In the two hundred and forty-six years since its founding the City of St. Louis has experienced cholera epidemics, a fire that laid waste to almost the entire central business district and a siege that, had it succeeded, would have rendered us subject to the King of England. But the Great Cyclone of May 27, 1896 holds the record for the single, greatest disaster in St. Louis history. And it only lasted twenty minutes.
No one now living remembers the event and few if any St. Louisans have family stories that relate it. There are plenty of stories about subsequent, destructive tornadoes – so much so, that everyone in St. Louis over the age of six knows to head for the deepest, sturdiest section of the house when the air gets still and heavy and the sky rolls with green clouds. By which time sirens are going off all over the place. But the Great Cyclone of 1896 was another matter. Then there were no sirens.
I was asked once on a tour that followed the path the tornado took on that fateful day, why its stories have not been handed down. The person who asked the question had family members who barely survived in an area devastated by the cyclone and was amazed that he had to take a tour to learn what had occurred. I asked him in reply, as well as the other Seniors on the coach tour that day, how many of them had stories recounted by fathers or uncles who’d come back from The Great War. The response was complete silence.
One hundred and twenty-eight known dead and 8,800 homes, churches, businesses completely destoyed or damaged in St. Louis alone. Train cars toppled, riverboats sunk, steel girders mangled, 300 feet of the east rampart of James Eads’ Bridge demolished. All in a matter of twenty minutes.
In 1996, on its hundredth anniversary, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch devoted a special feature section to “The Great Cyclone of 1896” which you can find in the St. Louis Public Library. The photographs taken on May 28 are shattering. Tim O’Neil, staff writer for the Post, did a marvelous job of virtually tracking its path from the highest point in the city of St. Louis where it struck first, through Tower Grove Park and Shaw’s Garden, then Compton Heights (where it tore off hundreds of roofs and chimneys), Lafayette Square and Park(where it sheared the tops of almost every tree that it hadn’t completely uprooted and leveled the bandstand), on through Soulard to the St. Louis riverfront, Eads’ Bridge, finally crossing the Mississippi and laying waste to East St. Louis, which never recovered.
The neighborhoods on this, the west side of the Mississippi River, most impacted by proportionately the 4th most damaging tornado in U.S. history – Lafayette Square, Bohemian Hill, the northern swath of Soulard, LaSalle Park – still resonate with a haunting sense of loss that I think will never be dispelled.
You can view the 2004, abbreviated version of Tim O’Neil’s powerful article detailing “The Great Cyclone of 1896” at http://www.stltoday.com. Since reading the original some fourteen years ago, May 27th has held a special significance for me. I’m reminded each spring how a great American city, fourth in the nation, gearing up full-speed to mount the largest World’s Fair ever – was brought to its knees. I won’t sleep tonight until the clock strikes 12:01.
© 2010 Maureen O’Connor Kavanaugh