accompanying: Photographic Views of the Great Cyclone at St. Louis,
May 27, 1896. Anonymous, 1896. I. Haas Publishing and Engraving Company,
St. Louis. Library Call Number QC955.5.M8 C83 1896.
following is the text that accompanied a small published picture book
of photographs of the destruction caused by the St. Louis tornado
of May 27, 1896. The text is noteworthy because it provides a glimpse
of the havoc and human suffering caused by a major weather disaster
striking a large metropolitan area. It is also of interest because
it is one of the first descriptions of a large tornado striking a
modern urban area dependent on electrical power and other integrated
utility services. The disruption of transportation and communications
systems evident in this disaster is eerily reminiscent of problems
associated with recent natural disasters. However, recent disasters
of similar or greater magnitude, such as the Oklahoma City tornadoes
of May 4, 1999, have not caused as great of loss of life because of
vastly improved observation and warning networks established by the
National Weather Service and cooperating private and public radio
and television networks.
hundred killed and twelve hundred injured is the record of the cyclone
which struck St. Louis and its suburb, East St. Louis, on the afternoon
of Wednesday, May 27th, 1896. During the same fateful half hour or
less thousands of families were rendered homeless and property was
destroyed to the extent of fifty millions, or nearly so. It was the
most disastrous storm of modern times, and the destruction it worked
was far more appalling than that of the Charleston earthquake, generally
quoted as the most terrible disaster of the generation. Block after
block of residence property for miles in succession was blown to the
ground. Houses were demolished down to the foundations; others were
left with but fragments of wall, or with fractions of the floor of
the first story remaining. Hundreds of miles of electric wires and
thousands of telephone and telegraph poles were dashed to the ground,
adding not only to the damage and wreckage, but increasing to an alarming
extent the danger to life. Trees of half a century's growth were uprooted
and hurled a distance of several blocks. Heavy iron fences were twisted
as though they were composed of a sheet of tin. Masonry at the approach
of one of the most substantial bridges ever constructed was blown
away, steamboats were dashed across the river, broken in half and
the fragments hurled high up onto the opposite banks. There was nothing
either on land or afloat strong enough to resist the pitiless fury
of the awful wind, which attained a velocity of eighty miles an hour
and brought havoc, ruin and death along with it.
note: This most assuredly referred to the rate of forward motion of
the storm as opposed to internal wind speed of the tornado. It is
probable that this storm was at least an F4 on today's Fujita Scale
and possibly even an F5.]
Bureau had predicted local thunder storms, and during the afternoon
there was an ominous darkness over the city and its suburbs. Few people,
however, had any fear of a cyclone or a tornado. A quarter of a century
had elapsed since St. Louis had experienced any serious trouble from
the fury of the elements, and impression had become general that the
city was so sheltered as to make it safe against cyclones or tornadoes.
The falsity of the hope, which was so largely father to the thought,
was demonstrated in but a few minutes. On the morning of Wednesday
St. Louis awoke free from apprehension of coming ill, and its people
were speedily engaged in their daily avocations. By evening many of
these were dead, others seriously injured, others bereft of relations
and friends, and others absolutely impoverished, with everything they
possessed scattered to the four winds of heaven.
shortly before five o'clock when the cyclone struck the city. St.
Louis, Mo., was the first to receive its force as it came at a speed
never before attained. The highest and lowest portions of the city
felt the force of the tornado the most. Entering from the southwest
it attacked first the Compton Heights district, a thickly populated
section, with a large number of very costly mansions. Then it made
its way down what is known as the Mill Creek Valley to the river,
tearing down in its course whole rows of smaller dwelling houses,
many of them occupied by more than one family, and ruining thousands
as it went. When it struck the Mississippi river it cleared the harbor
of the steamboats and other craft, dashing them wildly across to the
Illinois shore, breaking them into pieces and drowning several unfortunates
who were aboard.
the Eads Bridge itself failed to entirely resist the force of the
terrific storm. This bridge has been frequently spoken of as unnecessarily
massive and heavy. It has resisted flood after flood, and was in every
one's opinion absolutely indestructible. But the wind tore away some
three hundred feet of the eastern approach, blew over freight trains
which were standing on the tracks, and then, entering East St. Louis,
Ill., it came nearing blowing that town out of existence. Most of
the residence houses were of frame construction, offering little or
no resistance to the fury of the wind. The central portion of the
city, including several very fine brick and stone business buildings,
was razed to the ground, and along the low ground north of the Eads
Bridge scarcely a house remains standing. Railroad offices were blown
to the ground, and in one of these no less than fifteen clerks were
all over in a few minutes, and then came a blinding rain, adding to
the discomfort and suffering of the injured, and increasing ten-fold
the difficulties in the way of the thousands of rescuers who were
speedily at work trying to remove wreckage and save the lives of those
who were imprisoned in what was in many instances a living tomb.
