to Princeton, and it made quick work of the nursery building and a grove of mature fruit trees on the southwest edge of town. Many homes in the nearby McKaw Summit subdivision suffered damage from the northern edge of the tornado.
In the Baldwin Heights subdivision, immediately west of the Heinz Company’s factories, the destruction was complete. More than two dozen homes were razed to the ground. The sturdy, well-built Heinz factory and office buildings were damaged considerably but not destroyed. The storage building was swept away. Heavy iron support structures were damaged and bent at the Southern Railroad Shop, where the roundhouse and several other structures suffered major damage. Continuing through the primarily residential southern section of Princeton, the tornado left a streak of complete destruction about a quarter of a mile wide and a broader area of substantial damage just over a mile wide. Though most of downtown was spared, the destruction was massive. Much of the southern third of the town was reduced to rubble, and 45 people were killed.
At approximately 4:29pm, more than 220 miles after it began, the Great Tri-State Tornado shrunk, weakened and finally dissipated over an unplanted corn field on the Silas Merrick property, ten miles northeast of Princeton. In its wake, nearly a dozen cities and towns were left broken. Two were utterly wiped from the surface of the earth. At least 695 people were killed, over 2,000 injured, and many tens of thousands left homeless. It maintained a forward speed of well over 60 mph over three and a half hours, at times reaching a width in excess of 1.25 miles, and claimed both rural farmers and urbanites alike. The single greatest tornado event in world history left a toll, both in lives and in damages, that was nearly beyond comprehension. And yet, the day was not done. Great thunderheads were building across the Heartland and parts of the Southeast.
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About 15 minutes later and 250 miles away, a small tornado cut an extremely narrow path through Colbert County in Alabama. The tornado damaged a gas station, two homes and a shop near Littleville, killing one man and injuring about a dozen. Just after 5:00pm, an imposing storm that had been brewing over western Tennessee dropped a small, ragged funnel near the community of Buck Lodge in central Sumner County. The tornado rapidly grew to nearly a quarter mile in width and the tornado claimed its first lives when Matilda and Maude Key were killed in their home. Continuing on, the tornado passed near the community of Graball.
Just to the northeast, the homes of Jim and Mary Allison and the Henry Hughes and Cleveland Hughes families sat atop a small hill. Ella Hughes, being home alone when the storm approached, became frightened when she heard a dull roar to the west-southwest. She sprinted off in the pounding rain and wind toward the Allison home a half-mile away. Moments later, as the Allison family prepared for their dinner, the violent tornado barrelled over the hill and obliterated their home. Jim and Mary Allison and all six of their children, ages 20, 16, 14, 6, 5 and 4, were killed instantly. The tornado struck with such unbridled fury that the bodies were scattered over a quarter of a mile, mangled and wrapped around debarked tree stubs. The two youngest children were “torn in sections,” and surviving relatives were unable to identify many of the remains. Ella Hughes, who had just reached the house as the storm bore down, was also killed. Tragically, her home was left almost entirely unscathed.
A short distance to the northeast, the home of Ella’s father-in-law Henry was swept cleanly away. Henry, his son-in-law Cleveland and his wife were killed when the home was destroyed. In a community called Angle, just south of Oak Grove, the tornado again demonstrated its frightful power. The homes of Charles Durham and his son Joe were completely leveled and swept away. Charles, his wife and their baby daughter Lorena were killed. Moments later, Joe Durham’s wife and two children were killed. Joe was away at the time and was the only member of his family to survive. Several yards away, Charles Holmes’ home was also swept cleanly from its foundation. Charles and his wife were both killed, but their two daughters survived despite serious injuries. A contemporary report from The Knoxville Journal recorded that even concrete and stone foundations were scoured from the ground and scattered by the savage wind at several locations between Keytown and Oak Grove, but there is no known photographic evidence of this.
The tornado continued its campaign of ruin in the little village of Liberty. According to one eyewitness who watched the event from a distant hill, the Liberty Presbyterian Church was torn from its foundation whole before quickly disintegrating “like a bunch of matchsticks.” A home just down the road from the church was also obliterated, but the family survived by taking shelter in a milk well. The Brown home was swept clean just to the northeast, and the entire family was killed. Wheat and grass were scoured from the ground in a field across the road, leaving nothing but a 60-yard wide, 200 yard long streak of dirt. After destroying a string of homes for several more miles, the tornado may have weakened or lifted briefly in Macon County. As it neared the Kentucky state line, however, tornado damage again became intense. The tornado destroyed several dozen homes and killed four people in the community of Holland, and killed another eight people in Beaumont before coming to an end after about 60 miles on the ground.
In central Harrison County, Indiana, yet another monster tornado dropped to the earth at about 5:15pm. After causing extensive tree damage in a narrow path, the tornado rapidly expanded to nearly a mile wide. Several farmhouses were swept cleanly away near Laconia, where two people in one family were killed. Near Elizabeth, two more people were killed when about a dozen homes were flattened and swept away. The tornado weakened and narrowed as it crossed the state line south of Louisville. At least four other tornadoes raked Tennessee and Kentucky in the next hour and a half, including one tornado that destroyed a number of homes and completely scoured the ground.
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By the time the sun had set on Wednesday, March 18, 1925, at least 747 people laid dead across five states and more than 425 miles of ruin. With at least 695 fatalities, the Tri-State Tornado alone claimed a staggering 142 more lives than the next-deadliest entire year on record (553 in 2011). The tornado caused the most student fatalities in a single tornado (69) and the most deaths ever at one school (33) in De Soto. The tornado also has the record for the longest path ever recorded, though the exact length is uncertain. Beginning from the first recorded tornado damage in Shannon County, Mo. and ending with the last recorded damage northeast of Princeton, Ind., the total length is approximately 235 miles, with several gaps in damage reports that could indicate breaks in the path. There are mostly continuous damage reports from south of Fredricktown in Madison County, Mo. to the end of the accepted path about ten miles northeast of Princeton in far western Pike County, Ind. This suggests a path length of at least 174 miles, still the longest confirmable path length ever recorded.
The Great Tri-State Tornado remains an historical anomaly of terrifying proportions. Never before or since have we seen a tornado in the United States kill so many people, stay on the ground so long, travel so quickly or cause so much damage. Understandably overshadowed by the great tragedy to the north, the outbreak across Kentucky and Tennessee may well have been very significant in itself. The overwhelming devastation across the areas affected left marks that took decades to heal. Tens of thousands of people left homeless, many of them also rendered jobless, just years before the Great Depression closed its grip on the nation. Even in light of devastating tornadoes and outbreaks in recent years it’s difficult to make sense of the incredible scale of destruction. The full details of that day are likely lost to the march of time, but March 18, 1925 undoubtedly remains one of the greatest natural disasters in American history.