1925 Monster Tornado Killed Hundreds
Led to Development of Warning System


The Tri-State Tornado Track

March 18, 2000

It was, simply, The Tornado. More than a mile wide at times, it howled across three states in 3 1/2 hours, leaving 219 miles of destruction and 695 bodies in its wake.

No one knew it was coming.

``We didn't even know the word tornado,'' said Mary Bell Melvin, who survived the 1925 Tri-State Tornado, which struck Missouri, Illinois and Indiana 75 years ago today. ``To us, it was just a storm.''

To weather historians, the storm is considered a defining moment in American meteorology -- the day the nation awoke to the need for a tornado warning system, said Joseph Schaefer, director of the National Weather Service's Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla.

``Something like this is not going to sneak up on us again. And I think that's the moral here. This showed us what needed to be done, and over 75 years, we've accomplished most of it,'' he said.

A close look at "Tri-State Tornado

Touched down near Ellington, Mo. at 1 p.m.; dissipated near Petersburg, Ind., 3 1/2 hours later.

Killed 695 people including 234 in Murphysboro, Ill.

Injured 2,027 people.

Destroyed 15,000 homes.

Caused damage in 19 communities in three states and 13 counties.

Traveled 219 miles at an average speed of 62 mph.

Source: National Weather Service

Never since has a single tornado wrought so much damage.

Storm survivors and historians will gather to mark the anniversary today in Murphysboro, where the storm killed 234 people and obliterated nearly 40 percent of the town.

Other communities never recovered. The small settlements of Parrish, Ill., and Griffin, Ind., were destroyed, said Peter Felknor, author of ``The Tri-State Tornado: The Story of America's Greatest Tornado Disaster.''

``There was absolutely nothing left. There's not even foundations. Even a lot of the debris was carried away. It just looked like something that was just absolutely scrubbed clean,'' he said.

The tornado -- one of the longest, fastest and widest on record -- touched down near Ellington, Mo., at about 1 p.m. on a day on which the forecast called for rain and shifting winds, but nothing more.

The Monster Tornado of 1925
A shot of the Reliance Mill on North 17th St. After the mill was demolished by the tornado, it was never rebuilt. (Photo courtesy of the Jackson Co. Historical Society in Murphysboro, Ill.)

After killing 11 Missourians, the twister crossed the Mississippi River and obliterated the small community of Gorham, Ill., killing 34 people.

According to survivor accounts, the storm was so large and so low to the ground, no one recognized it as a tornado until it was too late.

``It was so big; it was so nasty. It just looked like a cloud eating the ground as it went along,'' Schaefer said.

In the next 40 minutes, it would kill 541 people as it tore through Murphysboro, De Soto, Hurst-Bush, and West Frankfort before moving on to the farm fields of southeastern Illinois.

The Monster Tornado of 1925
Homes shattered to pieces at Murphysboro, Ill., in tornado of Mar. 18, 1925, which rendered homeless half the population of the city. About 1200 homes were completely destroyed in an area 1 mile wide and 2 1/2 miles long. (Photo courtesy of the Jackson Co. Historical Society in Murphysboro, Ill.)

More than 600 people were dead by the time the storm and its 300-mph winds crossed into Indiana, erased the town of Griffin, churned up 85 farms and destroyed half of Princeton. At least 71 died in Indiana. All told, 2,027 people were injured. Property damage estimates reached $16.5 million.

More than 800 people died in an 1884 tornado outbreak, but that storm involved a cluster of tornadoes in several states. A 1974 cluster killed more than 300 people in 13 states.

The Monster Tornado of 1925
The residential district of Murphysboro, ILL., where 154 city blocks were destroyed in tornado of Mar. 18, 1925. (Photo courtesy of the Jackson Co. Historical Society in Murphysboro, Ill.)

The 1925 storm nudged forecasters toward developing tornado warning systems. It took a long time.

The military led the effort during World War II, setting up spotter networks around its bases in tornado-prone areas. The first tornado forecast was issued by the Air Force at Tinker Air Force Base in 1948.

Government forecasters began issuing tornado watches and warnings in 1952, but weather radar did not appear on the scene until the late 1950s.

Since then, improved radar, a network of weather-warning radio stations and reliance on media reports have helped increase the warning time for approaching tornadoes from virtually nothing before World War II to 12 minutes today.

