An Autumn Day Unlike Any Other

29, September 2017

Natural disasters have shaped the history of St. Louis from very early on. The Mississippi River and its many tributaries have swollen over their banks multiple times, violent earthquakes have shaken the region to its core, and fire and disease have swept through separately and simultaneously. Tornadoes have also wreaked havoc here, particularly the one that hit on May 27, 1896, which killed more than 250 people and went down in the record books as one of the largest tornadoes in American history. But 1896 wasn’t the only time a tornado tore apart the River City.

From Out of Nowhere

Thursday, September 29, 1927, started out as a fairly normal autumn day in St. Louis. It was cloudy, and forecasters had called for periodic rain. Then, at about 1pm, a powerful tornado touched down near the intersection of Manchester and Kingshighway. Roughly five minutes later, the tornado's estimated 90 mph winds had ripped through some of the busiest parts of town. (You can follow their path of destruction via an interactive feature in our current Panoramas of the City exhibit.)

Black-and-white photo showing damage to the Hodiamont streetcar tracks at Cook AvenueDamage along the Hodiamont streetcar tracks at Cook Ave., 1927. Missouri History Museum.

The people who lived and worked in these areas had little warning that a dangerous tornado was barreling toward them because the National Weather Service had banned tornado warnings back in 1887, fearing such alarms would cause panic. Fortunately, this ban was lifted in the 1930s.

When the tornado hit in 1927, students, businessmen, shoppers, and laborers watched and prayed as the world around them was churned up and thrown back down in broken pieces. People sought cover wherever they could. Streetcar conductor D. O. Cornwell even threw himself under his streetcar for protection as the roof of a nearby building came barreling down on top of him—miraculously he escaped with only minor injuries.

The Aftermath

Black-and-white scan of newspaper photo showing woman sitting amidst the ruins of a houseDetail of a photo that appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on October 1, 1927. Missouri History Museum.

After the winds finally abated, St. Louisans came out of hiding to discover six square miles of their city in ruins. Within this area were six schools, including Central High School, where a collapsed tower killed five girls who had sought cover in a classroom. They were among the more than 70 people who lost their lives in the tornado. Another 500 people were injured and faced incredibly long waits for medical care as the city’s remaining hospitals took on the workloads of four damaged hospitals.

Private residences were hit too. More than 2,500 families found themselves homeless after hundreds of houses were reduced to rubble. St. Louis police chief Joseph Gerk had to deputize an additional 500 men to help guard all the damaged property as overtaxed emergency workers dug through the debris.

Helpers and Lookie-Loos

Stories of St. Louisans assisting each other filled the headlines in the tornado’s wake. Within a mere two days’ time, St. Louisans had already raised $165,000 of the $500,000 that the Red Cross had requested to aid tornado victims. Boy Scouts came out to relieve exhausted emergency workers, while many adults volunteered to help their friends and neighbors sort through the rubble.

Sepia-toned photograph of spectators standing in rubble left behind by the 1927 tornadoSpectators standing in the rubble left behind by the 1927 tornado. Missouri History Museum.

Other stories weren’t as pleasant. As soon as the affected streets were cleared of debris, they were jam-packed with sightseers in automobiles, which often blocked the very paths that rescue workers needed to take. The spectators’ presence became such a problem that Chief Gerk was quoted as saying, “Our greatest difficulty in policing the city has been caused by the sight-seeing maniac.” He pleaded with the lookie-loos to stay home, both for their own safety and the safety of those who were trying to help the city dig out. Yet crowds continued to come and gawk at the damage for days, hindering rescue workers’ efforts and extending the city’s recovery by months.

—Adam Kloppe, Public Historian

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