1896 St. Louis–East St. Louis tornado

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1896 St. Louis–East St. Louis tornado
F4 tornado
St Louis Jefferson-Allen Damage (cropped).jpg
Tornado damage, Union Depot, Jefferson and Allen Avenues, St. Louis, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration photograph by J. C. Strauss, May 27, 1896
TypeTornado outbreak
Max. rating1F4 tornado
Duration of tornado outbreak2Unknown
Damage$4.3 bil. (2015 US$) [$3.9 billion (2009 US$)]
Casualties255+ fatalities; many injured
Areas affectedSt. Louis, Missouri metro area
1Most severe tornado damage; see Fujita scale
2Time from first tornado to last tornado
Part of the May 1896 tornado outbreak sequence

The 1896 St. Louis – East St. Louis tornado was a historic tornado that occurred on Wednesday, May 27, 1896, as part of a major tornado outbreak across the Central United States that day, continuing across the Eastern United States on the 28th.[1] One of the deadliest and most destructive tornadoes in U.S. history, this large and violent tornado was the most notable of an outbreak which produced other large, long-track, violent, killer tornadoes. It caused over $10,000,000 in damage in 1896 ($4.65 billion in today's dollars).[2] 255 people died, and over a thousand were injured. More than 5,000 people were made homeless and lost all of their possessions. The hardest hit areas of the city where the fashionable Lafayette Square and Compton Heights neighborhoods, as well as the poorer Mill Creek Valley.[3]

Confirmed tornadoes by Fujita rating
FU F0 F1 F2 F3 F4 F5 Total
? ? ? 5 5 4 0 14

May 27 outbreak[edit]

The tornado that struck St. Louis on 27 May 1896 was the most devastating known in the United States up to that time. Approximately 12,000 buildings were seriously damaged, valued in excess of $10 million. Weather forecasters were technically unable to predict cyclones (tornadoes) of this magnitude,[4] but it did warn of storms, with the St. Louis twister being one of at least 18 tornadoes on that day.[5]

While a storm had been predicted for the latter days in May, many disregarded the warning or felt that the city of St. Louis would not be affected. The day started quietly, with people going about their daily business. The weather in the morning did not indicate any severe weather event. The local weather bureau predicted thunderstorms, but nothing more serious. Around noon, the clouds began to appear more ominous and the barometric pressure dropped, alarming those who knew this was an indication of a tornado.[6][7]

Into the afternoon, the skies started to darken, but the Weather Bureau Observatory was not overly concerned. Many residents, however, fled to their homes, anticipating severe weather. At 4:30 pm, the temperature dropped rapidly and black and greenish clouds approached the city. Near 5:00 pm, the sky became as dark as midnight. As the thunderstorm approached St. Louis, the western portion of the city was particularly affected. Winds were initially around 37 miles per hour, but they quickly increased to almost 80 miles per hour.[6]

The first significant tornado of the day formed near Bellflower, Missouri and killed one person; a woman. Three students died and 16 were injured when the Dye School in Audrain County, Missouri was struck around 6:15 pm. The same tornado killed one student and injured 19 others at the Bean Creek school a few minutes later. At 6:30 pm, two supercell thunderstorms produced two additional tornadoes. One decimated farms in New Minden, Hoyleton, Richview, and Irvington, Illinois.

Twenty-seven more people died in the other Illinois tornadoes of this outbreak.

St. Louis – East St. Louis tornado[edit]

Path of destruction in St. Louis.
Park Avenue residence with woman walking by. A 'for sale' sign can be seen lying next to almost completely demolished building. Row of shacks in front of church left untouched. The State Historical Society of Missouri.

