East St. Louis, MO Tornado, Mar 1871


East St. Louis Swept by a Besom of Destruction -- Six Men Killed and Fifty-two Persons Injured - Loss Estimated at Nearly One Million and a Half Dollars

From the St. Louis Republican, March 9

Yesterday morning dawned cloudy, and a little sultry. In the afternoon, about 1 o'clock, the gloom in the heavens deepened to the south and west, and there were a few drops of rain now and then. A brisk breeze prevailed which was warm in its temperature. Between 2 and 3 o'clock the clouds assumed an appearance alarming to all inexperienced eye. The gray masses of vapor became ragged and torn along their edges, and here and there fleecy patches were rent of and hurried along by some swift power. The rain commenced to fall and the wind rose gradually, but not to an extent to create alarm.

A few minutes past 3 o'clock the awful visitation opened its fury, without a moment's warning, blowing from the southwest, coming up the river in a diagonal line inclining eastward in its advance - a terrible whirling force, compacted in a path of about six or eight hundred feet wide, and rushing onward with a roar like an angry sea and the velocity of a bird's flight. At another time, perhaps, it will be possible to collect particulars of the coming of the tempest, but yesterday hardly a witness could be found who could give a coherent sistement. They all seemed to think that it smote the earth as with a sudden blow and they knew not it was coming until it was upon them, but only felt its awful seizure. The tornado seems to have barely touched our southern limits, but to have kept east of the city, and no very alarming damage was done until it struck East St. Louis. Here it manifested its dreadful power, with a space of three minutes, in a manner never before equalled in this part of the country, and almost indescribable. Let the reader imagine an irresistible air-torrent rushing against the frail, artificial structures of man, situated on an exposed river bank. In a moment the air is filled with splinters, dust and fragments of all kinds. Houses, sheds and other structures disappear as if levelled by the blow of a Titan, or fly to pieces and are borne along in the stream of the storm. The East St. Louis elevator was the first edifice struck on the Illinois shore, a strong frame building. The roof was torn to ribbons, and a large portion of it, like a black meteor, shot northward and fell far away in river. Then came the destruction of other houses; some were unroofed, and some were rent to pieces, walls and all, and the unhappy inmates buried in the ruins. The stately steamer Mollie Able, lying at the East St. Louis wharf, had here texes torn off and buried in the river. The bridge tug "Hewitt" had her wheel-house disposed on in the same way, and became a wreck. The whole forest of frame work over the east abutment pier of the bridge was twisted up like a bunch of reeds in the fingers of the storm, and crashed down in a pile of chaotic ruin. Railway cars and engines were dashed down on their sides or whirled off the tracks as they were paper boxes. Whole trees were either struck to the earth, as if the trunks had been severed by a cannon shot, or lifted bodily and carried yards away from where they a moment before stood. Put all these destructions together with a hundred others; fill the air with a maze of whirling objects, and imagine the sky as black as ink, seamed every moment with tongues of lightning, and reverberating with thunder-crashes, while there is a steady roar of a great rushing on the earth, and some idea may be gained of the outburst of the tornado on East St. Louis.

The tornado did not last more than three minutes. As above stated, it seemed to come from the north-northwest, and touching the Illinois shore first at the elevator, passing along the river bank, inclining eastward, and terminating at the track of the Toledo, Wabash, and Western Railroad, nearly to the head of Bloody Island, and at this point about eight hundred yards from the river, its speed is estimated at between sixty and seventy miles an hour, and its strength was almost irresistible where any flat surface was exposed. What damage was done south of the city was not definitely ascertained, but no reports were received last night of any serious consequences.

The scene in East St. Louis during and immediately succeeding the storm was thrilling beyond description. The destruction of so many buildings, and the killing and wounding of so many persons, caused universal dismay and excitement. Hardly had the wind and rain deluge ceased, before men, women, and children might be seen running about in all directions, some in the very insanity of fear aimlessly flying for security somewhere; others seeking help for some loved ones buried in tempest-made ruins, or looking in an agony of suspense for some relative or friend of whose safety there is uncertain.