Invited Speech: 85th Anniversary Commemoration of the Tri-State Tornado



That I am here today—or even more importantly, that all of you are here today—is for me the fulfillment of a lifelong dream.

It’s great to be the guest of the National Weather Service. Over the years I have gotten to know the folks at the Paducah office fairly well, as we have collaborated on a television show and on the 75th Anniversary commemoration of the great tornado held in Murphysboro in March 2000. But that I got to become involved in these events at all speaks to the fulfillment of my old dream.

I grew up not terribly far from here, a kid obsessed with the Midwestern weather. After I’d been through enough sudden trips to the basement, I decided that I had to know more about tornadoes. And it was during the next year or two, as I dug dusty books from the shelves of the Tesson Ferry Library, that I discovered that on March 18, 1925, something unimaginably horrible had happened just 75 miles from where I sat.

It seemed almost like a secret: You had to look in the right books, books like Snowden Flora’s Tornadoes of the United States (I had to special-order that one from the St. Louis library) or Frank Lane’s The Elements Rage, which in turn referred me to Flora’s work. But even in these volumes, there wasn’t much except the nearly unbelievable statistics of an event they called "the great tristate tornado": nearly 700 dead across three states, a path length of over 200 miles, four towns utterly destroyed, one city (Murphysboro) with the highest single-city death toll ever seen in a tornado.

That record still stands today. Most of the other records set by this monstrous tornado still stand too, 85 years later.

After my discovery in the library, I sought the remembrances of some of my Southeastern Missouri kinfolk who had been alive at the time of the tornado. My great-uncle Carl, who lived just south of the twister’s path through Missouri, could not assign a name to the storm; he simply remembered that a tornado had come through "in the twenties" and, as he put it, "killed everybody."

Family friend Loretta Schremp had even more vivid memories, since she had actually seen the tornado as it tore through rural Bollinger County, Missouri. She never forgot seeing a tree suspended in midair high above her, a tree that suddenly vanished. Only a little girl at the time, she had no idea that she was witnessing the greatest tornado in history.

Obviously these few one-paragraph accounts in weather books, and the recollections of my downstate relatives and friends, were the tip of a much larger iceberg. This was an event that was far and away the worst tornado in recorded history, a storm that should have assumed a place alongside the great San Francisco earthquake in our disaster lore—and yet, only forty years after it happened, it had very nearly been forgotten.

I was about ten years old when I decided that if there was going to be a book about the Tri-State Tornado, I would probably have to write it myself. There were things in my favor: I already enjoyed writing stories and essays, I lived not too far from where the tornado had struck, and I knew people who were at least familiar with it. And, of course, I was tremendously fascinated by weather.

So my lifelong dream became to write a book about the great tornado and set the record straight for posterity. And in my usual plodding fashion, I got it done—never mind that the book was published about 25 years after I had conceived of it!

Especially now in retrospect, I think that my decision to throw away my initial manuscript and interview survivors scattered across the tornado’s path was a good one. Not only did this preserve for future generations a spoken record of what had actually happened in Murphysboro, or West Frankfort, or Griffin—these interviews gave the book its very substance and flavor, and made it something I hadn’t dreamed of: Successful.

Of course I can’t take all the credit, but there is no doubt that the little book Iowa State University Press released in 1992 started a dialogue about our greatest tornado disaster—and also brought to the fore still more survivor stories and general interest. Nowadays there are even Internet discussion forums on the subject and there have been several television specials that have documented the storm in some detail.

Most gratifying to me is the new work that has been done by Dr. Charles Doswell and his team, because their research has brought the Tri-State Tornado into the 21st century. Obviously I’m not here to talk about that research—Steve Piltz will be doing

that—but I will incorporates elements of this new knowledge in my talk.

Now let’s go back to a rainy afternoon 85 years ago and talk about the great tornado.

Tornado warnings as we know them today did not exist in 1925, and as a matter of fact the US Weather Bureau did not even like to use the word "tornado"—they really didn’t have the scientifc means to see tornadic storms shaping up, and too many uses of the word would be the equivalent of crying wolf to the general public.

The Bureau’s forecast for March 18 instead called for "rains and strong shifting winds" to affect the mid-Mississippi Valley. Perhaps this was something of a euphemism for "severe weather expected," but since no tornado forecasts were issued in those days, people living in tornado-prone regions—like southern Illinois—usually developed a good sense for what they called "cyclone weather." [5 MINUTES TO THIS POINT]

But even that powerful second sense, born from years of close observation of the weather, wasn’t much help to most people on March 18, 1925.

There was some unspectular tornadic activity in the southeastern corner of Kansas in the predawn hours, but other than that the morning had shaped up pretty much like the Weather Bureau had predicted, with intermittent rains and blustery winds. Temperatures in most places rose into the lower sixties by late morning, just a little warmer than what was seasonal. Unlike the apocalyptic churning skies and howling thunderstorms that have been associated with other major tornado outbreaks, there wasn’t much to indicate that this was to be anything more than a typically unsettled spring day.

