Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Great Cyclone of 1896

Sometimes the news of the times in which our ancestors lived can be fascinating. On 27 May 1896 a series of severe thunderstorms and tornadoes struck the central Midwest. The "cyclone" that hit St Louis and East St Louis was a historic tornado that is still considered the third deadliest and most costly tornado to strike the U.S.

Electric train car blown off a bridge in East St Louis

The tornado spawned from a supercell; it touched down in St Louis first and then crossed the river into East St Louis. At least 255 people were killed in the two cities that afternoon, including 35 at the Vandalia railroad freight yards. Many more may have been killed as several steam ships were destroyed in the Mississippi river and bodies were never recovered.

Many of my ancestors lived in nearby Madison County as well as in St Clair County and East St Louis at the time the great cyclone hit. According to The Great Cyclone at St. Louis and East St. Louis by Julian Curzon published in 1896, "Nearly half of East St Louis was wrecked. The damage was done in a few minutes' time, and how anyone in the path of the cyclone escaped is a mystery to all who passed over the devastated section."

Courthouse in East St Louis

"A law case was being tried in the court house. When the storm clouds began to gather, the foreman of the jury implored the judge to discharge them. The court house at the time was being shaken by the wind. Five minutes after the jury departed for their homes, the courthouse was destroyed by the tornado."

Eads bridge (view from East St Louis)

"The scene from the Eads bridge resembled a battlefield. The dead and dying were removed from the ruins by willing workers, and the burning mills and warehouses lighted their funeral pyres with a distinctness that added horror to the awful scene." Rescuers and clean-up crews found a 2x10 wooden plank driven through a wrought iron plate.

Grain elevator on the Mississippi river levee in East St Louis

"The wind struck the levee just north of the East St Louis elevator about 5:30 p.m. The wharf at Wiggins Ferry was the first to suffer, and it was thrown far up on the levee."

National Hotel in East St Louis

"At the hotels panic prevailed. Women ran from one room to another, and along the corridors, screaming and seeking protection. Men who had faced almost every peril were powerless to comfort them. One glance from the window told them that the storm was one of greater force than any they had gone through or even contemplated. The strongest of them trembled and there were none who pretended they had a reasonable hope of escaping alive."

Martell bridge in East St Louis

"When the dawn came it was possible to see the devastation wrought by the storm in East St Louis. The sky was clear, and the beauty of the morning strkingly contrasted with the scene of desolation that was disclosed. On the river bank, from Kehlor's mill on the south to the elevators on the north, not a house was standing. These huge structures and the cold storage company's plant were badly damaged. The river bank was was lined with the wrecks of boats.

With the river banks as the base, the entire triangle formed by what is called the Island, there is not a whole house standing. Even the Relay Depot had its corners broken and two huge roundhouses were shaved off below the tops of the middle of the locomotives which stood within them."

The newspaper in nearby Troy, Illinois, where many of my ancestors lived, carried a story about the tornado the next day:

Weekly Call, 28 May 1896


  1. Wow! How scary this must have been! Those pictures show such devastation.

  2. In the 1970s,I met the grandson of Mr. Eads for which the bridge in St Louis is named. He told me that the "cyclone" or tornado had picked up a 2 x 8 or 2 x 10 wood plank and driven it through the iron plate on a beam on the Eads Bridge. Because of my research for tornado design of nuclear power plants, I traced down a photo of that wood plank punched through the iron beam. The photo is in my research documents in storage.

    1. John, how fascinating you were able to find the photograph. If you ever get it out of storage I would love to see it.