The 1925 Tri-State Tornado was an anomaly amongst tornados, in both fury and lifespan. When it was done rampaging across three states, around 700 people were dead or dying. Entire towns were obliterated.
A tornado is a unique kind of horror, with the ability to conjure up apocalyptic and downright bizarre scenes. Your house might be flattened, whilst your neighbor’s is untouched. The person you’re sitting next to might die, and you live.
From the time you realize a tornado is going to hit, you’re living with the absolute certainty that every second might be your last. When the outer bands reach you, you’re in almost complete darkness and your house is being soaked in torrential rain and hammered with debris. And when it strikes with a deafening roar, there’s nothing to do but hold on and wait, and hope you come out alive.
The Tri-State Tornado of 1925 was between a mile and a mile and half across, moving at 65 miles an hour. That’s a minute of pure blind terror and if you lived, you’d be waking up to a whole new world, your old world swept away.
It passed within a mile of the house where I’ve lived most of my life. I’d heard people talk about the big one but didn’t realize how big it was, even though the scars were all around me.
So I set out to find those scars along the tornado’s path, through the last stretch of its trek before it left Illinois to spread more misery in Indiana.
Tornados are mythical beasts, and yet very real. The Tri-State Tornado of 1925 was the most monstrous of them all.
The Big One
The official name for the tornado that cut across Missouri, Illinois and Indiana on March 18, 1925 is the Tri-State Tornado. But most people who were alive then just called it the big one.
That title isn’t likely to be challenged any time soon, as it was the most deadly and devastating tornado in American history, and the second most deadly in the world.
What makes that record particularly terrifying is that it tore through small towns and countryside, not large cities.
I’d heard older people talk about it when I was a kid, how it affected their little part of the world. What happened to them that day, to their neighbors.
Their little part of the world got torn apart. The tornado spared the towns in our area, instead cutting a swath through the network of country neighborhoods, which were anchored at churches and schools. Everybody in that part of the country knew someone – was likely close to someone – who was lost in the storm.
I’d heard about the tornado since I was a little kid. My great grandma, Mee Maw, told my Granny Bert that she and Aunt Nellie could hear it from their house. They knew what it was from the roar, and all I remembered of the story was it sounded pretty bad. The story was always finished with “it could have been a lot worse.”
It was a lot worse. In Murphysboro, DeSoto, West Frankfort and many other places along the tornado’s path where it didn’t miss the towns. But that misses the point. A tragedy like that distorts our sense of scale. There were as many people killed in a single building elsewhere during the tornado as there was in my entire county.
But those are statistics. When deaths start numbering in the hundreds, it’s too easy to stop seeing the individuals. That doesn’t make the pain any less for those here who were affected. Death tears at us one on one, with a single death carrying infinitely more of a sting than a hundred, when it’s someone you love.
Those people killed in the country were links in a chain that connected families into communities. When those links were broken, too many could never be fixed.
The last time I heard people talking about the 1925 Tri-State Tornado was just a few years ago. It was a stormy night, my accomplice, Todd Lane was here. He had just arrived, and we were on the porch, watching the wind blow, and the lightning light up the sky, which was a wall of clouds.
The tornado siren went off, which means there’s a tornado that’s been spotted in the area and it might be heading our way.
Todd Lane said he’d never been in a tornado, but he wasn’t worried. I said I had, and I was. Hence the standing on the porch. I get that from my dad. Like me, he preferred to stand outside and watch what was coming. If it got bad enough, there’s watching from the front door, three seconds from the basement.
Todd Lane asked “what does a tornado sound like?”
I thought about it and started to answer with “it sounds like a train,” when I realized, in the near distance I heard a roar, which sounded a lot like a train.
“Actually, it sounds like that,” I said. People hear that it sounds like a train and think of the whistle. But it’s the grinding of the steel wheels on steel tracks, the increasing rumbling and roar of the engine that can shake a house that sounds like a tornado. I’m a couple blocks from the train tracks here, but you can hear its vibrations when it’s miles away, long after the conductor has stopped hitting the whistle.
I turned to look and he was gone. I turned back to the sky and a second later he’s standing there, wearing his coat, with his bag and drink, putting his shoes on … “should we go to the basement?”
We didn’t and the roar died down. This time it actually was a tornado, about a mile from here. It killed an acquaintance of mine just a few miles away, before dying off over towards Griffin, Indiana.
Later, people said it followed the same path the big one had, back on 1925. Which unfortunately for people living in the midwest, isn’t all that rare. Tornados are the most extreme weather phenomenon of the midwest, and are fairly common. And most people who live here have a story.
Some people are tornado magnets
History shows again and again
How nature puts up with the folly of man.
We tend to think of nature as a benevolent force, Mother Nature and all that rot. But the truth is, nature, like humans, kills. Certain animals will kill for territory, or stop the advances of a prospective mate, just as humans do.
Nature will kill on an elemental level as well. Earth, Air, Water and Fire all wield their own horrors. The difference between an animal or a human, and an elemental force, is that elemental forces kill indiscriminately.
In insurance terms, these are called Acts of God. As a kid, I saw them as the work of Godzilla.
It was only in writing this piece that I came to understand a peculiar behavior of mine. When I’m in an open landscape, every so often I feel the need to figure out how I’m going to escape from Godzilla if he appeared on the horizon.
I’ve done this since I was a kid, There used to be a water tower visible from my house. At times I’d catch it hovering on the horizon, and saw the great beast rise behind it. And I’d start plotting my escape.
Yes, I saw a lot of creature feature films as a kid. But I’ve learned since then they only gave shape to an elemental force I stared into as a child.
