1920 Palm Sunday tornado outbreak

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This article is about the 1920 tornado outbreak. For other uses, see Palm Sunday tornado outbreak (disambiguation).
1920 Palm Sunday tornado outbreak
Date of tornado outbreak: March 28, 1920
Duration1: ~9 hours
Maximum rated tornado2: F4 tornado
Tornadoes caused: ≥ 37
Highest winds:
Largest hail:
Damages: Unknown
Fatalities: 380+
Areas affected: Alabama, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio, Wisconsin

1Time from first tornado to last tornado
2Most severe tornado damage; see Fujita Scale

The Palm Sunday tornado outbreak of 1920 was an outbreak of at least 37 tornadoes, 31 of which were significant, across the Midwest and Deep South states on March 28, 1920. The tornadoes left more than 380 dead and at least 1,215 injured. Many communities and farmers alike were caught off-guard as the storms moved to the northeast at speeds that reached over 60 miles per hour (97 km/h). Most of the fatalities occurred in Georgia (201+), Indiana (56), and Ohio (55), while the other states had lesser totals. Little is known about many of the specific tornadoes that occurred, and the list below is only partial.[citation needed]

Severe thunderstorms began developing in Missouri during the early morning hours. The storms moved quickly to the northeast towards Chicago, Illinois. The first tornado injured five people 35 miles (56 km) southeast of Springfield, Missouri, in Douglas County. This first tornado was a harbinger of things to come as the morning went on and the atmosphere began to destabilize, due to the abundance of sunshine that preceded the cold front in the warm sector, which covered the lower Great Lakes region extending southward well past the Ohio River Valley.[citation needed]

Meteorological synopsis[edit]

According to meteorologist and weather historian Charles Merlin Umpenhour, climatic conditions were favorable on Palm Sunday 1920 for all the atmospheric ingredients to come together needed to create the classic setup needed for long-track tornadoes. However, forecasting, communications technology, and public awareness about Severe Weather was nearly nonexistent in 1920 and would not begin for another 33 years, when the U.S. Weather Bureau would implement its public Watch (the word ‘forecast’ was used until 1966) and Warning program in 1953.[citation needed]

For the residents of the Great Lakes region and Ohio Valley areas, the only source of weather information was the rather vague forecasts that were issued in the local newspaper the day before or by word of mouth. The use of the word "tornado" was strictly prohibited in public weather forecasting until the 1950s because of the fear and panic it might cause. This policy would come under-fire in the years to come especially after the Tri-State Tornado in 1925 that stands today as the deadliest tornado in American history.[citation needed]

Weather forecasters and the public alike in the Chicago, Dayton, Fort Wayne, Lansing, South Bend, and Toledo areas were unaware that the stage was set that day for a significant tornado outbreak that would follow a balmy and seemingly tranquil Palm Sunday afternoon. The weather maps in use in March 1920 showed a rather large and deep cyclone over northern Iowa that was forecast to move across central Lower Michigan by nightfall with a trailing cold front. Meteorologists knew rain showers and perhaps a thundershower was a good possibility, but were unaware that the helicity, lifted index, and upper level winds were being guided by a strong jet stream with a probable negative-tilt that would create favorable conditions for the development of tornadoes.[citation needed]

Confirmed tornadoes[edit]

≥ 37 5 ? ? 15 8 8 0

March 28 event[edit]

Notable tornadoes[edit]

La Fox/Elgin, Illinois[edit]

Just before the noon hour, severe thunderstorms began forming 50 miles (80 km) west of downtown Chicago. The first storm started to spawn killer tornadoes in DeKalb and then Kane Counties starting at 12:00 p.m. CST. Upon touching down, the tornadoes then moved northeast at about 50 miles per hour (80 km/h).[3] The tornado in Kane County apparently first formed about 1.5 miles (2.4 km) southeast of La Fox and moved northeast, later passing directly through downtown Elgin.[3] Initially, the tornado destroyed a farmhouse and numerous barns, killing a father and tossing about a baby[3] as it touched down.[1]

Observers occasionally reported a well-defined funnel along the path as the tornado continued into the business district of Elgin, destroying or damaging many structures. It destroyed six businesses, damaged many others, and also "partially wrecked" three churches.[3] Three people died as the rear of a theater collapsed, three more as a brick church tower fell, and one additional as a building façade caved in. Church services had been dismissed just minutes before, saving the lives of parishioners and preventing more deaths in Elgin.[3]

As the tornado left downtown Elgin, it destroyed numerous trees along with 25 homes and damaged 200 other residences. Thereafter, the tornado probably dissipated,[1] only to develop into a new tornado. Both isolated tornado and widespread non-tornadic downburst damage was reported as far as Wauconda, killing cattle, damaging farms, and destroying many buildings.[3] The tornado in Elgin was rated F3 in a study and was the first tornado of the outbreak to cause deaths and to kill more than five people.[1]

Melrose Park, Illinois[edit]

The Melrose Park-Wilmette tornado originated about 12.15 p. m. in Will County, 1.5 miles (2.4 km) north of the village of Channahon and 8 miles (13 km) southwest of Joliet. The funnel-shaped tornado cloud was first seen and damage was first noted at the farm of John Dison...