evening and the night which followed will be remembered as the most
wretched a large city has ever known. For a time every street railway
in the city was tied up. Two power houses were completely wrecked,
and of the three hundred miles of electric road in the city scarcely
twenty could be operated before midnight. Of the cable roads one was
tied up, the cyclone having blown down half its power house. The Olive
street road, which runs through the west end district, was tied up
temporarily, but escaped material damage and was able to resume running
later on in the evening. In the meantime thousands of clerks and others
of both sexes were unable to reach home. The majority of the business
houses closing at 5:30 or 6:00 o'clock, but few had started home when
the storm broke. Thousands who were caught half the way had to leave
the cars and walk home as best they could through the blinding rain
and amidst masses of wreckage of every description.
of the tens of thousands who were still down town can be scarcely
appreciated. Reports of whole sections of the city being blotted out
came in rapidly, and no one knew whether his loved ones were killed
or not. The electric light plants were temporarily rendered unserviceable,
and darkness added to the horror of the situation. People huddled
together in groups under such shelter as they could find, crying and
praying until it appeared as though lamentation were universal.
and labor of the walk home which followed will be remembered for years
by thousands. Some reached their homes towards midnight, only to find
them wrecked and their dear ones dead. Others who were more fortunate
found their relatives distracted with grief and anxiety as to their
extent of the calamity was so enormous that it could only be realized
by degrees. All night long efforts were made to rescue as many as
possible from the ruins, but it was not until morning that the people
who had escaped injury were aware of the frightful loss others had
section of the city escaped in a miraculous manner. The older section,
which fifty years ago was the principal part of the city, was badly
wrecked, but the large office buildings suffered little beyond the
breakage of a few squares of glass. Signs were blown in every direction,
and a large portion of the roof of the Merchants Exchange was torn
away. Several telegraph poles were wrecked, but otherwise the disturbance
in the leading thoroughfares was inconsiderable. The northern portion
of the city and the extreme west end also escaped the fury of the
elements, but the southern section of the city received the tornado
with its full force. Right in the center of the stricken district
was Lafayette Park, so often spoken of as the most beautiful little
park in the country. It was conspicuous for its elegant shade trees,
many of them the result of half a century's care. Nearly all of them
were blown to the ground and will be lost forever. A handsome iron
fence surrounded the park. The storm snapped it asunder, bent and
twisted it, and left it an unrecognizable tangle. The statue of Thomas
H. Benton was not destroyed, and stood the following morning, a solitary
reminder of what the park was but a few hours before.
Garden, known throughout the country as one of the finest botanical
gardens in the world, also felt the full fury of the storm, and many
of its most beautiful specimens were absolutely wrecked. Starting
from the park the damage in every direction was terrific. Compton
Heights, one of the highest portions of the city, and regarded as
one of the most desirable residence sections, received the full blunt
of the storm. For a distance of ten blocks from north to south and
six blocks from east to west there were on the afternoon of May 27th
some three hundred residences , varying in cost from $5,000 to $25,000.
Not one of these escaped. Some were dashed to the ground, others had
their roofs torn off, others had their gables torn away. It made no
difference whether the houses were of modern construction or whether
they had been standing five or ten years. Nothing seemed to withstand
the fury of the wind, and the strong as well as the weak fell before
it. Many residents in this section lost from ten to twenty thousand
dollars, but there were comparatively few fatalities.
to the north the storm struck a cheaper neighborhood, densely populated,
with a large proportion of the buildings inexpensive dwelling houses
or flats. Here the loss of life was heavier and the damage to property
terrible. For forty blocks in succession ruin was to be seen. Of about
five hundred houses, scarcely one was left intact, and fully two hundred
were rendered uninhabitable. Many three-story houses were rudely converted
into two-story residences with the rafters exposed. In upwards of
forty cases, utter annihilation marked the course of the storm. A
new public school building in this section, with sixteen-inch walls,
was wrecked, showing conclusively that it mattered little what resistance
was offered to the relentless tornado.
power-house of the Union Depot Railway system, one of the largest
electric railway systems in the world, was not strong enough to resist
the fury of the storm. Its immense smokestack snapped in sunder, and
machinery worth hundreds of thousands of dollars was promptly buried
in a mass of debris. Had a great army with a full equipment of artillery
sent shell after shell into this district for hours in succession,
it could scarcely have effected more havoc or ruin.
Hospital, overcrowded with patients, was partially demolished, and
it was first expected that hundreds of sufferers had been killed.