My first experience with a tornado was when I was eight years old. We were on the way home and had no idea it was coming. As we approached the railroad tracks, three blocks from home, the sirens went off, and Dad pulled over on a side street as you couldn’t see anything except rain and bits of wood flying by. He told us to crack a window and get in the floorboard.
The siren was only a block away but a few seconds into its blast you couldn’t hear it above the storm.
By then, the roar was deafening and I can remember laying in the floor of the car, looking up, rather than down, watching the chaos that swirled around us. You could actually see the wind, as it was spraying rain along with debris.
Don’t forget that a tornado is a cloud. I’ve walked through clouds before. It looks like a mist, till you notice the droplets of water aren’t rising or falling, but swirling. I’ve been on the outside of a tornado looking in, and your visibility is almost zero. For the unlucky, death lies inside a cloud.
We tend to think of tornados viewed from a distance, crossing the horizon. It’s how you see them in photos and videos. It takes up part of the vista. But from the point of view of someone about to get hit, it’s towering over you, filling your entire field of vision, like Godzilla with its foot raised and about to come down.
The foot came down and the car shook with increasing violence. I felt it start to lift, then sat back down. The roar began to quiet and I still have a vague memory of looking out and seeing it tearing down the street towards the water tower, away from us. It was like watching the ass of god walk away with a swagger.
It was surreal and blew my young mind.
When the foot came down it missed us but hit a mobile home less than a hundred yards away, smashed it and killed the occupant. There was a chunk of wood in the back seat, more than twice as thick as the crack I’d left in the window.
The damage around us looked like the mythical beast had just stormed through the neighborhood. The only thing missing was the fire from its breath.
During the Tri-State Tornado of 1925, the fire added a particularly deadly element in Murphysboro and elsewhere.
My next encounter found us fishing from a boat on the Little Wabash river, near Carmi when a storm came up. By the time we got the boat ashore, dad saw it was a tornado.
I’ll always question his judgment as he led us into the woods, like hiding might help. Mind you, I don’t blame him, because in a moment like that you feel like you’re in a Godzilla film, wearing clothes the colors of a Yellow Cab. An easy target.
We huddled under a tree. Lightning struck the tree and split it in two, showering us in timber. If the lightening hadn’t got it, the wind probably would have. Mom prayed. A minute later it was over.
We sheltered from another tornado in the storm cellar of Crow Barnes Resort in Bull Shoals, Arkansas, and it was quite like a cocktail party.
During another, I watched wooden power poles bend like trees. But because it was so close, I couldn’t see a funnel and didn’t realize what it was.
Till a chunk of the grandstand roof from the fairgrounds went whizzing down the street.
There were a few more close calls, nothing serious. When I lived on Long Island, I was at work one day, looking out the window at the trees. There was a storm about to hit, and I just knew, from the wind and the color there was a tornado coming. I told my boss, but she told me there are no tornados on Long Island.
The tornado crossed just a few blocks away from us, broke a few trees for good measure and went back up into the clouds.
The last one I was in was at night, just a few years ago. I was laying on a bench in the garden, somewhat inebriated and watching the clouds. The sirens had gone off but it was still oddly quiet, except for the roar of the wind.
I saw the clouds were rotating. It reminded me of something I saw courtesy of LSD once, what I interpreted then to be the vortex of the cosmos. But I wasn’t that inebriated now, and when I started hearing trees breaking not far from here, I realized two things at once. The first was that vortex of the cosmos was likely just a memory of staring into the center of a tornado as a child as it passed over our car. The second was I’d just been staring up into the center of another.
What little I know about tornados and the Tri-State Tornado of 1925
When people start talking about tornados I tend to tune them out. It’s strange. I know all I want to know. I can tell you quite a bit about shark attacks, though I’ve never known a person bitten by one. But I know people killed in tornados. I know details of the guillotine, torture devices of the middle ages and of the inquisition. I could give you the directions for amputating a limb in the Civil War. But I’ve never researched tornados.
Those have always felt too close to me.
I knew that the tornado that hit Xenia, Ohio in 1974 was more than a half mile wide. I remembered from the news at the time. It was one of the nasty ones, an F5 which is as high as the scale goes. With winds over 250 miles an hour.
But it was only on the ground for 16 minutes. That’s how tornados work. They touch down, do their damage, take their sacrifice and go back up into the clouds.
We can accept that. It’s what we’re accustomed to.
The tornado that hit Xenia killed 32 people. In comparison, in the 1925 tornado, 33 school kids lost their lives in a single school in DeSoto.
The Xenia tornado was part of an outbreak across thirteen states and Ontario up into Canada, that lasted over two days. There were seven F5 tornadoes, 23 F4 and more than 148 reported in all. 319 people died.
The tornado on the ground the longest that day was 121 miles, an F4 that killed 19 people.
The Tri-State Tornado of 1925, an F5 was on the ground for longer than any on record, about 235 miles, almost four hours, and killed at least 695 people.
And you could have heard it from my front door.
Country people are a strange lot
Carmi was a farming community in 1925. The town grew up along the Little Wabash river, never got much over 6,000 people, and was known for an industrious labor force, a bit of industry, and quite a lot of service industry.
As well as a lot of farming.
There was room for families, especially in the country. Sons farming the land next to their father’s land. Land passed through generations. Solid links in a chain were formed.
Schools were about two miles apart, close enough that kids could walk there. A country block was a mile long. So a school every two blocks.
Lately in some areas, busses were running, which meant fewer schools. But the busses hadn’t got here yet.
