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Let's Reminisce: Remembering the Tri-State Tornado of 1925
By Jerry Lincecum
Jun 3, 2019
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We have recently experienced an unprecedented number of tornadoes with incredible dollar amounts of destruction as well as untold anguish visited upon thousands of families.  But the number of deaths from these storms is relatively small.  This brings to mind stories I have heard from my late father-in-law who experienced first-hand the Tri-State Tornado of March 18, 1925, which was the deadliest tornado in US history, inflicting 695 fatalities.

It was also the most exceptional tornado during a major outbreak of at least 12 known significant tornadoes, spanning a large portion of the Midwestern and Southern United States. The more than 200-mile track left by this tornado over a three-hour period was the longest ever recorded in the world, as it crossed from southeastern Missouri, through southern Illinois, then into southwestern Indiana. Although not officially rated by NOAA, it is recognized by most experts as an F5 tornado, the maximum damage rating issued on the Fujita scale, now used to rank the strength of these storms.

On the afternoon of Wed., March 18, 1925, Francis (Chick) Redshaw was a seven-year-old boy in West Frankfort, IL, a mining town.  He was at school when the tornado crossed the Mississippi River from Missouri into Southern Illinois.  As the storm moved into town about 3 p.m., Chick’s father was at work, making a delivery to the New Orient coalmine, and the boy knew his mother was home alone.

Escaping from his teacher, he ran away from school, heading for home, when the storm struck.  The winds were so strong that he was blown onto the porch of a neighboring family, where he was taken inside and kept safe.

The part of town where Chick’s family lived was damaged somewhat, but their home remained standing despite being “sprung” by the heavy winds.  None of the doors in the house would close properly. 

In contrast, the northwest part of the city was almost completely demolished.  Although the coal mine was in the direct path of the storm, very little of its equipment was destroyed.  The miners who were working several hundred feet underground as the storm passed over heard its great noise and felt the suction it produced as air moved with considerable force through the shafts of the mine.

An eyewitness in West Frankfort reported that the shock of the tornado left people in a daze.  Feeling that something awful had happened, they did not know how to respond.  When some of the injured began to cry for help, a spell was broken and hundreds of men, women, and even children rushed to the devastated part of the city.  Chick’s father hauled dead bodies to the morgue in his dray wagon.

Before darkness fell more than 150 dead were counted, and the injured had filled the miners’ hospital plus several temporary hospitals set up in churches.  It was later determined that over three hundred homes were destroyed, as well as two churches and two schoolhouses.

The Tri-State tornado remains controversial despite extensive study.  One issue is whether the originally recognized numbers of a 219-mile path over 3.5 hours was one continuous tornado or a tornado family. The lack of tornado data because of the distance in the past and the failure of other tornadoes to approach the Tri-State Tornado’s path length and duration raised doubts.  Some scientists argue it is likely that part of the storm track both at the beginning and ending were separate tornadoes.

None of this uncertainty mattered to a seven-year-old boy whose memory of and attitude toward tornadoes was indelible.  Chick’s daughter (my wife) who grew up hearing his stories about that experience knew what to expect when she moved into the North Texas tornado alley forty years ago.

A retired Austin College professor, Dr. Jerry Lincecum now teaches classes for older adults who want to write their life stories.  He welcomes your reminiscences on any topic: jlincecum@me.com