From a Child's Perspective—75 Years Later

On Thursday, December 30, 1999, I sat down with my grandmother, Ms. Lela Hartman, to discuss her experience with the Tri-State Tornado. Even though Ms. Hartman has resided in Benton, Illinois for her entire life, she happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time on the afternoon of March 18, 1925. At that time, she was visiting her grandmother’s farm, located about three miles west of West Frankfort, Illinois (just south of Plumfield). She had just turned four, so she cannot remember every single detail about the tornado. However, there were certain details about this event that were substantial enough to leave a lasting impression—even from a child’s perspective. Following is her account of the 1925 Tri-State Tornado. Portions have been edited to enhance readability.

PRESLEY - "How young were you when the tornado hit in 1925?"

HARTMAN - "Well, my birthday was March 3rd, and I had turned 4. So, I was quite young when that happened, but I remember it—well. I remember it."

PRESLEY - "Where were you when the tornado hit?"

HARTMAN - "Well, I was at my Grandmother Lipsey’s house in, well I guess they call it Plumfield. I don’t really call it that because you turn off of [149] on Freeman Spur Road, and go to the first road that goes back east. And you go about a tenth of a mile and that’s where the farm was located. We were just at the edge, I would say, of the winds that were going through."

PRESLEY - "And when the tornado hit, you were visiting your [grandmother’s] farm at the time…?"

HARTMAN - "Yeah, my grandfather had died a couple of years earlier. We had gone there to spend the day with Grandma, and it was a pretty day. You know, being a little kid, I didn’t pay too much attention to the weather, but as the day went on, it started lookin’ like rain, and cloudin’ up, and gettin’ dark, and after a while, my dad said, ‘You know, we’d better go to the cellar!’ And my grandma, no way was she gonna go. And it just kept gettin’ darker and darker, and by the time she finally agreed to go, well it was almost as black as night when we finally went to the cellar. And I think we just got there in time because we could hear things that you didn’t hear in an ordinary storm. And when we were ready to come out my dad was a real young man then … and was strong, and he couldn’t get the door open. So he worked and worked and worked, and after a while, he got it open enough he could get out. And there was a tree that had blown across the cellar door."

"So I remember, when I came out, the first thing I saw was, by the back steps, there was a long shuttle for a sewing machine, and it had black thread in it. Of course, I didn’t know what it was and I had to ask my mom what it was, and she was the one who told me. And we had a Model-T Ford that was practically new. My dad’s parents had bought it for him in—I don’t know—it must have been about 1920. And he always parked it in the barn that my grandpa had there, that he kept his horses and … plows and stuff like that to farm with. He always parked his car in there, and it was about 200 feet east of the house. And when I came out, that car was settin’ facin’ the north, up near the fence that divided the yard and the barn lot. And it didn’t have a top on it. The top was gone. And on the west side was the fence that divided the two lots, and on the other side was a huge oak tree that looked like somebody had just taken an axe and cut through that tree. There was also one behind it that was the same way. There was one a little farther south. It didn’t touch it, so that’s the reason we figured we were right on the edge. It also turned the house on the foundation. That was a big, big ol’ house, and it turned it on the foundation. So, that was about the extent of my involvement in that tornado. Of course, for years and years, we called it a cyclone. We didn’t call it a tornado."

PRESLEY - "Now, that really stood out in your memory, didn’t it? With the top being gone from the Model-T Ford and the house being turned on the foundation?"

HARTMAN - "That was a—it was a nice car. It had four doors, and it had the isinglass that you’d put up in the wintertime to keep the cold out. And to come out and see that (chuckling), when it was parked it was facin’ the east, and when we came out it was facin’ the north, and had no top on it. And you wondered, not even one little splinter of wood was left of that building where it had been. And you had to wonder how that happened. Unless the wind picked that car up and just swirled it around and just set it down there. You had to wonder."

PRESLEY - "That’s amazing. Probably something to do with the rotation of the tornado."

HARTMAN - "Right, right. That’s just like, apparently, it caught the corner of that house as it was goin’ east and just turned it on the foundation."

PRESLEY - "Now, you had mentioned something about—in earlier conversations—a scarf?"

HARTMAN - "Oh yeah! We also found a scarf that had a big basket of flowers that somebody had embroidered—spent lots of time embroidering that. We had no idea where that came from. It could’ve come from as far away as Murphysboro. Who knows? Because that’s the way that was travelin’, and so my mom used that for many a year. It was always a reminder of where it came from."

PRESLEY - "That’s amazing though … because there were a lot of tales about different objects that were thrown 50 or 60 miles from where they actually came from."

HARTMAN - "But what really, really amazed me was the fact that something had picked that car up, took the top off of it, brought it up there closer to the house, and set it right there between the fence and that huge oak tree. That other oak tree that it didn’t get, it lived for years and years. We sawed that down just a few years back, and cleared that lot. But other than that, that’s about all I remember. We didn’t know how it had affected Benton. So we didn’t know what to expect when we got here. All I remember about that is that we had a young apple tree in the yard, and it was blown over. So there must have been a little wind here, you know?"