Along with the schools were the churches. And usually with the church, the graveyard. So you had all the places you needed for a rural community to congregate and come together.
It’s still that way, in that it’s often through death that a scattered community comes together. When someone dies you see people you haven’t seen in years. And you see people you’ve known your whole life, but only see now at other people’s funerals.
In 1925, death was always close by. It could come from anywhere, and without warning. I’ve known many country people, especially when I was younger who had lived through the deaths of so many loved ones, that I almost felt embarrassed to mourn my own losses. They developed a hardness grown out of necessity in those generations. They lived through the Great Depression and a couple of world wars after all.
We’re softer now.
This is important because you have to understand why anyone would actually live in what is known as tornado alley.
Are we fucking stupid, or what?
Simply put, living in a tornado prone area is a risky proposition.
Any time nature decides to do it, and it decides to do so with disturbing frequency, it reaches down from the sky and picks up farms, neighborhoods, hell, entire towns and throws them back down into a pile of rubble.
You can calculate your chance of survival by imagining the building you are in being lifted into the sky and twirled around at a couple hundred miles an hour, disintegrating in the process, before tossing you back down … and by the way when you hit you realize you were also moving at sixty miles an hour forward.
Amazingly, people do survive. Others are never found. They might as well be in Oz.
That enchantment of nature turned black by the Tri-State Tornado of 1925
A few year’s back, storm chasing was all the rage. Twister was playing in the theaters. The weather had its own reality shows on television. And then tragedy struck some of the storm chasers and people were reminded that this shit is dangerous. Not just an adrenaline rush.
Tornados are quite literally, death coming out of the sky. It’s Zephyros, claiming his sacrifice, just as those who live near the ocean face their own threats, like hurricanes and nor’easters from his kin Neptune. We provide the sacrifices by living here, saying “if it’s my time to go, then it’s my time.”
Something you hear around here a lot is “at least the tornado didn’t hit Carmi.” If you believe in sympathetic magic, that kind of thinking banishes the danger from your own backyard, and inflicts it on someone else’s.
Any witch can tell you that will come back on you.
People tend to personalize storms, and it’s understandable. If you let your imagination go to work, you can find all kinds of connections. During a tornado, every sense you possess, including those science have yet to acknowledge, are fully awake.
A few year’s back, a tornado wiped out part of Harrisburg, Illinois, as well as Ridgway and stops in between. The sirens went off here that day, and I watched the front pass by.
I saw something I’ve seen a few times when the wind blows. Little tendrils of clouds dipping down, twisting, trying to touch the tip of the others. Trying to connect, come together and become one. It’s like watching a dance, and sometimes they do come together and spin, like a Spinner dancing to Dark Star at a Dead show, endlessly twirling till they float back up into the clouds.
It’s a sexual dance, except with a tornado, it’s the people on the ground who are fucked.
A guide to the devastation of the Tri-State Tornado of 1925
The guide to the 1925 tornado in my area is The 1925 Tri-State Tornado’s Devastation in Franklin County, Hamilton County and White County Illinois by Bob Johns. The author isn’t much of a writer – it’s more like hearing your old uncle talking about the big one. But he covers a lot of ground, in brutal detail. We even get maps of the entire route, marking who lived where. It’s an invaluable resource.
It’s also horrific in its detail, as you can’t describe a tornado in detail any other way.
He writes that as it approached my neck of the woods, a woman caught her dress in a barbed wire fence, trying to flee the tornado. It picked her up and she was impaled on a tree stump when she landed. She pulled herself off of it and walked for help. As I said, country people are tough. Unfortunately she later died from blood poisoning.
Just up from there, some kids were blown into a hog lot, and later they had to be pulled from the hogs who had begun to eat their bodies.
Everything about a tornado is apocalyptic. It’s an Albrecht Durer painting come to life. In the aftermath, you realize our visions of the apocalypse are sanitized, because they’re viewed from above, from a distance. We see the whole, not the carnage on the ground. In the moments that a tornado strikes, reason and logic disappear. What you see you never see anyplace else, if you’re lucky. Starting with the sixty seconds it took to pass overhead, and on into the horrible aftermath, it was hell on earth.
Something that strikes me about Bob John’s book is that he notes several storm shelters built by survivors after the tornado. They saw something that day that we never have, and it drove them to find a way to survive it. That’s a lesson we’ve forgotten now, because we weren’t there. We didn’t see it, and we didn’t see the aftermath. So we forget.
Or make sure we have a basement.
A mile wide cloud of death and destruction from the Tri-State Tornado of 1925
Sunday drives are in my DNA. Once a staple of rural life, you pile in the car on Sunday afternoon and drive around the countryside. Back then there were more farms, more houses, so more stories. Some of the stories trailed off when they turned inappropriate for kids.
That’s how we translated the history of a community. Written records of rural living are relatively rare. Like most rural traditions around the world, your own history is learned orally. And in our generation, instead of next to a peat fire. it was often told in a moving car on Sunday afternoons.
What you learn is that the countryside is made up of little neighborhoods. Families spread out, from one neighborhood to the other. So the neighborhoods are connected. You can drive through the country and name everybody that lives there.
This is how people survived in the county, the social safety net. The chain. You weren’t alone. It wasn’t just family and friends, but everyone shared some connection. Your neighbor is just across the field. In each direction. They were there for you, because when disaster struck, you were there for them.
The Sunday drive is a tradition Lisa and I try to adhere to, when we get a chance. It’s how she learns the landscape, the roads and the history of this place. She’s better at this than I am, thinks to ask questions when we’re talking to people, and finds things quicker than I do, things I would never catch.
