See 20 pictures of the devastation caused by the deadly St Louis tornado in 1896

Devastation from deadly tornadoes St Louis 1896 (7)

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The tornado that hit St Louis, Missouri — and its sister city in Illinois, East St Louis — on May 27, 1896, is considered one of the deadliest on record.

Though one of these news stories reports 300 dead, the confirmed number later turned out to be a little lower: 255 lives lost.

Still, that ranks the F4 tornado of 1896 among the top 3 deadliest in US history… so far.

Devastation from deadly tornadoes St Louis 1896 (18)

Hundreds killed: Two tornadoes meet at St Louis with awful results

Fire follows the crash

The loss of life is probably 300 and may be more – East St Louis hit also

A report that 200 girls are in the ruins of one building

St Louis, May 27 [1896] – Death and destruction mark the pathway of a tornado which passed over this city shortly after 5 o’clock this afternoon.

The list of the dead in St Louis cannot be estimated until the alarming reports of loss of life in collapsed buildings can be confirmed. At least forty lifeless bodies have been found up to 10 o’clock.

If the reports are true that 200 girls are in the ruins of a cigarette factory, and that many were killed in East St Louis, the list will reach nearly 300.

Devastation from deadly tornadoes St Louis 1896 (6)

The city is in a state of panic. Nearly all electric wires are down and the city is in darkness.

To add to the confusion, the tornado was followed by a deluge of rain, accompanied by vivid flashes of lightning, which still continue.

Telephone wires are useless, and livery men refuse requests for conveyances on account of prostrate electric wires.

The scene in East St Louis is appalling. The tornado struck that city with terrible effect, and it is now estimated that 300 persons are dead in that place alone as a result of the wind, flood, and flames.

The tornado was followed by an outbreak of fire, caused by lightning, and before the flames were got under control, property to the value of nearly $3,000,000 was destroyed.

The tornado passed in an easterly direction and it is reported that Vandalia and Caseyville, in Illinois, suffered severely. One report says that the railroad depot in Vandalia was blown away, and thirty people were killed.

Devastation from deadly tornadoes St Louis 1896 (5)

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 furious 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.

Devastation from deadly tornadoes St Louis 1896 (20)

St Louis tornado: Steamers hit and other major damage (1896)

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 the electric plant.

Devastation from deadly tornadoes St Louis 1896 (16)

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.

Devastation from deadly tornadoes St Louis 1896 (15)

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.

Devastation from deadly tornadoes St Louis 1896 (12)

St Louis tornado… actually, 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.

Devastation from deadly tornadoes St Louis 1896 (9)

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.

Devastation from deadly tornadoes St Louis 1896 (8)

Devastation from deadly tornadoes St Louis 1896 (13)

St Louis tornado: The destruction, death & devastation

We shall never know the full extent of the suffering caused by the tornado which devastated a section of St. Louis, Missouri, and a still larger portion of East St. Louis, Illinois, on the afternoon of Wednesday, May 27, 1896.

It is known that more than three hundred people were killed and more than a thousand injured. It is known that a great portion of the city of East St. Louis was razed to the ground, and that South of and along the Mill Creek Valley in St. Louis, the cyclone cut for itself a wide path through block after block of residential property.

But it is difficult to even approximate the property loss and an accurate statement will never be made. The first estimates placed the total at $50,000,000. These figures have since been scaled down, but the total remains appalling.

No estimate of loss can include the individual suffering, or the deprivation endured in silence by those, who too proud to ask relief, sought Buch shelter as was available and formed secret and praiseworthy resolutions to begin life over again.

Devastation from deadly tornadoes St Louis 1896 (10)

One St. Louis citizen who was away from home at the time of the accident, stated on his return that but for the information imparted in the press, he never would have believed that the ruin could have been wrought except by the cannonade of an immense army, equipped with modern artillery.

St. Louis is situated in the Mississippi Valley, on the west bank of the Father of Waters. A quarter of a century ago, a cyclone blew through the neighborhood, causing great destruction in East St. Louis, but comparatively little on the Missou shore. Since then there had been two or three trifling earthquake shocks. None of these had been sufficient to do ai damage, nor had the thunder and wind storms which visit the city from time to time, wrought serious damage or cause general inconvenience.

The fatal day dawned with no exceptional occurrence. There was no friendly warning — there was no cry of “Flee from the wrath to come.” True, a cyclone had been unofficially predicted for the closing days of May, but the warning was not regarded, nor did those who were aware of it, dream that St. Louis itself would be smitten. Business was conducted as usual, nor was there anything in the condition of the weather early in the day to warrant any exceptional fear, or even thought.

The weather bureau predicted local thunderstorms, but said nothing of a cyclone, a tornado, or even an exceptional wind.

eadly St Louis tornado in 1896

The sun shone as usual, but was frequently obstructed by clouds which towards noon became more numerous and threatening in appearance. The barometer began to fall with a steady persistency which alarmed those who have made a study of weather conditions, and who have learned what to expect from peculiar atmospheric conditions.

