The Famous Tri State Tornado

Duane Friend

We are nearing severe storm and tornado season once again. Here is an article developed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

The adage in the Plains states that “if you don’t like the weather to stick around for 10 minutes and it will change” dates back to the days when the land was first settled. As morning turned to afternoon on March 18, 1925, few people realized how drastically the weather would change, or that the day’s weather would spawn a tornado still infamous for its death and destruction.

Although it occurred almost 92 years ago, the Tri-State Tornado of 1925 still holds some significant records as tracked by NOAA’s National Weather Service. That single tornado holds the record for: longest continuous track on the ground (219 miles); duration (3.5 hours); the third fastest forward speed (an average of 62 mph); and the greatest number of tornado fatalities suffered by a single U.S. city (234 in Murphysboro, Illinois).

Weather Service forecasters of the time didn’t have the technology to help them predict, identify, and track severe weather. After all, it was 1925—the year of the Scopes Monkey Trial, Prohibition, silent movies, Flappers, and Duesenbergs as the classy transportation. Calvin Coolidge was elected president that year, Lon Chaney starred in the silent version of Phantom of the Opera, and Art Deco was just coming into vogue.

Government offices were lucky to have telephones and the first satellite was more than 40 years in the future. There was no NOAA Weather Radio nor were there thousands of commercial radio and television stations to provide information to the public. There was no organized warning system in existence.

As a severe thunderstorm formed over southeast Missouri in the early afternoon hours of March 18, 1925, few people other than the local weather forecasters had any inclination of what was to come. Those forecasters had no way of truly determining the strength of the storm and no idea of the devastation that was about to bring heartbreak to thousands.

The tornado spawned by that severe thunderstorm barreled across southeast Missouri, southern Illinois and southwest Indiana at breakneck speed. According to eyewitness accounts, the tornado was unrecognizable at times, having turned into a huge black wall of debris that caught people off-guard. At times during its life, the tornado reached F-5 status on the (later-developed) Fujita tornado scale with winds in excess of 300 miles per hour.

When it developed about three miles northwest of Ellington, Missouri, just after one o’clock that afternoon, the tornado gave no signs that it would grow into a monster. The tornado lifted from the ground for a brief period just after touching down, typical of many, small tornadoes. But when it touched down again, it held the land with a vengeance and stayed on the ground until it dissipated at 4:30 p.m. about three miles southwest of Petersburg, Indiana.

While the 62 mph average ground speed is still a record, the Tri-State Tornado set another speed record that still stands, traveling an incredible 73 mph from Gorham, Missouri, to Murphysboro. As the tornado passed by, a barograph trace at the Old Ben Coal Mine in West Franfort, Illinois, recorded the lowest pressure ever taken of 28.70.

In the aftermath of the tornado, 695 people were dead and more than 2,000 were injured; 15,000 homes had been destroyed in Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana. Schools and businesses in 19 communities were left in shambles; and dazed survivors were left to pick up the pieces.

The U.S. government learned a great many lessons on March 18, 1925. The accounts of survivors and old photographs of the damage path cut by the tornado emphasize the real horror of that day to an unsuspecting public.

To find out more about tornadoes, attend the All About Tornadoes seminar to be held on February 21 from 6 to 8 pm at the Morgan County Extension office. Registration is $5 per person. Call 243-7424 for more information or to register.

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About the author

Duane is an Educator with University of Illinois Extension in the Calhoun/Cass/Greene/Morgan/Scott unit.

View all articles by Duane Friend

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