Monthly Weather Review[3]

Roughly 15 minutes after the Elgin tornado formed, a violent F4 tornado tore through Will and Cook Counties, producing a path 53 miles (85 km) long in the Bellwood and Maywood areas. The tornado first destroyed five homes,[1] two frame schools, and at least 12 barns[3] as it passed from Channahon to Troy and then Lockport. It skipped thereafter, possibly dissipating and redeveloping into a second tornado, as it caused minor damage in the Romeoville area. Afterward, the tornado funnel was not seen for some time.[3]

Upon reaching the Bellwood-Maywood area, a second tornado probably touched down and produced a continuous damage swath to Lake Michigan, killing 20 people and leveling many homes with F4 damage.[1] 10 of the deaths alone occurred at Melrose Park[1] when the tornado hit the Melrose Park Catholic Church and Convent[3] where people were getting ready for Palm Sunday services.[citation needed] The tornado destroyed 50 other buildings in Melrose Park before moving over less-populated areas, killing six more people in the community of Dunning before passing over Lake Michigan. In all, the tornado partially or completed destroyed 413 buildings and injured about 300 people. It is just one of just six known F4-F5 tornadoes to occur within the Chicago metropolitan area.[1][8]

Townley, Indiana/Swanton–Brunersburg–Raab Corners, Ohio[edit]

The tornadoes that struck the western counties of Darke, Defiance, Mercer, Paulding, and Van Wert in Ohio on March 28, 1920, originated in the Hoosier State, quickly moving across the state line into Ohio.

The first of the tornadoes began in Indiana around 5:15 p.m. CST. Probably part of a tornado family, it touched down near the Wells County community of Ossian. Increasing rapidly in size and intensity, the tornado was reported by eyewitnesses to have resembled a very large, low-hanging mass of turbulent clouds that resembled boiling pot of oatmeal.[6] This may have accounted for the deaths and injuries of so many farmers within its path, since many farmers were usually accustomed to taking shelter during dangerous weather situations.[3] The tornado then hit Edgerton[3] and destroyed farms in Indiana and caused nine deaths before destroying nearly every building at Townley.[2] Four people died there as the entire town was devastated[3] with F4 damage. The powerful F4 tornado leveled at least 100 buildings in Indiana[2] with 13 deaths and $1,000,000 in damage (1920 USD) in the state.[3] It later became the first of three tornadoes to move into Ohio, this time from Allen County, Indiana.

After moving through Paulding County, the tornado alternately lifted and dipped to the ground,[2] possibly even reforming as a separate tornado, as it moved into the Defiance area. Here several homes and a small store were destroyed and six people lost their lives. The violent tornado then moved northeast into Henry and Fulton Counties, tearing through the town of Swanton, located near Brunersburg,[2] and causing major damage.[6] Many factories, shops, and homes were completely demolished. According to the Toledo Blade newspaper, the central business district sustained very heavy damage along Main Street, extending into nearby residential areas, where the damage became more intense. This damage brought out many thieves who looted local businesses and houses that had been hit by the tornado.[6] Continuing on, the tornado then caused isolated damage to farms and trees as it passed into rural areas.[2]

Increasing in size as it moved into northwest Lucas County, the tornado produced increasingly severe damage, as buildings and homes were swept clean of their foundations,[6] before leveling the entire community of Raab Corners (four deaths), also called "Rab's Corners", in Lucas County.[2] Farmhouses and other buildings were leveled as the violent tornado, .5 miles (1 km) wide at this point, moved towards Raab Corners. The residents of Raab Corners were largely unaware of the impending danger as they celebrated Palm Sunday services at the Immaculate Conception and St. Mary's Churches that evening.[6] Just after 7:00 p.m. CST rain and small hail started to come down in torrents. As the power went out churchgoers lighted kerosene lamps to illuminate the interior of their buildings, and to continue their Palm Sunday services, when the winds began to increase followed by large hail that shattered all the windows. Around 7:15 p.m. CST, a solid black wall of swirling clouds proceeded to engulf Raab Corners, destroying everything in its path and killing four[2] people. Local residents decided not to rebuild the town, moving to nearby communities in Michigan and Ohio.[6] Today, only an intersection remains at once was the main four corners.