PRESLEY - "How did you get back home? What was the trip like back home?"

HARTMAN - "Well, ... I don’t remember. I do not remember that at all."

PRESLEY - "But all you had was a little apple tree that had been blown over here."

HARTMAN - "But my dad, ... a lot of people would’ve thought that ... would scare you to death of anything like that. But my dad—the minute we came home—the first thing he did was build a storm cellar. And every time a wind came up and we had one lightning strike and a thunder, he got us kids up—it didn’t matter if it was two or three o’clock in the morning—and to the cellar we went. And we did that for two or three years ‘til no storm scared us. We wanted to sleep. And right today, I’m not afraid of storms. Some people are scared to death. I don’t run and hide. I figure that so be it, you know, if you’re goin’ that way anyway, (pointing upward) it don’t matter how you go. If the wind wants to take ya, let it take ya!"

PRESLEY - "You didn’t have any friends or family that actually lost their lives in that tornado, did you?"

HARTMAN - "No, no, lucky. We were lucky."

PRESLEY - "One question that I wanted to ask you, too, is that, of course, things have come a long way since 1925 … with technology, radar, satellite imagery, the warnings that you see scrolling across the screen today. What do you think about all that?"

HARTMAN - "Oh I think it’s great!"

PRESLEY - "It is, isn’t it?"

HARTMAN - "Oh yeah, I think it’s great. I—I’m amazed that people are that smart, puttin’ up with all this, you know? [Of] course, that’s in everything. It’s not just in weather. We have got smart people ... on this earth, and they’ve brought us a long way in medicine and weather and—. It’s too bad that we don’t have a turnkey where, when we see somethin’ like this happenin’, we can just shut it off, you know? Maybe one of these days, somebody will come up with one."

PRESLEY - "That’s true, and that would be very interesting wouldn’t it?"

HARTMAN - "Yeah. Where you could turn the winds in another direction, or calm ‘em down, or something."

PRESLEY - "But there’s a lot to be said for research and development when it comes to that."

HARTMAN - "Oh yeah. They’ve gone a long way."

PRESLEY - "They have, and we still have a—especially in meteorology and in some other sciences—they still have a long way to go, but—"

HARTMAN - "But they’ve gone a long way. … ‘Cause they didn’t have that kinda thing ... back when this—well, I still want to call it a cyclone, but I guess I’ll call it a tornado—happened. We didn’t have—you were your weather forecaster. You watched the sky."

PRESLEY - "This one was kind of … interesting, though, because it actually caught a lot of even farmers by surprise because it was so unusual."

HARTMAN - "Well, it was. … It was such a pretty day that day. ... And for March, that was a little bit unusual in itself. But then, after noon, when it began to turn dark and—. You know, I can’t remember that it lightninged and thundered, but it’s bound to have. All I remember is how dark it kept gettin’, and the wind, you know? And, and I, even I, then was scared. I wanted to go to the cellar. But there wasn’t a one of us would go until Grandma would go. And she wasn’t about to go. But she finally, she finally did. I think she finally decided that something was about to give."

PRESLEY - "She had probably been through so many storms, that she was just gonna stand out there and ride it out. But there’s something about this one that told her that—"

HARTMAN - "She’d better—"

PRESLEY - "She’d better take shelter."

HARTMAN - "She’d better go. Yes."

PRESLEY – "Well, is there anything else that you’d like to add?"

HARTMAN - "Well, not really. Just that I hope we don’t ever have another one."

PRESLEY - "Aw, I hope not, but it’s inevitable. Someday we will."

HARTMAN - "Well, probably. But with all the technology that you guys have, maybe it won’t, you know? Maybe there’ll be something that you’ll have control, you know?"

PRESLEY - "Well, if it ever happens again, especially something that huge, we probably would have warnings out for it. But we couldn’t guarantee that the life loss wouldn’t be as great, especially if it went through a highly populated area."

HARTMAN - "Well, right, right."

What is so ironic about this story is that the storm cellar in which my grandmother sought shelter still exists to this day—75 years later! My grandparents sold the farm nearly 30 years ago. But on the afternoon of December 30, 1999, my grandmother finally had the opportunity to visit the shelter that probably saved her life 75 years earlier.

We would like to thank the current owners of this land, Mr. & Mrs. John Ferketich, for making this visit possible. We would also like to thank all of the other survivors who have given countless testimony on their recollection of the Tri-State Tornado. This commemoration is in honor of all those who perished, as well as those who survived the Great Tornado of 1925.

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