Historic Tornado Series: The Tri State Tornado of 1925

The Tri State Tornado touched down at 1:01 p.m. in Ellington, Missouri and cut a path of destruction 219 miles long. The storm was so large that it was not recognized by townspeople and farmers until its arrival was imminent. In the past, meteorologists have speculated that the Tri State was a family of several cyclones. Recent findings suggest that the Tri State was indeed, just one deadly storm moving in a continuous path through three states. Although the official distance is accepted to be 219 miles, there is some evidence that the initial touchdown may have occurred sooner and adds 15 miles to that distance. The storm took 695 lives and destroyed over 15,000 homes in just under 3.5 hours. Thousands were left homeless and had no food or potable water. The region was hurt badly and struggled for many years. Small towns and villages struggled to rebuild their local economies.

The Tri-State Tornado

Accurately predicting the weather in 1925 was difficult; in fact, forecasters were not even permitted to use the word tornado in public for fear of instilling widespread panic. The U.S. Weather Bureau, which was later renamed the National Weather Service banned the use of the word in 1887. The thinking of the time was that tornadoes were inconsistent and forecasting them was not possible. Meteorologists were discouraged from studying the capricious and deadly cloud formations and were forbidden to acknowledge their existence.

Since this disaster occurred prior to the discovery of the jet stream, researchers can only assume that the jet stream duplicated the path of the storm front that day. Meteorologists had made note of a cool, low-pressure front starting as far north as Canada, sweeping through Wyoming and all the way to northern Texas before looping back toward Missouri. This curving action was exacerbated by a warm front blowing in from the Gulf of Mexico, supplying the formation with the heat needed to lift it off the ground. This has been referred to as the "lifting mechanism." The combined storm system was generated into a very large funnel. Extremely vicious downdrafts accompanied the twister, making the course of damage up to three miles wide.

After causing massive property damage and taking two lives, the storm continued on to Annapolis, nearly destroying it. In Bollinger County, two schools were hit, and 32 children were harmed. Several small towns were struck, wreaking great destruction. The deadly storm claimed 11 lives in Missouri, all together. The twister reached speeds of up to 73 miles per hour at times, and the average speed was reported to be 62 miles per hour.

 

Tri State Tornado

 

Crossing the Mississippi river and blowing its way into Illinois, the boiling clouds and chunks of hail leveled the town of Gorham and claimed 34 lives. The storm then headed for Murphysboro, taking 234 people and setting the record for the most killed in any one city. Miners in West Frankfurt, Illinois, were driven to the surface, ending their workday early due to a power outage. When they climbed out of the 500-ft. mine shaft, they found their town destroyed. Most of the 127 victims were the wives and children of the miners. Perhaps the most heart-breaking loss is the school that was destroyed in De Soto, killing 33 children. By the time the storm crossed the Wabash River into Indiana, 613 people were dead in the state of Illinois.

Tri State Tornado plaque.

In Murphysboro, children were trying to get out of the Longfellow Grade School when it collapsed, trapping over 200 students in the building. Eye witness accounts report survivors rushing to the school to try to free children from the rubble, in many instances tearing their hands to bone in their efforts. Eleven students from the school died. Many others were put aboard an emergency train bound for St. Louis. At another school in Murphysboro, a child was pulled alive from the debris two days after the storm. The devastation of the town was so great that it was not fully rebuilt until World War ll.

Tri State Tornado damage.

In Indiana, the system roared into the town of Griffin, almost completely destroying it. Rural communities were ruined by the devastating force of the cloud. The last stop on the grim tour of duty was Princeton. After flattening half the town the great storm ended. 71 lives were lost in Indiana. At one point before reaching Princeton, the storm split up into three distinct spirals and then merged together again after 12 miles.

Tri State Tornado

Although it is hard to find anything positive about the Tri State, it did help increase awareness about tornadoes. After the national disaster caused such a loss of property and life, local groups of storm-spotters were formed and helped save a significant number of lives with a rudimentary early warning system. Modern forecasting came into being in 1948, when Tinker Air Force Base, in Oklahoma City was struck by a twister. Two meteorologists, Capt. Robert Miller and Maj. Ernest Fawbush were ordered by Gen. Fred Borum to explore the possibility of forecasting tornadoes. The only research the pair had to go on were the notes of Lt. John Park Finely from the 1880's. Five days later the meteorologists informed the general that the conditions were similar to those when the storm on March 20, 1948 had struck the base. Initially, the meteorologists did not plan to issue a forecast because they believed that there was a very small possibility that such a storm could strike the same place in five days. There was no precedent for an operational tornado forecast. At the behest of Gen. Borum, the first forecast of its type was issued. On March 25, 1948, a second twister hit Tinker Air Force Base. Because of the forecast, safety measures were taken. A great deal of damage was prevented due to the first forecast of that type. The most notable factors contributing to the damage and loss of life were the lack of a forecast and an absence of warning that a serious storm was coming.