And there are her jokes as well.
Today’s drive was the route the Tri-State Tornado of 1925 took the last 25 miles of its trek across Illinois, before it crossed into Indiana for the deadly finale of its 235 mile run.
The route is circuitous at times, as the massive width of the tornado meant you couldn’t just drive down a single road and follow the path. It didn’t travel due east/west like the roads. So it wiped out houses on adjacent roads, a mile apart.
Counting stops to wander around graveyards and overgrown fields looking for remnants of houses long gone, we spent most of the afternoon wandering. Even without the stops, it would have been a drive of an hour or more.
The Tri-State Tornado covered the same ground in about 20 minutes.
A country community obliterated in less than a minute
As the Tri-State Tornado tore through Hamilton County and into White, towards Carmi, it turned brutal. It killed twenty people in the five minutes before it crossed Highway 14 and left Enfield township and entered Carmi township.
We’ve just pulled into the gravel parking lot of Lick Creek Church, which is a bit south and dead center between McLeansboro and Enfield. It’s an old frame church, white with a rectangular steeple. I wonder if there’s still a bell up there?
It’s the first time Lisa has encountered Lick Creek, and she smirks. I can’t wait to take her to French Lick, over in Indiana.
Once outside the car the mood for sexual innuendo fades away. Something horrific happened out there.
At the crossroads there’s a bridge across Lick Creek. It was an iron bridge in 1925, and when the tornado hit, it was tossed upstream 400 feet. Lisa sets off to find out if it’s still there. I help for a moment, then realize if it’s out there she’ll find it. And I’d likely miss it.
So I cross the parking lot and look to the north. I’m a photographer. When I go someplace, I try to know as much about what I’ll see as possible. When I’m there, I want to see the past overlaid on top of the present. What you see here is terrifying.
If you had stood here as the tornado passed by, it would filled your entire field of vision. Well, no. If you stood here you’d be dead. The same was true for as far as I could see.
Like many rural areas, houses tended to be clustered around churches, and the Lick Creek Church was no exception. For a mile around it, you’d find families closely tied to their neighbors, either through blood or marriage.
It took less than a minute for the Tri-State Tornado to tear through the Lick Creek community, annihilating the church and almost the entire cluster of houses to the north of it for about a mile.
The next day, Levi Hook came to survey the damage to his old neighborhood. His son, Eli had been in school the day before, almost eight miles away. The boy went out under the porch and saw it was very dark, the rain fell in sheets, there was hail, and he noticed something else falling from the sky. When the rain quit he went out and found it. It was piece of a sewing machine. All the way home the way was strewn with debris from the tornado.
Levi had moved his family a few months before, to north of McLeansboro, and Bob Ballard was now living on his old farm. As they approached the Lick Creek area, looking out from the hill which I’m looking up towards now, Levi said “everything he could see below the hill in the Lick Creek area looked flat. Nothing was standing.”
Standing in the parking lot, down the road to my left, Chalon Creek lived with his family. He was visiting a neighbor when he saw the sky darken, and beat a hasty retreat to get home to his family, as it looked bad. He got within sight of the house, only to see it blow away, killing his wife, step-daughter and brother.
Less than a minute later, Emery Lloyd was killed a few hundred feet up the road in front of where I’m standing when the tornado ripped his home apart.
While it was killing Emery, Bob Ballard’s house, Levi Hook’s old house on top of the hill in front of me, was blown completely away, landing 600 feet to the south and splintering, not far from where I’m standing now. Before it landed, it hit the ground twice, gouging the Earth in a V shape. The tornado picked up the debris and tossed into yet another field. That was where they found the bodies of Bob Ballard’s wife and two daughters who had been carried inside it by the wind.
Even before Bob’s house crashed into splinters, just to the east the tornado was destroying his parents house, killing his mother and grandparents.
About thirty seconds later, Bob’s sister, Malinda, lost her husband, John Raymond VanWinkle. Their six year old daughter, Veda was found and appeared to be dead. She was taken with the others to Dave Webb’s house, which was one of the few still standing. He sheltered more than a dozen people there, injured, dying and dead, as the cold set in and temperatures dropped below freezing.
Surprisingly, Veda turned out to be alive. In the book I read that she suffered from a broken collar bone and hip, but at the moment I’m being told by her granddaughter that the broken hip was caused when a dried up cornstalk was driven into it.
It turns out that Lick Creek Church has cameras now, which are monitored by neighbors. Like a lot of places in the country, vandalism is a problem, and Lisa jumps in there and commiserates with Veda’s granddaughter about it, who watches over the place.
She’s wondering what we’re doing here, I start to explain, show her the map and she says “you’ve read the book.” She gets it occasionally, people looking for where the tornado passed through. She’s not surprised to find that I’ve not only been through one tornado, but several.
She tells me Veda suffered from her injuries her whole life. Because of the broken hip one leg was shorter than the other, so she had to wear special shoes. And during storms, the psychic scars came out. You didn’t talk on the phone, take a bath and stayed away from the windows.
As she said that I smiled, for those had been the rules in our house as well.
She points out where the people lived. Off to the northeast on the high ground, Elvis Webb managed to survive by holding onto two stones when his parent’s smokehouse was blown away. When he got up he saw his parent’s home was destroyed, and his mother dead.
To the east of the Webb farm, Marie Hollister missed school that day and had been visiting a neighbor to see her new baby. As she walked home, she was blown into a ditch and badly hurt. Her mother and grandmother were taken into the sky as it destroyed their house, and killed when they landed. Her grandfather was blown away too, but survived the landing, because he landed in Lick Creek, where he drowned.