No one could tell the main direction of the wind, which seemed to come during the early afternoon in fits and starts from all points of the compass, veering around with sudden jerks.

Towards three o’clock, it became more settled from the Northwest with a number of sub-currents from different directions, which brought in masses of clouds. Gradually darkness seemed to approach, and although the officials in the Weather Bureau Observatory do not seem even at this late period of the day to have anticipated a calamity, many people began to fear the worst.

In one office building in particular, the word was passed around that a cyclone was heading towards the city with lightning rapidity, and that unless it was deflected from its course, a terrible calamity might be looked for.

Some received the warning as a jest, but others hurried to their homes — and in some cases to their death. The office buildings of the city withstood the shock in a manner which redounds to the credit of their designers and constructors, although of course, the full brunt of the storm did not strike them. It was the residence houses which for the most part were destroyed, and these were the most insecure places in which imaginary refuge could be sought.

Devastation from deadly tornadoes St Louis 1896 (17)

The approaching St Louis tornado in 1896

At 4:30, it became obvious that the atmospheric conditions were unprecedented in the recollection of the people. The temperature fell rapidly and huge banks of black and greenish clouds were seen approaching the city. It gradually became darker and at 5 o’clock it was as dark in many parts of the city as is usually the case at the end of May, three hours later in the evening.

All the time the wind kept rising, and in the far distance, vivid forks of lightning could be seen. Gradually the thunderstorm came nearer the city and the western portion was soon in the midst of a terrible storm. The wind’s velocity was about thirty-seven miles an hour. This speedily increased to sixty, seventy and even eighty miles, by the time the storm was at its height.

For thirteen minutes, this frightful speed was maintained, and the rain fell in ceaseless torrents, far into the sad and never-to-be-forgotten night.

Deadly St Louis tornado in 1896

The cyclone’s fatal path

The path of the storm through the city was about seven miles long. It was not a direct path, leading straight from the point at which it effected entrance to where it left. It made a path like a snake striving to gain a place of known refuge from a pursuing enemy.

Now and then, it diverged from the Mill Creek Valley on one side or the other, but only to return at some vulnerable point with renewed energy. It seemed to move at a height above the ground that sheltered the low places in its path until after it passed the City Hospital.

Then it came closer to the earth, and the damage wrought from Twelfth street to the river shows that it rushed directly down the incline to the Levee.

Devastation from deadly tornadoes St Louis 1896 (4)

Devastation from deadly tornadoes St Louis 1896 (14)

Where it first entered the city, out near the Poorhouse, on Arsenal Street, the force of the storm was exerted against trees and scattered buildings. The first indication of the real force of the wind was made apparent at Jefferson and Geyer avenues, where the big powerhouse of the Union Depot street railway system, one of the largest electric plants in the world, was razed, damage to be measured only by the hundred thousand dollars, being wrought.

A block further north, the destruction was, if possible, even more emphatically manifested in the wrecking of the Union Club building, and the almost total demolition of dozens of buildings in the immediate vicinity.

The force generated at this corner was not lost while the storm continued on its way east until after it left Lafayette Park, and there was no extraordinary manifestation until it reached the ill-fated corner of Seventh and Rutger streets. Here it spent the full vent of some of its reserve fury, and then moved on to Soulard Market, which formed another center of destruction, wider and longer than either of the others.

Devastation from deadly tornadoes St Louis 1896 (19)

Nearly half of East St. Louis was wrecked. More than 100 people were killed and more than two million dollars of damage wrought on the east bank of the river. The damage was done in a few minutes’ time, and how any person in the path of the cyclone escaped is a mystery to all who passed over the devastated section.

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

Eye-witnesses on the island graphically describe the approach of the destructive storm. Two of these men passed through the big cyclone of March 8, 1871, just twenty-five years ago, and they say the appearance of the clouds, the sky, etc. , was similar to that of the former big wind.

It struck the shore at exactly the same spot and passed up to town in the same way, never deviating more than fifty feet in either direction from start to finish. The cloud resembled an inverted funnel, and appeared to have the well-known and visually recognized rotary motion.

eadly St Louis tornado in 1896

The barbers in the Wainwright building saw the storm from start to finish, and they tell a most remarkable story about it.

They say it was not a funnel-shaped cloud such as is commonly pictured as being the shape of a tornado. Each solemnly swears it was a horizontal black cloud that moved through the city with a twisting motion like a screw, faster than any railroad train that ever ran.

Preceding the black cloud was a dense yellow cloud that looked as though its interior was a mass of flames. From out of this cloud shot long firey arms in every direction, and wherever one of these arms struck something went to pieces.

eadly St Louis tornado in 1896


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