St Louis tornado blew 80 miles an hour (1896)

It blew eighty miles an hour

Fires start while houses are falling before the fury of the gale

St Louis, May 27 [1896] – St Louis was struck by a terrible wind storm at a late hour this afternoon. Hundreds of people were killed, and the property loss is as yet beyond estimate.

At 5:20 pm, the clouds that had covered the city since noon broke into a furioud storm. Within ten minutes the wind reached a velocity of eighty miles an hour, sweeping with it dense waves of rain.

The highest speed of wind previously recorded here was seventy-two miles an hour, in August 1878. The howling of the wind through the electric wires, the crash of debris in every direction, the electric flashes from tangled wires, and the crashing thunder made a scene that is indescribable.

The loss of life is appalling. At 7 pm, the lowest estimate of fatalities in East St Louis and this city is placed at 300. East St Louis suffered probably more than St Louis. Messengers came at 7 pm from there, asking for physicians and nurses.

Steamers hit and other major damage

The steamer D H Pike, with thirty passengers on board, bound for Peoria, was blown bottom side up in the middle of the river and a number of persons were killed. The steamer Delaphin, with a crew of six and twenty lady passengers on board, was blown against a bridge pier and broken in two. The ladies and two of the crew clung to the bridge stonework, and were rescued. The steamer Libbie Conger, with only Capt. Seaman, his wife, and three of the crew aboard, went adrift. The wreck of a boat opposite Carondelet is supposed to be the steamer Conger.

Ottened’s furniture store, at Broadway and Soulard, was demolished and six men are reported killed. A saloon at 504 South Seventh street fell with nine men in the ruins.

St Patrick’s Church, at Sixth and Biddle streets, fell, and the debris fills the streets. The electric railway line is burned out, as well as electric plant.

>> Also see: Two tornadoes meet in St Louis – 100s killed

Fourteen fire alarms were sounded within an hour, and three alarms were sent in from the poorhouse, which building has 1,200 inmates. The roof of the poorhouse was blown off and the fatalities are great. During the last race at the Fair Grounds, the roof was blown off the grandstand. The crowd had gone to the open field for safety, and only four men were killed. The armory at Seventeenth and Pine streets is being used as a hospital.

At 7:30 pm, the rain, which had ceased for a time, began afresh, and fell in torrents. At 8 o’clock, the eastern sky was aflame with the light of fires in East St Louis. The metal roof of the Merchants’ Exchange was rolled up like a scroll and fell into the streets.

The Louisville and Nashville east-bound local passenger train had just reached East St Louis when the storm struck that city. The train was overturned, but miraculously only a few passengers were injured. They were taken from the cars by railroad yardmen.

The Chicago and Alton east-bound local passenger train which left St Louis at 5 o’clock was on the east span of the bridge, when the wind picked the cars up and turned them over on their sides. The iron spans and trusses held the cars from toppling into the river, 100 feet below.

The passengers were thrown into a confused mass. The network of wires made rescue difficult and dangerous, but it is thought all will be got out uninjured. The east span of the east bridge is so badly wrecked that it will take three days to allow trains to pass.

The reports of fatalities in East St Louis is hourly increasing, and at 9 o’clock it is estimated that the loss of life will exceed 150. It is impossible to cross the bridge or river to get particulars.

Lightning struck the Standard Oil Works and flames were soon pouring from a dozen buildings. The East St Louis Fire Department was utterly powerless to cope with the fires, and it is feared that nearly the entire business and a great portion of the residence section will be destroyed by flames, if not already ruined by the wind.

Among the principal buildings already in ruins are the National Hotel, the Standard Oil Works, East St Louis Wire Nail Works, the Crescent Elevator, Hesel Elevator, all freight depots, and stores and residences on St. Clair avenue. At 9 o’clock tonight, no wire can be obtained to surrounding territory in the western and northern portion of Missouri, but it is feared that the loss of life in those sections will be very large.

The damage to property in St Louis is estimated at $1,000,000, and the loss in East St Louis is already $2,000,000, and the fire is still raging.

Two tornadoes

There were really two tornadoes. One came from the northwest and the other from the direct east. Both met on the Illinois shore of the Mississippi River and joined in a whirling cloud of death and destruction. The list of dead in St Louis is beyond present comprehension.

A startling report has just reached Police Headquarters that 200 girls are in the ruins of Liggit & Meyer’s cigarette factory at Tower Grove Park. There are alarming reports of great loss of life in southern portion of St Louis from all railroad tracks to Carondelet.

The wind swept away the roof of the Exposition building and that structure is badly damaged by the flood of water. The greatest anxiety is felt for the safety of passengers on the different excursion boats which were on the river when the storm broke. The steamer City of Florence with an excursion party is reported lost below Carondolet. The steamer St Paul, with thirty passengers, left for Alton at 4 o’clock and is believed to be wrecked. The levee is packed with people groping through the darkness, and eagerly imploring information from loved ones on the river.

The destruction to property in this city will not be learned until daylight. The Annunciation Church at Sixth and Lasalle streets was totally destroyed. Father Read, the pastor, was fatally injured. Michael Dawes, a driver, was blown from his wagon in the vicinity and instantly killed.

The middle span of the roadway above the railroad tracks on the the Eads Bridge was blown completely away. It is not known whether any persons lost their lives while crossing the bridge.

The Plant flour mills and the works of the St Louis Iron and Steel Company were destroyed, and the big Cupples block of buildings was partly demolished. The dead and injured are being taken from the ruins of the various buildings and manufacturers. The Waters-Pierce oil works were destroyed by fire, and buildings in several parts of the city have been burning all night.

H C Rice, the manager of the Western Union, at the relay depot on the east side, reports a wreck of terrible proportions. He said the National Hotel, Tremont House, Martell House, De Wolfe’s cafe, Hazel Milling Company’s mill, Horn’s cooper shop, and a large number of dwellings west of that section were swept into wreckage. The Baltimore and Ohio and Vandalla roundhouse, the Standard Oil Works, East St Louis and Crescent elevators, and a dozen freight houses were caught in the vortex of the cyclone and reduced to debris.

It is reported that the Grand Republic and several other excursion steamers, with all the passengers and crews, have gone down.


First photo: Cyclone/tornado damage to St Louis. Second photo: Wreck of the Chicago & Alton’s train No. 7, on the East St Louis approach — courtesy University Archives, Southern Illinois University. Third photo: Steamboat Arkansas City, beached and destroyed.

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