The baby Marie had gone to visit was killed as well.
Elza Wilson’s daughter Edna Fern died also. Thomas McMurtry, a friend of Elza’s had been visiting and was blown into a field and killed when a tree fell on him. Elza’s mules had been blown almost seven miles away, and were only slightly hurt.
Veda married another survivor. It must have been easier, as so many people carried scars, some debilitating, some on the inside, for the rest of their lives.
Our visitor bids her farewell and drives off. It’s reassuring to find someone still related to those who used to live here, still in the neighborhood. It’s always nice to see a name on the mailbox which matches the name on the map from almost a hundred years ago.
Just before it moved from Hamilton to White county, Barbara Hanagan and her two daughters were doing spring cleaning in the kitchen when the tornado hit. They clung to each other and when it passed, they opened the door to get into the dining room, only to find the only room still standing in their house was the kitchen.
As the Tri-State Tornado of 1925 moved through Enfield Township, Anderson Nelson rode out the storm in his chair in his living room, with his wife Emma. The storm uprooted the trees, took down his barn, and finally blew his house down around him. Afterwards he was still sitting in his chair, terrified, surrounded by the countryside, rocking back and forth. Emma was unharmed, and once they got Anderson to quit rocking and out of his chair, he was fine too.
Down the road from there, Herman Frymire and his wife Beulah, along with his father John lay flat on the ground and held onto fence posts, as the tornado spun over them at over 200 miles an hour. Herman couldn’t hold on and was blown loose and died. John was injured, and they lost two horses, a mule, three hogs, three sheep and two lamb. Their daughter wasn’t home. She was at Trousdale school, where the 1925 tornado exploded into Carmi township.
A path of schools reduced to matchsticks by the Tri-State Tornado of 1925
Trousdale School sat alongside Hwy 45, which runs ten miles between Carmi and Enfield. I know the area well. I used to go to church at Wesley Chapel as a teenager, just across the road and up over the hill. A friend of mine talked me into it, convinced we’d have a better chance with Enfield girls. We didn’t.
Across from the church, looking down on where Trousdale School once stood was a hog lot. We were hanging out there one icy winter day after church, chatting up the Enfield girls as we sat on the fence surrounding the hogs. What little cool I had was blown when I fell off and tore most of the skin from the palm of my hand on frozen hog shit.
That was almost fifty years ago, and I still get confused on these roads. Lisa is driving now as I hate driving on the highway, and I remember the turn at the last minute and gesticulate wildly. She manages to slow down enough and turns onto a gravel road without going up on two wheels. On the corner is a wooded area, and a sign reading “former site of Trousdale School.” We parked along the side of the road, and after beating the weeds with my stick, we got out.
There’s an open area here, where one would presume the school stood. It’s been recently mowed so it’s well taken care of. Someone remembers. It feels like a memorial. At the edge of a small woods in the back, you find a few concrete structures, probably for a well or a cistern. All that’s left of the school which once stood here.
Lisa suggests looking in the woods, and indeed there is an overgrown path. But it’s summer, and snakes live in the woods in the summer. Unless I have a good reason to believe I need to be in the woods with them, I refrain.
I respectfully declined her invitation to search, so she volunteered to go it alone. That sounded like a good idea, and I turned to look up the hill, towards the church and once frozen hog lot.
This area is known as seven mile flats, but it’s not flat. It’s rolling hills. Gradually rolling hills.
Tornados are relatively low to the ground. So if you’re on the low ground, and there’s a rolling hill between you and the sky, you likely wouldn’t see it till it was almost at the top of the hill.
One reason people were caught unaware by the Tri-State Tornado was its size. In this stretch of countryside it was swelling back and forth between a mile and a mile a half wide. It’s unlikely anyone who had seen a tornado had seen one a fifth as wide. It was also masked by the storm which was preceding it, with bands of rain and hail.
Reports say it looked like a dark cloud, sweeping along the ground. It was only when it got closer that you could see it was swirling, and the chunks of debris it was swinging in its outer bands. Each time it took another building, it had more wood, nails and stone to use as a mace to knock down the next.
If you had been looking out the front door of Trousdale School, the moment you could tell it was a tornado was probably about 90 seconds before it hit.
Trousdale school was a one room schoolhouse, like most of the others in the area, with one teacher, Miss Pauline McMurtry, and sixteen students.
When the the Tri-State Tornado of 1925 hit, Trousdale School crumbled almost instantly, throwing boards, glass, splintered wood and most of the students into the surrounding woods and field where they landed like jack straws. Miss McMurty was hurt, but managed to gather her students. All but three of the students had been injured, some quite seriously. Twelve year old Vernon Miller had been killed.
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Lisa was calling from the woods. She’d found steps. I girded my loins, tapped the weeds with my stick and started down the path towards her.
The steps appeared to be leading from the gravel road up the embankment, to a path that led to the school. The morning of the tornado, the kids streamed up those steps for the last time. Now the weeds have them.
The disappearing road
We tried to follow the country route the tornado took after striking Trousdale school. But the road clearly shown on our 1925 map which we needed to take turned into an empty field. It was a problem we’d continue to encounter as we tried to trace the twister’s path.
So we went back to the highway instead. We turned onto the highway then off again at 500E, back into the countryside.
The train tracks ran across the road here in 1925. Just past the line, there used to be a crossroads. The train tracks remain and just past those there’s a road heading off to the right and we stop. To the left, where the road used to run there’s nothing but fields.
This was once a neighborhood, with families, farms and homes. It vanished in the blink of an eye, and perhaps a single rotation of the tornado.
