The 1925 Tri-State Tornado
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, people 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 lay dead and more than a dozen towns and hundreds of farmsteads were left in splinters.
The Tri-State Tornado is the worst tornado disaster in American history. On March 18, 1925, a dark “Smokey fog” touched down approximately three miles north-west of Ellington, Missouri. It would become known as the Tri-State Tornado. By all accounts, the Tri-State Tornado was one for the record books. The tornado tracked from south-eastern Missouri, across southern Illinois, and into south-western Indiana. This event is referred to as the Tri-State tornado because of three states being affected.
Claiming 695 lives during a three-hour rampage across Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana the storm had one of the longest uninterrupted paths (219 miles) and one of the widest (up to one mile) of any recorded tornado. Its continuous energy was so extreme that it completely obliterated several small towns in its path. The fatality count was nearly that of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.
While it occurred before the modern record, it is considered by all accounts to be an F5/EF5 Tornado. It crossed over and destroyed or significantly damaged nine towns and numerous smaller villages.
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 1:00 pm, rumbles of thunder rolling in from the south-west confirmed his suspicion — a storm was coming.
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 super cellular as it raced northeastward.
Shortly before 1:00 pm, a low, ragged cloud descended over the forests north-west 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 south-west 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.
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 a limited capacity until the 1940s, but it never again matched the production it had achieved before the tornado.
The tornado continued northeast, chewing through the residential heart of the city. Hundreds of homes were completely levelled, 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 lay 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 multi-vortex 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.
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.
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 the 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.
The storm, changed forever the lives of thousands in Southern Illinois, including then 7-year-old Betty Moroni, of De Soto.
The 99-year-old De Soto resident remembers March 18, 1925, as an unusually warm and blustery spring day, recalling her 14-year-old brother Herschel and the other boys at the De Soto School throwing their caps in the air to see how far the wind could carry them.
Moroni, who was wearing her Easter dress because her other clothes became soaked while walking home in the rain for lunch, went outside with her class at 2:30 p.m. for recess.
She could barely stand against the strong winds that were already blowing ominously from the direction of Murphysboro.
As the skies surrounding the school turned black, her teacher led the students back to the classroom, where she instructed the girls to take their seats and the boys to shut the windows.
Moroni barely sat down in her front row desk next to her 10-year-old sister, Marie, when the tornado struck the school at 2:38 p.m., killing 19 students in her classroom, including Moroni’s sister.
With glass shattering around them, few of the boys shutting the windows survived the storm.
“There were only three boys left in my class,” Moroni said. “They were all killed in the tornado, all but three.”
A total of 33 students died in the tornado, which was reportedly more than a mile wide.
“I was happy that day of the tornado and, just in a flash, I was desolate,” Moroni said. “I didn’t have a home, didn’t know the way home. It was all blown away.”
Moroni stumbled through the bricks, wood and tree limbs the storm had strewn across the town, finding her parents with the help of a man she calls Mr Tippy. He held her hand while carrying his son in his other arm as they walked through the rubble.
But when she met up with her parents, she knew the storm had injured her dad and her 6-year-old sister, Elsie, who had been at home with her mum and Moroni’s 6-month-old sister, Ruth, during the storm.
“Someone had tied what looked like a sheet around his (her dad) head, and it was bloody,” Moroni said. “Elsie had a cut in her head and it was bleeding, and they took us to Du Quoin Hospital. When we got there, they had to put us in the basement. The hospital was full.”
Moroni learned later the tornado had blown her mother, Minnie Barnett, against a tree moments after picking up Ruth, who suffered “just three little scratches on her head.”
But the storm had flattened their house on what is now Cherry Street and Moroni’s 12-year-old sister, Tina Mae, failed to return home from school after the storm.
“After the tornado was over, nobody knew where anybody was,” Moroni said. “You could be blown forever.”
Two days later, searchers found the bodies of three girls in an outhouse that had been blown across the railroad tracks that run today along Illinois 149 between De Soto and Hurst.
Moroni’s sister, Tina Mae, and two other girls, Ruth Taylor and Nellie Bell, sought refuge during the storm in the school’s outdoor toilet.