The tornado spawned from the other supercell became the third deadliest and the most costly tornado in United States history. It touched down in St. Louis, Missouri, then one of the largest and most influential cities in the country. At least 137 people died as the tornado traversed the core of the city leaving a 1 mile (1.6 km) wide continuous swath of destroyed homes, schools, saloons, factories, mills, churches, parks, and railroad yards. A few of the destroyed homes were swept away. Numerous trees were downed at the 36-acre (0.15 km2) Lafayette Park, and a barometer recorded a drop to 26.74 inHg (906 hPa) at this location.[8] Uncounted others may have died on boats on the Mississippi River, which could have swept their bodies downriver.

Where the tornado crossed the Mississippi and struck the Eads Bridge, a 2 in × 10 in (51 mm × 254 mm) wooden plank was found driven through a 516 in (7.9 mm) wrought iron plate. The tornado continued into East St. Louis, Illinois, where it was smaller, but more intense. Homes and buildings along the river were completely swept away and a quarter of the buildings there were damaged or destroyed. An additional 118 people were killed, 35 of which occurred at the Vandalia railroad freight yards. The confirmed death toll stood at 255, with some estimates above 400. More than 1,000 were injured. The tornado was later rated F4 on the Fujita scale.[2] Enough damage was done to the city that there was some question that St. Louis might not be able to host the 1896 Republican National Convention in June.

Following the cyclone's destruction, members of Light Battery "A" and the First Regiment were placed on volunteer duty. Within an hour of the tornado striking, 32 members were on duty with ambulances and hospital corps to assist in rescue operations and to help victims. The mayor asked that both commands remain on patrol duty on May 30. Members of the bicycle corps of Company "G" First Regiment assisted when railway service was inaccessible. Telephone and telegraph wires were destroyed and streets were impassable. Officers were summoned to duty by bicycle couriers, as this way the only means of communication after the city's destruction.[9]

Long-term impact[edit]

In the wake of highly sensationalized local, national and international news coverage over 140,000 sightseers flocked to inspect the most damage areas. The cyclone permanently changed altered the course of residential, commercial, and industrial development in The most heavily damaged areas. However, the undamaged areas continued as normal.[10][11]

Political reverberations came in the 1897 city elections, when middle class reform candidates were decisively defeated by a coalition based on the German vote in heavily impacted neighborhoods.[12]

In perspective[edit]

St. Louis tornado history[edit]

It is somewhat infrequent for the core of a large city to be hit directly by a tornado (due to their relatively small area and the relative lack of large cities in the highest tornado threat region)—especially a large intense tornado—yet several other tornadoes have tracked through the City of St. Louis and several of these tornadoes were also very deadly and destructive. Among these events are: 1871 (9 killed), 1890 (4 killed), 1904 (3 killed, 100 injured), 1927 (79 killed, 550 injured, once the 2nd costliest in US history),[2] and 1959 (21 killed, 345 injured).[13] This makes St. Louis the worst tornado afflicted urban area in the U.S.[14] Additionally, the Greater St. Louis area is the scene of even more historically destructive and deadly tornadoes. Oklahoma City is the metropolitan area with the most frequent significant tornadoes.

Other May 1896 tornadoes[edit]

In what was apparently an intense tornado outbreak sequence, other major tornado outbreaks occurred on May 15, May 17, and May 24–25, with other smaller outbreaks during the month as well. The middle to end of May was extremely active but sparse records preclude knowing much detail. Tom Grazulis has stated that the week of May 24–28 was "perhaps the most violent single week of tornado activity in US history".[15]

1896 tornado season[edit]