About sixty seconds after the tornado destroyed Trousdale School, John “Strawberry” Wilson was killed down that road, at the next crossroads, his house and farm destroyed. A bit closer to where we stand, Charles Argo was visiting Delbert Warthen and his family the day of the tornado. They both died along with two babies. The rest of his family were, as the book says and vividly describes, torn up.
Lisa had been talking to an elderly fellow about the tornado at work the other day, a customer. His father had told him all about what happened at the Warthen place. The horror still echoes down a century later.
Snowden Biggerstaff was the teacher at Murdach School, just south of here, across the highway behind us. He had noticed the weather was getting bad so he dismissed school. The school it turns out was south of the tornado and escaped damage. Unfortunately, Snowden’s route home took him directly into the tornado’s path, right where we’re standing now, and his buggy was blown off the road, breaking both his arms and a leg. The horse also had a broken leg, but stayed next to Snowden till help came. Snowden died a few days later.
To the left, on the corner, Ellis Pollard’s home was destroyed, as was Mason Veatch’s beyond it.
To the south, just behind us, Armintie Murdach and her daughter Ethel Rhein were killed instantly. Ethel’s husband Alvin died a few days later. Albert, Armintie’s brother in law who was blind, was blown into a nearby field. He could hear Ethel and Alvin’s baby crying nearby, and followed the sound till he found her, and carried her to find help.
Today, staring down the path which once was a road, with houses and life, I realized finally why it’s so hard to see the scars from the tornado. Many of the houses that once stood along their length were never rebuilt, and in some cases, there was nobody left to rebuild.
Others lived with debilitating injuries, making the hard life of a farmer impossible. Or that of a farmer’s wife. There were fewer children to inherit land, and many of those wanted to get the hell out of here.
That meant lots were for sale, and neighbors bought the land, increasing their acreage. Since there were no longer houses on these roads, there was no need for the roads. Eventually, like this one that saw so much tragedy and death, the fields swallowed them up, leaving nothing more than a turn off which leads nowhere.
Bigger farms meant fewer farmers, fewer kids, and smaller, declining communities. Four small towns in the tornado’s path that served farmers were “effectively effaced,” erased in other words. The rural death toll in White county, where I live, and Hamilton, the rural county next to us was 65 people, which Thomas P. Grazulis, author of The Tornado: Nature’s Ultimate Windstorm calls “unprecedented.”
Every farming family was a link in a chain which connected the people who lived in the country. They weren’t towns, but they were certainly communities and in a sense, the Tri-State Tornado of 1925 snapped the back of the old communities. So many links in the chain were broken that it was impossible to mend it.
Schools and churches had held the small, otherwise isolated communities together. With fewer people you needed fewer churches, and many consolidated and others were abandoned. Most of those destroyed were never rebuilt.
The two miles between schools continued to die out after the 1925 tornado, and some of those communities disappear entirely, leaving only a graveyard, or if you’re lucky, a church as a reminder that once people were here.
The scar tissue from the Tri-State tornado is dirt. Cultivated soil where houses once stood, and families grew.
We get back in the car and start to drive. A quarter mile up the road stood Tom Finnery’s farm. The whole place blew away and his entire family seriously injured. A quarter mile north of him, the same thing happened at William Black’s home. William Richardson was killed there.
And all this happened in less than two minutes from the time the tornado destroyed Trousdale school..
I pulled into Newman Cemetery, all that’s left of what used to be the center of this small community. There’s no church here, but there is a school, Newman School. It’s a one room building, a bit larger than some of those that survive today. It’s in ruins, and next to it is a mobile home which isn’t in much better condition. Lisa asks if I’m going to go up and take photos.
There’s a warning scrawled on poster board in the front window of the trailer. I can’t quite make out what it says, but I know not to come closer. If anyone was living in that trailer, you don’t want to agitate them.
This isn’t the original Newman School. This is the rebuilt one, built on the same location. It’s the only one along this stretch of schools claimed by the tornado which was rebuilt.
I wander out in into the field behind the school and look off to the southwest, where the the Tri-State Tornado of 1925 came from. They were on the high ground, and it’s wide open countryside. Even if they couldn’t identify it by sight right away, they had to have known what it was by the roar.
There were twenty four students there that day, and Jasper Mossberger was the teacher. Jasper saw it coming from the window. The wind started picking up and he rushed over to the door to try to hold it closed. The building came down around them and most of the occupants were blown along with the debris, into an adjacent field. As they began to come to, they were pelted with hail.
All that was left of Newman School, was a few timbers, a single desk and the bell.
According to the local newspaper, Jasper was particularly grievously injured. “He seemed rational but could not comprehend that there had been a cyclone and seemed to remember nothing about it. He has a bad cut on one leg and body bruises. Practically every child in this school was hurt, several seriously.”
Jasper died a few days later. All the students recovered.
A few months before, Lisa and I were in Newman Cemetery visiting the graves of Walter S. Warthen and his wife, Rachel. Walter’s daughter Ivy had poisoned her whole family just across the fields from here, as it turned 1900. Everyone recovered except her brother, and Ivy was sent away after a sensational trial.
Two smaller tombstones, side by side in the row behind Walter and Rachel’s had caught my eye. The names read Rosa Jane Smith and Lucy Ellen Phillips, and they both died on the same day, March 18, 1925. As I was to find out later, the day of the Tri-State Tornado.
James Boland lived in the open fields we had just driven past, within sight of Newman School. His mother, Rosa Jane Smith was living with him and had been ill. So James’ sister, Lucy Ellen Phillips who normally lived in Paris, Illinois had come to take care of Rosa Jane, bringing along her baby.