That changed at a little before one in the afternoon.

Perhaps Dr. Doswell’s team uncovered some earlier accounts; they now believe that the Tri-State Tornado was on the ground for several minutes longer than was previously thought. But by any measure, it isn’t easy to reconstruct the first minutes of the storm. Reynolds County, Missouri is situated near the summit of the Ozark Plateau, a region that is sparsely populated even today—for all that it is one of the most beautiful and rugged areas in the entire Midwest. In 1925, perhaps only a few dozen people lived in the area where the tornado first touched down, and certainly very few people saw the storm before it first encountered a population center at the lead-mining town of Annapolis. I found a newspaper account of a man trundling along in his Model A Ford a few miles north of Ellington in Reynolds County, who stopped his auto in the middle of the road when he beheld "an awful commotion" crossing the highway in front of him. When he dared to venture forward again, the road was littered with large tree limbs, and he found the going difficult for a half-mile or so.

This man also may have been the first to utter the immortal words, "Didn’t look like any twister I ever saw." There had been no visible funnel cloud, just an awful, fog-shrouded destruction.

And when the tornado reached Annapolis, residents there described "a smoky fog" descending from the hills to the west of the little town. One woman thought that it might be a forest fire, although it was really far too early in the season for forest fires. Yet it is human nature to try to explain the inexplicable. If one puts one’s own self in the place of these lead miners far up in the Missouri Ozarks, how else to explain this apparition that materialized in the forest above their town on an otherwise unremarkable spring afternoon?

It would be best if we could close the book on the Tri-State Tornado right now, maybe calling it the "Great Ozark Tornado," bearing in mind its mysterious origins in the remote high country, its deadly rampages through little Missouri towns like Annapolis and Biehle, Retta Schremp’s memory of the tree she saw suspended in midair above her father’s farm, the thirteen people killed in the ninety miles or so of isolated rural terrain the tornado traversed between its touchdown and the Mississippi River. And if we could do that, we would still be talking about an important storm, one that would have been studied and remarked upon and remembered.

Unfortunately, when the Tri-State Tornado crossed the great river about midway between Cape Girardeau and Kaskaskia Island, it was about to invent whole new categories of destructiveness, and its passage through the state of Illinois alone would have easily rendered it the most devastating tornado in history.

Gorham, a thriving little town at the foot of the Mississippi bluffs, was the first of four communities that were essentially destroyed where they stood. It seemed almost as if the diabolical storm had gained strength from its transit of the Mississippi River. Gorham lost 37 of its few hundred residents, a death toll that would presage the coming ruin about to be visited upon the villages and small cities of southern Illinois and Indiana.

A Gorham schoolgirl spoke for the many, many children who would die in school buildings that afternoon:

We were in a classroom and it suddenly got so dark we couldn’t see. All the children rushed to the windows. Teacher was mad. She made us go back to our seats again. All we could see at the windows was that it was black—like night almost.

Then the wind struck the school. The walls seemed to fall in, all around us. Then the floor at one end of the building gave way. We all slipped or slid in that direction. If it hadn’t been for the seats it would have been like sliding down a cellar door.

I can’t tell you what happened then. I can’t describe it. I can’t bear to think about it. Children all about me were cut and bleeding. They cried and screamed. It was something awful. I had to close my eyes.

"It suddenly got so dark we couldn’t see." That was about as much warning as most people got before the tornado destroyed everything around them; nothing about the day had suggested a tornado to anyone. Those who did happen to be glancing at the westward sky told stories that rang with eerie similarities, no matter where they happened to be along the path of the storm:

…The one thing that stands out in my memory was the color of the sky. I remember it vividly: mustard gold. We talked about how strange the sky looked. It was like a sunset casting that gold color over our town… [West Frankfort, Illinois]

…But as we turned there, I noticed some clouds, and they was so close, I thought, "Oh if I stood up, I believe I could touch them." They wasn’t that close, but they seemed so close, and real yellow, looked real yellow, and then it seemed like over the top of that you could see the sun on them. But probably it wasn’t, it was just the color of the clouds… [Griffin, Indiana]

…I saw the cloud through the dining-room window. I thought it was the most beautiful cloud I had ever seen. Of course, I didn’t know what it was. It was black and red and orange and purple, rolling over and over like a barrel. The underneath was a dusky yellow… [Princeton, Indiana]

I could find no one who remembered seeing a funnel cloud.

Another stroke of misfortune happened shortly after the tornado left Gorham: its track began to parallel those of the Mobile & Ohio and Illinois Central railroads, running virtually at the same north 69 degrees east heading that the tornado had favored since it had touched down ninety minutes before. This meant that it would encounter one town after another, small cities and hamlets that had grown up with the railway that hauled away the region’s important commodities of corn, soybeans, and (especially) coal.

So now we have finally answered the question that so many disbelieving voices have asked: How could a single tornado have killed 695 people in three states? Why was this tornado so much worse than any other tornado in our history?