The 1896 tornado season has the distinction of being one of the deadliest in United States history. There were at least 40 killer tornadoes spanning from April 11 to November 26; including this one, the only one to kill more than 100 people in two separate cities.[15]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Grazulis, Thomas P. (July 1993). Significant Tornadoes 1680–1991: A Chronology and Analysis of Events. St. Johnsbury, Vermont: The Tornado Project of Environmental Films. ISBN 1-879362-03-1.
  2. ^ a b c Brooks, Harold E.; Charles A. Doswell III (February 2001). "Normalized Damage from Major Tornadoes in the United States: 1890–1999" (abstract). Weather and Forecasting. American Meteorological Society. 16 (1): 168–76. Bibcode:2001WtFor..16..168B. doi:10.1175/1520-0434(2001)016<0168:NDFMTI>2.0.CO;2.
  3. ^ Mary K. Dains, "The St. Louis Tornado of 1896." Missouri Historical Review (1972) 66#3 pp 431-445.
  4. ^ Marlene Bradford, "Historical roots of modern tornado forecasts and warnings." Weather and forecasting' 14.4 (1999): 484-491.
  5. ^ Joseph G. Galway, "Ten famous tornado outbreaks." Weatherwise 34.3 (1981): 100-109.
  6. ^ a b Curzon, Julian (1897). The Great Cyclone at St. Louis and East St. Louis, May 27, 1896.
  7. ^ James Neal Primm (1998). Lion of the Valley: St. Louis, Missouri, 1764-1980. Missouri History Museum. pp. 343–51.
  8. ^ Julius Baier (September 1896). "Low Pressure in St. Louis Tornado" (PDF). Monthly Weather Review. 24 (9): 332. doi:10.1175/1520-0493(1896)24[332:LPISLT]2.0.CO;2.
  9. ^ Journal of the Senate and House, 39th General Assembly, Regular Session, Year range 1897, General Assembly, Record Group 550, Missouri State Archives, Jefferson City.
  10. ^ Mary K. Dains, "The St. Louis Tornado of 1896." Missouri Historical Review (1972) 66#3 pp 431-445.
  11. ^ Judith Ciampoli, "The St. Louis Tornado of 1896: Mad Pranks of the Storm King." Gateway Heritage: The Magazine of the Missouri Historical Society (1982) 2#4 pp 24-31.
  12. ^ Joseph Rogers, "Retreat from Reform: St. Louis Politics in the Wake of the 1896 Tornado" Missouri Historical Review (2011) v 106#1 pp 32-47.
  13. ^ Przybylinski, Ron; et al. "St. Louis City Tornadoes". St. Louis Tornado Climatology. National Weather Service. Retrieved June 17, 2007.
  14. ^ Edwards, Roger; Joe Schaefer. "Downtown Tornadoes". Online Tornado FAQ. Storm Prediction Center. Retrieved June 17, 2007.
  15. ^ a b Grazulis, Tom; Doris Grazulis. "1896 Tornadoes". The Tornado Project. Archived from the original on March 30, 2008. Retrieved March 24, 2008.

Further reading[edit]

  • Ciampoli, Judith. "The St. Louis Tornado of 1896: Mad Pranks of the Storm King." Gateway Heritage: The Magazine of the Missouri Historical Society (1982) 2#4 pp 24-31.
  • Curzon, Julian. The great cyclone at St. Louis and East St. Louis, May 27, 1896. Being a full history of the most terrifying and destructive tornado in the history of the world, with numerous thrilling and pathetic incidents and personal experiences of those who were in the track of the storm. Also an account of the wonderful manifestations of sympathy for the afflicted in all parts of the world (1897) online free also Reprinted 1997 Southern Illinois University Press, ISBN 0-8093-2124-6.
  • Dains, Mary K. "The St. Louis Tornado of 1896." Missouri Historical Review (1972) 66#3 pp 431-445.
  • Primm, James Neal (1998). Lion of the Valley: St. Louis, Missouri, 1764-1980. Missouri History Museum. pp. 343–51.
  • Rogers, Joseph. "Retreat from Reform: St. Louis Politics in the Wake of the 1896 Tornado" Missouri Historical Review (2011) v 106#1 pp 32-47.
  • Tornado Scenes in St. Louis. Rand, McNally. 1896.

External links[edit]

Preceded by
Louisville, Ky. (1890)
Costliest U.S. tornadoes on Record
May 27, 1896
Succeeded by
Lorain & Sandusky, Oh. (1924)