Strange to say, the loss of life in this building was comparatively
small, although the suffering which fell upon many was enormous.
was great loss of life in the wrecking of the immense tobacco factory
which was being erected in the southwest part of the city. The contract
for this building exceeded $1,500,000. It consisted of thirteen buildings,
all of which were in course of erection. Portions of the roof and
cornices were torn down. In the warehouse, the iron work had been
erected four stories high. In the basement below the number of workmen
took refuge, and for a moment appeared to be safe. The iron framework,
however, failed to resist the immense force of the storm, and was
hurled down in one huge mass, whose terrific weight crashed through
the main floor and brought death and destruction to those huddled
below. Nine bodies were recovered during the night, but this was rather
an indication of the extent of the fatalities than an approach to
the total, which unhappily proved to be far greater. The damage to
this building alone exceeded $150,000.
at first thought that the St. Louis jail had been blown down. Investigation
proved that the damage to this exceptionally strong building had been
confined to one wing, and that loss of life had been averted. The
force of the hurricane was, however, distinctly felt, and as the wreckage
fell around, the terrified prisoners dropped on their knees and begged
to be released from what appeared to be impending death. They swore
by every obligation they could summon to their frantic minds not to
escape, and when the guards, satisfied that the worst danger was over,
tried to force them back to their cells, revolvers had to be used
to enforce discipline. The incipient mutiny was quelled and a semblance
of order finally secured.
the city there was a general rush to fire-alarm boxes and telephones.
As was inevitable, there were several fires, some of them serious
in character. It was speedily discovered that both the telephone and
fire alarm services were crippled, the storm having placed the city
for the time being at the mercy of the fire fiend. Several fires which
caused great alarm were put out by the rain which followed. The rainfall
exceeded three inches in about as many minutes, deluging furniture
and household effects which had been blown over streets and alleys
and yards, to the extent of at least another million dollars. In one
small section alone seventy-five pianos were blown to pieces and lost.
addition to the horror of the night took the form of absolute darkness.
For some years electricity has been used exclusively for lighting
all the streets and alleys of St. Louis; one of the largest lighting
plants in the city, and indeed in the country, was badly wrecked,
and several days ensued before lighting could be resumed, even in
part. The combination of disasters chilled the survivors and created
terrors difficult to analyze.
absence of authentic information, the wildest rumors naturally prevailed.
Those at home waiting for their relatives down town were in anguish,
and many women fainted. Special editions of newspapers came out late
at night, but could not be circulated to any great extent owing to
the fact that many of the streets were impassable and that but few
street cars were running.
section of the city where, perhaps, the relative destruction of life
and property was greatest, from Chouteau avenue south to Lesperance
street, and east of Tenth street, a scene of desolation and disorder,
horrible to even contemplate, was revealed by the daylight of Thursday.
This district was right in the path of the storm, and its inhabitants,
most of them belonging to the laboring class, rank among the worst
sufferers. Their property, in most cases, did not extend beyond scanty
household furniture or, perhaps, included the home they inhabited.
Thousands were rendered homeless and practically destitute, many families
being without food until relieved by the charitable. When the excitement
caused by the horror of the catastrophe was succeeded by a fuller
realization of its consequences, the grief-stricken people found themselves
confronted by a lamentable situation. Hundreds of families were dismembered.
The breadwinners had in many cases been killed, and even when this
was not the case the destruction of adjoining factories removed all
hope of earning a trifle to support the women and children. Being
essentially a laboring district, this feature of the calamity was
the more obvious and appalling.
as possible, people who had been more fortunate hurried to the scene
to render what help they could to the denizens of this terrible death-trap.
Thirteen dead bodies were speedily removed from the ruins, but it
was obvious that there were more dead beneath the pile of debris,
and willing hands were forthcoming to tear away the wreckage. At the
time the storm struck the city the proprietor of a saloon was playing
cards with two of his customers in front of the bar. They were buried
as they sat at the table, and the saloon-keeper's wife was another
the district already referred to as having suffered the worst from
the storm, fatalities were numerous, but there were also several miraculous
escapes. One large house was destroyed with the exception of the hallway.
The inmates took refuge in this, and, although deluged with water,
escaped practically unhurt. One family succeeded in reaching the cellar.
The wreckage of the house closed up all access to this little haven
of refuge. It was not until forty-eight hours after the storm that
the rafters and brickwork could be removed. Two little children were
found alive, but their parents were dead. In one instance the entire
household was killed with the exception of the mother, who was badly
people owe their lives to having been away from home at the moment
the storm struck. One young husband and father, after walking home
through the blinding rain from his place of business, found his home
torn to the ground. With a force of helpers he worked until long after
midnight in search of the bodies of his loved ones, whom he scarcely
dared hope were still alive. While the work of removing the wreckage
was in progress, the mother and her children arrived on the scene.
They had been visiting at a friend's, several blocks distant, and
had thus escaped the fury of the hurricane.
train on the Eads bridge had a narrow escape from being blown into
the river, and it was only by the tact of the engineer that this calamity
was averted. Two men who were crossing the upper roadway of the bridge
in a wagon were blown into the river, and their bodies have not been
is a bare outline of the greatest death-dealing storm of the decade,
or indeed of the generation. Relief funds were hastily organized and
everything done that was possible to relieve wants of the sufferers.
Little can, however, be done to relieve the thousands of families
whose little all has been swept away. Ruin stares them in the face,
and many of them will have to start life over again, absolutely penniless,
with scarcely a change of clothing left to represent savings of a