I am a Tombstone Tourist: someone who loves to wander cemeteries. I find it akin to visiting a museum: an opportunity to enjoy rarely seen sculpture, intricate carvings, and amazing architecture, all in a tranquil outdoor setting. This blog is about cemetery culture, art, history, issues of death, and genealogy - subjects of current relevance. I usually find something that intrigues me and makes me want to dig deeper. Care to join me? Read on...
It was a balmy March
afternoon in Reynolds County, Missouri; one of those days when a farmer keeps
his eye on the sky because, well, you never know just what Mother Nature will
throw at you. After a satisfying dinner of fried chicken - his favorite - the farmer walked back to the field considering just how long it would
take to finish planting. As he surveyed the land, he had his back to the
west so he never noticed the odd spectacle in the distance – a rolling cloud of
what looked like fog coming right toward him. It passed in a matter of seconds,
taking it with it countless seeds, the fresh turned soil … and the farmer’s
life. Thus was the beginning of the Tri-State Tornado – the deadliest tornado
in American history – on March 18, 1925.
No warnings had been
issued, no sirens had been sounded, and not only because no one knew just how
deadly this storm would become. The US Army Signal Corps was in charge of
keeping track of the weather, which they did with reasonable accuracy for most situations,
except tornadoes. Back in 1887, the term “tornado” was banned from use in
weather forecasting. Officials said that since tornadoes were so unpredictable,
there was really no way to predict which way they’d go. They decided it best not
to mention them at all that way the public wouldn’t become panicked when one
was spotted. Radio was in its infancy, and television didn’t exist, so any
attempt to warn people would have been left up to local churches and their
tolling bells. But even that measure was not put into use.
Survivors of the
funnel reported that it appeared on the horizon, looking like a rolling cloud
of dust and dirt – the funnel obscured by debris.The tornado ranged from ¾ to 3 miles wide.
Winds averaged between 60 and 70 mph with 300 mph wind shears, blinding rain,
hail and strong thunderstorms. A 234-mile path was ravaged out of the Tri-State area by this single continuous
tornado as it cut from Missouri through southern Illinois to Pike
County Indiana that afternoon. This would be known as the single deadliest,
largest, and fastest tornado in US history. It’s record still stands.
(In 2013, researchers categorized it as an F5.)
hit: Reynolds - Iron – Madison – Bollinger - Cape Girardeau – Perry
The tornado was building speed as it spun across southeastern Missouri that Wednesday afternoon. When it struck Annapolis in Bollinger County, it nearly leveled the town with two
schools were heavily damaged. Eleven people were killed in Missouri.
Counties hit: Jackson
– Williamson – Franklin – Hamilton – White
The deadly tornado
crossed the Mississippi River into Illinois around 2:30pm gathering strength and sending out satellite tornadoes along the way. The town
of Gorham was destroyed and 34 people were killed. More than 100 square blocks
in Murphysboro Illinois were flattened, and another 70 blocks were destroyed by
fire after the tornado passed. The death toll hit 234 people including 26
children who were still in school when the building was demolished around them. Murphysboro still has the
highest single city death toll, due to a tornado, in US history.
Near the town of
Desoto, 69 people died; 33 were students at a school. The town was so
grief-stricken, all were buried in one mass grave.
The Town of West Frankfort, Illinois
The town of West
Frankfort was known for mining and at that time of day, most of the men were
working underground. No one knew anything had happened 500 feet above ground
until the electricity went out. When the miners surfaced, they discovered 148
dead, mostly women and children; another 400 sustained injuries.
The tornado then
ripped through the town of Parrish taking 22
lives. Illinois was the state hardest hit with a death toll of 619 residents.
Counties hit: Posey
– Gibson – Pike
The twister crossed the
Wabash River into southern Indiana where the town of Griffin was demolished. Twenty-six
were killed in the tiny burg. The tornado then curved a bit to the north and
headed toward Princeton, destroying 85% of the farms along the way. The
southern end of Princeton was destroyed while the northern side was untouched.
Forty-five people were killed in minutes. The tornado finally began loosing strength and dissipated
around 4:30pm about 2 ½ miles south of Petersburg in Pike County. The tornado had taken 76 Hoosier lives.
When the dust had
settled on that day, the twister had killed 695 people; 613 in Illinois. More
than 2,000 sustained injuries, again the majority in southern Illinois. The
tornado was on the ground for 3 ½ hours and destroyed more than 15,000 homes
and nine schools – taking the lives of 72 students. The Tri-State Tornado was
part of a large tornado outbreak that day that also included the states of
Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama and Kansas. Another 747 people were killed in
those storms, making March 18 the deadliest day in tornado history, and 1925 the
deadliest year for tornadoes in the US.
Stroll through some of the
local cemeteries in these hard-hit towns and you will find lasting tributes and
reminders of a March tornado that changed the residents lives forever.