Fenton, Michigan[edit]

The third and final F4 tornado in Michigan this day touched down west-northwest of Fenton at about 7:30 p.m. CST, shortly before "8 o' clock,"[9] though one estimate suggested a time of 5:00 p.m. CST.[2] The tornado first destroyed a barn, a farmhouse, and a school[10] as it moved northeast.[2] It then struck a cement plant and demolished a smokestack and destroyed the steel-framed kiln room, reportedly warping and twisting the steel bars "so badly...that it is probable that the enclosure will have to be rebuilt." Total losses reached $100,000 at the plant.[9] Afterward, the intensifying tornado leveled farm buildings and killed two horses and several other livestock; it left cows unharmed but pinned under debris.[10] The F4 tornado then struck and completely leveled about 30 lakeside summer homes,[9] many of them large and well-built structures[10] worth $3,000–$6,000 to build at the time.[9] Intense winds lifted boats up to 300 feet (91 m) from their moorings and carried entire homes several hundred feet from their foundations.[9] In the summer, according to the Fenton Independent, there would have been "hundreds of people camping at the lake. Should the accident have occurred at that time there would have been hundreds of deaths."[9] In all, the powerful tornado killed four people and damaged or destroyed 35 buildings near Fenton. One of the deaths occurred in an overturned car, among the earliest tornado-related deaths in an automobile; the earliest known such death was probably on May 19, 1918, in Iowa.[2]

Other tornadoes[edit]

Around 7:30 pm, another tornado developed in eastern Mercer County first appearing as a waterspout over Grand Lake St. Marys. This storm quickly intensified as it moved towards the northeast at 55 miles per hour (89 km/h). The heaviest damage occurred near Moulton, located in Auglaize County, as several farms and homes were destroyed, with only minor injuries reported. This tornado continued on into Allen County, but lifted before striking the city of Lima.[6] Meanwhile, to the north in Wood County, another tornado (some reports say there were two at the same time) touched down east of Bowling Green, Ohio, and moved rapidly northeast into Sandusky County, taking everything in its path with it. Moving into the Ottawa County village of Genoa, the tornado leveled over 36 (some sources say 20[2]) homes and several businesses. In the Clay Township area, two people were killed and 20 people were injured, extending to the small town of Trowbridge. The tornado passed out into Lake Erie before causing any further damage.[6]


Newspaper accounts and weather records document over 31 storms of major significance; thus, the probable number of actual tornadoes is higher. The only time prior to 1950 where weather forecasters would conduct an official inquiry is when a single tornado was noteworthy of an extensive investigation such as the infamous Tri-State Tornado of March 18, 1925. According to Thomas P. Grazulis, head of the Tornado Project, the death tolls in the southern states on Palm Sunday 1920 could have easily been much higher since the deaths of non-whites from natural disasters were often overlooked or omitted in either official or newspaper records.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q Grazulis, Significant, p. 767
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa ab ac ad ae af ag ah Grazulis, Significant, p. 768
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u Mitchell, Charles L. (April 1920). "Tornadoes of March 28, in Northeastern Illinois". Monthly Weather Review (Chicago, Illinois: United States Weather Bureau) 28 (4): 191–196. doi:10.1175/1520-0493(1920)48<191b:TOMINI>2.0.CO;2. 
  4. ^ "Selected Timeline of Troup County History". Troup County Historical Society. Archived from the original on 13 October 2003. Retrieved 5 February 2013. 
  5. ^ a b c Smyth, P. H. (April 1920). "The Tornadoes of March 28, 1920, in East-Central Alabama". Monthly Weather Review (Montgomery, Alabama: United States Weather Bureau) 48 (4): 200–203. doi:10.1175/1520-0493(1920)48<200:TTOMIE>2.0.CO;2. 
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i "Northwest Ohio Is Swept By Tornado; 19 Known Dead". Toledo Blade. Press Pool. March 30, 1920. 
  7. ^ a b Grazulis, Significant, p. 769
  8. ^ Tornado History Project. "Tornado Map". Retrieved 2013-02-02. 
  9. ^ a b c d e f "Death And Destruction In Wake Of Tornado". Fenton Independent. April 1, 1920. 
  10. ^ a b c "Four Killed in Cyclone". Fenton Courier. April 1, 1920. 


  • Grazulis, Thomas P. (1993). Significant Tornadoes 1680-1991: A Chronology and Analysis of Events. Environmental Films. ISBN 1-879362-03-1. 
  • — (2003). The Tornado: Nature’s Ultimate Windstorm. University of Oklahoma Press. ISBN 978-0-8061-3538-0.