They lived in the flatlands, and James saw the tornado approaching but there wasn’t anything they could do except pray. Rosa Jane and Lucy Ellen died as the house blew apart, leaving James and the baby injured but alive.
When I read that, it was the first I’d ever heard about the 1925 tornado killing people here. Perhaps my Granny Bert had mentioned it and it didn’t stick. Then again, when people talked about that day, it was usually about the tornado, not the people.
Today, Newman Cemetery is fairly large, still in use and well kept for a country graveyard. Lisa is walking up and down the rows, checking for 1925 in the inscription.
There are other victims of the 1925 tornado buried here, in addition to Rosa Jane Smith and Lucy Ellen Phillips.
The same spin of the tornado that reduced Newman School to splinters also hit Orel Warthen’s home. Twenty four year old Orel was Delbert’s brother, who had died three or four minutes earlier. Orel’s son, Harold was only four years old and died with his mother, Versa when their house blew apart. He’s buried at Newman Cemetery, along with Versa’s nephew, eleven year old Wilburn Felty.
Wilburn was killed a minute later when the Tri-State Tornado of 1925 tore apart Frieberger School. About eight minutes later, Versa’s sister also died as it passed near Crossville, trapped under a stove which set the house afire.
Shadows of the Tri-State Tornado of 1925 dot the countryside that nobody likes to talk about
I’ve driven these roads countless times. How many? Hundreds? I’ve known people who lived along here. I’ve seen the empty countryside, but never really wondered if it was always like this. I never understood that there used to be more life here.
With the maps in hand, showing where people once lived, it’s like seeing the place for the first time. The countryside had to have had three or four times as many houses here in those days, a lot more people.
My first wife’s grandparents lived just over the hill from where we are. Some of the victims share their last name. I look them up later and see that her grandfather was a little boy when it hit, and the roof blew off their house, where we are passing on our right. They were relatively unscathed, but her grandmother’s side saw two tragic deaths.
I look for signs of old houses, dating from before 1925. There aren’t many along here. A few mailboxes on newer houses still bear the name of the family that owned the land in 1925.
In other places you still find field roads, disappearing where a house once stood. Two miles up the road from Newman School, one of these field roads leads to where the next school along this road was located.
You take a hard turn off the road into what looks like a little woods. We parked the car, got out and walked up to the top of the short incline. There’s enough left to tell that this was once the location of Frieberger School, where Wilburn Felty died.
It’s downright pastoral now. Nestled in a rolling hills edged by the woods. It’s a safe be that none of the trees date to before 1925.
When I talk to people about what the tornado did at this intersection, most don’t know anything about it. A few have heard of Trousdale and Newman schools. But nobody seems to have heard of Frieberger School.
Most people I talk to who have heard of the tornado, have no concept of how it affected this area, or those along its entire route. Tornados are big news, the biggest tornado in US history took place here and the locals seem to have forgotten?
Simply put, death by tornado robs a person of their dignity. How they died was horrible, and you don’t want to talk about it.
So people didn’t.
When the Tri-State Tornado of 1925 hit Frieberger School, it was about as close to my house as it got. It’s less than a mile the way a crow flies. About this time it made a slight jog and crossed the road. It’s curious, if it hadn’t it wouldn’t have smashed into Hadden School, about three miles away. But it did, and still managed to obliterate Frieberger School with its southern wall of wind.
There was no early alert system in 1925. The National Weather Service was actually forbidden from issuing tornado warnings, because it was commonly believed you couldn’t predict them.
Besides, you know the weather. And you have a good idea when you need to keep an eye on the sky. And if the tornado appears? Well, then it’s between you and your god.
In about a mile we’re crossing Centerville road. Take it right and in less than five minutes you can be parked in our driveway.
The myth that tornados avoid crossing rivers is busted as the Tri-State Tornado of 1925 crosses three leaving Illinois
Rather than heading home, we moved a block north and followed the track of the tornado as it approached the Skillet Fork and Little Wabash rivers.
By then I was growing weary of this trip. It was nothing but horror after horror, and you know how the story ends. It’s not a happy ending we’re driving towards.
Near the northern wall of the tornado’s path you find the location of Barth Church, which was blown off its foundations and into the middle of the road.
People in this area described the tornado as looking like a fast moving cloud. Moving into the river bottoms, the hills still roll, but roll quicker, closer together. They’re not higher, but the spaces in between grow deeper.
From a house on a hill you could see it coming sooner of course. But you were more exposed. In the hollows you’d be blind to what was coming, right up until it was on top of you.
Just down from Barth Church, Nancy Bingham suffered a broken jawbone, ankle and was essentially “skinned all over.” Her son Herman was over at Hadden School on the other side of Centerville Road.
Herman Bingman was the one student to die at Hadden School that day. His body was carried home by the father of the man who mows my yard. He’s told me the story, as his father told him. Their home had been destroyed as well.
The iron school bell was blown a quarter mile away. So was the teacher, and another student who survived.
That student’s name was Edwin Winter, and his sister, Berniece had been at school that day too. She had forgotten her overshoes, and her father and grandfather, returning by buggy from a sale nearby picked her up and brought her home, as it was looking like a storm was coming.
Her father, Ed Winters dropped his father John off at his house. His mother, Lottie came out and wanted them to stay because it didn’t look safe. Ed replied he needed to get home to the family, and they took off across the fields in the buggy as it was quicker than the road.
As they arrived at home, Ed put Berniece in the barn so she’d be safe while they put the mules away. He told her the wind would blow her away if she was outside of the barn. That was when the tornado hit.