First, there was no early warning. There was no warning at all. And even calling ahead on the primitive telephone networks or using railroad telegraphy would have been fruitless, since the storm knocked the power out as soon as it struck.

Second, there was the absence of what people considered to be "cyclone weather"; the day was a little warm and a little windy, but most residents of the affected area expected only rain showers.

Third, the tornado itself (between three-quarters of a mile and a mile wide through most of its path) did not present the usual classic funnel cloud, or even one of the multiple-vortex variations on that theme that we have seen in the home video accounts that now appear on the nightly news. Olive Deffendall, a woman from Indiana whom I interviewed, had a typical reaction. After telling me about the "beautiful" cloud she had seen from her vantage point on a hill, she said: "That’s when the two-burner stove blew in from the porch, right through the dining-room window."

Finally, there was the unfortunate congruity between the tornado’s path through southern Illinois, where it killed over 500 people, and the railroad network that many thriving towns had grown up around. Even in rural Hamilton and White Counties, where no settlements of any size were encountered, sixty-five people were killed. This in itself would be considered a major tornado disaster today, much worse than anything we have seen in recent times. [8:45 from last timestamp; total 13:45 to this point]




Eugene Porter was in the Logan School: [Our school] was a two-story brick building that had been built from the old type of sun-cured bricks, and it had already been condemned.

Those bricks were made just like adobe. They were soft enough that you could take a knife and carve your initials in them. My brother still says the reason he thinks that no more were killed in the school was because of the soft bricks…

…There were several killed at the school. They was up in trees, and around. I had been on the first floor, and most of them that was killed was blown out from the upper floor…

…I had gone home, and I turned around and went back to the schoolhouse… and it seemed like a dream, and you was hoping it’d go away, you know, you see all these people bleeding.

{Mention fire and Blue Front Hote (13 dead)—show Hotel slide}


De Soto:

Garrett Crews was in the De Soto schoolhouse: I was in the eighth grade at the time and our school was a two-story brick building. The room I was in was on the second floor and on the southwest corner… when we got upstairs [from recess] it was real windy and we went to the west side of the room where the windows were. The windows were up, and we could see very well as the storm approached.

…I can remember real vividly two things which I saw as I looked out of the window. We didn’t have a gymnasium but there was an outdoor basketball court with two wooden goalposts. I can remember very distictly seeing these swaying back and forth until they finally broke off. Also, down in the northwest corner of the schoolyard there was a girls’ toilet. And I recall seeing a girl come out of the toilet—the wind picked her up, just head-high or so, and blew her more or less straight north to the fence on the north side of our school building. She was found dead in the fence.

So I was looking out of the school window there, and at the last moment you could see the air full of debris or whatever, just houses and pieces of everything… I put my hands up to the very top of the door—the door casing—to hold on, and I remember praying, because by then we knew something was bad. That’s the last thing I remember…

…When I came to myself, I found that I was pinned beneath a wooden beam of some kind… I was lying on top of our janitor, who we all called "Uncle Gil," and I couldn’t move. I was pinned between him and this beam, and he was lying on top of bricks. He attempted to calm me down and said that when he could move some bricks from under himself it would free me from the beam. And that’s just what he did.

Uncle Gil was bald-headed and had a laceration on his scalp. I was covered with blood but as it turned out, it was all from his wound since I did not have even a scratch on me…

Then I went on out to where we lived, the first house on the first street in the extreme southwest corner of town, and oh, of course there wasn’t a house standing anywhere.




West Frankfort:

[Eighteen and Parrish: Use map, general events narration; roughly 20 dead in Eighteen, 22 dead in Parrish]


Rural Hamilton and White Counties, Illinois:


Griffin, Indiana


Owensville, Indiana area


Princeton, Indiana

Baldwin Heights felt the full force of the tornado. Houses were either leveled or wrecked. The first rescue squads which first entered the houses found whole families, injured, lying about on the floor, many of them unconscious.

The new Heinz greenhouse was flattened on its foundations. Near it stood a harnessed horse, bruised and bleeding, awaiting its master. Aimlessly it wandered behind rescuers up the hill. Hours later in the night it was seen standing on the left side of a wrecked house, seeking shelter from a biting wind. Another homeless animal had joined it…

(from, including the two pictures of damage at Princeton)

A woman commented:

I now live in a rebuilt house in Princeton Indiana where the path of the tornado did severe damage. While living in the current lot, if we dig down about a foot we run into all kinds of debris where they brought in fill dirt to level out the ground to start building new homes on top of the rubble. We find broken glass, twisted metal, old bottles. My family has heard stories of the tornado from people who lived in the neighborhood and lived through the experience for the past 20 years. It is very sad to hear them talk about their personal life in the weeks/months that followed. It was very hard for all.

Let’s stop and remember what thousands of residents of Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana endured on March 18, 1925, eighty-five years ago today.

Thank you.