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Historical Weather Service | Meteorological Monsters

Text 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.

Library Introduction:

The 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.

Four 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.

[Editor's 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.]

The Weather 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.

It was 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.

Even 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 at work.

It was 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.

The 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.

The agony 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.

The suffering 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 safety.

The 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 sustained.

The business 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.

Shaw's 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.

A little 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.

The 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.

The City 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.

There 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.

It was 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.

Throughout 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.

Another 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.

In the 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.

In the 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 soon 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 victim.

Throughout 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 injured.

Several 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.

A passenger 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 recovered.

Such 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 lifetime.

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