Berniece saw the barn lift off the ground three times, and the third time it shattered, with a wall falling on top of the girl. Fortunately for her, she fell next to the concrete foundation, which prevented the wall from falling on top of her. Also blocking the debris was a horse, whose legs fell on her and it was unconscious or dead.
Berniece survived with bruised legs from the horse, and went on to become my kindergarten teacher. Once the storm passed, her father noticed that nothing was standing at his parents’ farm, so he ran there with his son. Both his mother and father died in the next few days from their injuries.
Some years later, Ed and his wife moved to Carmi, and bought a house on the corner of Fourth and Maple. Some time after that, my parents moved in the house next door. After the Winters were both gone, dad bought the house which by then was falling into disrepair, and had it torn down. Today the ground where it stood is part of the witch’s garden.
On the other side of the Little Wabash it killed Elma Stokes, leveled Stokes Chapel Church and knocked down many of the gravestones.
At Graves School, the teacher saw the storm coming and had his students go outside and lay in the ditch by the road. Face down. All the students but two made it out, and those two were tossed into a nearby field. One had a couple scratches on his forehead. All the other students escaped injury.
Near there, Alma Copelin lay on the bed holding her baby daughter Elizabeth, her son Warren at her side. The tornado tore the baby from her mother’s arms and into the storm, then tossed the baby on a mattress which had landed across the road. It was hurt more from the hail that fell afterwards than her flight.
Just down from there, Pink and Effie Young were riding out the storm in their parlor when a collie dog blew through the window, unhurt.
The tornado went south of Crossville, narrowly missing that town. One young man climbed the grain elevator and watched it from the top.
Bell School was obliterated, but the teacher, seeing the cloud coming had dismissed school and the kids had time to get home before it hit. The Little Wabash Baptist Church was blown away as well.
As it approached the Big Wabash River it swelled once more to a mile and a half in width. It stormed through the eastern edge of southern Illinois like a petulant child, throwing a tantrum and tearing up everything in its path.
Sixty-two year old Frederic Bodishbaugh rode out the storm holding the knob of the front door to keep it closed. The door stayed closed, and Frederick held tight, and when it had gone he saw that most of the rest of the house aside from the door and frame was gone.
This area wasn’t as populated, so the casualties were fewer, but no less gruesome. One teenager who poked his head out of the shelter for a second had it taken off. Versa Warthen’s sister was killed when her iron stove fell on her, and the house caught fire.
Down in the river bottoms, it’s easy to see why there weren’t a lot of people killed here. There weren’t many people living here, and even fewer now. The roads go from asphalt, to gravel, to dirt. We were skirting the creeks that flow into the Big Wabash river, working our way to the river itself.
This is fracking country now, oil wells popping up everywhere, belching natural gas. Surprisingly, there are also a lot of people down here, most driving all terrain vehicles. It’s a sunny day and people here flock to the river bottoms.
Kelly and Fairzine Fitzgerald’s home was the last house struck by the Tri-State Tornado in Illinois, almost within a stone’s throw of the river. They were blown from their home as it was ripped apart, and Kelly woke up in the woods along the Big Wabash. A bit later they found his wife, Fairzine, in the same woods along the riverbank, the last fatality in Illinois.
There’s nothing left here of course, and we start walking over the levee to the woods where Kelly and Fairzine were thrown. We hear voices, laughter, music and surprisingly it’s a family reunion. Kids, their parents, old folks, dogs, all celebrating life .
Because in the end, for the survivors, life goes on.
Once the hail stops, silence descends
I’ve started writing this piece, and as usual, it’s late. It’s March, a couple days after the anniversary of the tornado. We had a tornado watch earlier today, while we were out taking photos of the route.
Nothing came of it. It’s usually a false alarm and a lot of people fall into complacency. Perhaps that’s why people choose to stay. It’s something you hear a lot around here, about everything from fireworks to a hundred other pastimes that often turn deadly … “well it’s never hurt me before.”
And besides, is any place really safe from nature?
In the end, the Tri-State Tornado of 1925 killed 28 people in my area. Enfield, Carmi and Crossville were spared while the more sparsely populated country side paid the price. But as the old folks said, it could have been worse.
In Indiana it was worse, the tornado announcing its arrival by taking out the small town of Griffin. One row of house was said to still be standing as the tornado left town, but a smaller twister came out of the back of it and took those down as well. 46 people died in just a minute or two, with another 200 injured. In Owensville another nine died, and in Princeton, a larger factory town, the tornado just grazed the southern side, killing 44. It staggered on for another ten miles before finally rising up into the clouds and disappearing.
Every spring the sirens ring out, and the people stop, listen and sometimes even take shelter. We know if it’s our time, there isn’t much we can do except hunker down and hope for the best.
In writing this, I realized my search for traces of the tornado had turned into a memorial. It’s sad, we can Google the victims and learn their names, ages and how they died. But we can’t learn anything about how they lived. The hopes, dreams and joys.
The internet has kept the victim’s memory alive, but they are now only defined by their death.
I’ll never be able to drive those roads again and not look for the houses and people that are no longer there. When you stop looking at the deaths as a statistic and start looking at the people, your outlook changes. It’s too overwhelming.
If you want to find the scars of the 1925 Tri-State Tornado, look for what isn’t there. You’ll find the scars on a field road which was once a lane. You find them when you see a flower growing there, which doesn’t grow in the wild, but was planted by loving hands by the gate of a fence that surrounded a farmhouse which used to stand there.
Before the day the wind came to take it away.