“My mother never talked about the tornado in our house, just never, but I overheard her talking to somebody about that incident and momma said, ‘You know it’s worrisome to think that maybe they weren’t killed, maybe they starved to death.'”
The week of tragedy continued two days later on March 22 when Elsie died at the hospital, becoming the third sister Moroni lost in a span of five days.
In the months following the tornado, Moroni’s family lived in a quickly-built, one-room shack-like structure, but Betty was sent to live with her aunt and uncle while finishing up the school year in Hurst.
Several months later, the family finished building a new home with help from the Red Cross, but shortly after moving in, more tragedy struck.
Her father survived the tornado, but suffered serious head injuries and wasn’t well after the storm. He died the next spring, leaving his wife, who was three months pregnant, to raise Betty, Herschel and Ruth by herself.
“That was 1925,” Moroni said. “We didn’t have Social Security; we didn’t have any government handouts, and you just did it the hard way. My mother wasn’t the only one that lost family. Our family had the most that were killed, but there were people who lost two children and several that lost one.”
In Annapolis, Mo., the day was quite hazy with just a few thunderclaps in the distance, then at 1:30 p.m. the “smokey fog” came down from above the small Ozark hills town. It came and left so quickly that nobody knew what had really happened. The only logical explanation was a twister of some sort. 90 percent of the town was destroyed. When the tornado approached the town of Beihle, Mo. a double tornado was reported along a three-mile stretch. It is unclear whether this phenomenon was a satellite tornado around a parent tornado, or if the old tornado was dying and a new one forming. Regardless, the damage path went on.
Crossing the Mississippi river, the tornado then struck the town of Gorham, Il. Gorham was a town of about 500 people and of those 500, 37 were killed and 250 injured. One notable effect in Gorham was the grass being torn from the ground in a gully on the east of town. The next town was Murphysboro. Eugene Porter reported the tornado to be “about a mile wide”. The town of Murphysboro suffered heavy losses, with 234 casualties reported along with 623 injuries. About 100 square blocks of the town were destroyed along, with another 70 by a fire after the tornado.
Perhaps the most astonishing show of power came from the next town in line, DeSoto, Il. Trees were snapped off at knee height and stumps then ripped out of the ground. No structure was left standing in the tornado’s path. Of the 69 people killed in DeSoto, 33 were killed in a school.
Next up, West Frankfort was a mining town, and as such most of the men worked in the mines. When the electricity went out, the miners went to the surface to see what the problem was. The miners came to the surface of a destroyed landscape. Most of the 148 deaths and 400 injuries in West Frankfort were women and children given the men were in the mine.
A man in Parrish, Il. survived the tornado by clinging to a railroad track while the town was destroyed. 46 people died and at least 100 were injured here. Between Gorham and Parrish, 541 lives were taken.
The tornado continued northeast, and over the next hour, mostly farms and an occasional school house or general store were destroyed. Once into Indiana, the town of Griffin was destroyed, followed by the south side of Princeton.
In Princeton, residents saw a “blackness” move across the south side of town, no one in north Princeton knew or even guessed that the other southern half of the town had been destroyed until injuries and bodies started showing at the hospital. 45 people were killed and 152 injured there. The tornado then weakened and dissipated as it took a more north-easterly direction, finally dissipating just south-west of the town of Petersburg, In.
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.
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 north-west 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.
By the time the sun had set on Wednesday, March 18, 1925, at least 747 people lay 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 Fredericktown 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 a historical anomaly of terrifying proportions. Never before or since has there 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.
- In West Frankfort, IL. A farmer found a barber chair from some other town, and a bond — that was in a safe, to begin with — was found 125 miles away and later mailed back. A house was also left standing while the trees surrounding it were cut off at the trunk or uprooted.
- A man in Griffin, IN reported that he grabbed a door handle and the house blew away, leaving the door handle with him.
- A popcorn man in Murphysboro, IL. was reportedly tossed up in the air “to the height of a one-story building” then set back down a block away. His popcorn stand moved three feet and was still on its wheels.
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