It Was a Disaster! The May 27, 1896 St. Louis Great Cyclone: A Steampunk Journal Series About Unfortunate Events

I’ve been fascinated by storms, even after surviving one as a child in my hometown of St. Louis. I’m a storm spotter for the U.S. National Weather Service. I’ve taken some incredible pics of lightning and cloud formations. But my favorite weather phenomenon is the tornado, popularly known as a cyclone or a twister in the Victorian era. One of the deadliest happened right here in St. Louis on May 27, 1896. (You can read my fictional account of the event in this excerpt)

It Was a Terrible Month from the Start

the weather forecasters and Farmer’s Almanacs of the time predicted May of 1896 would be inclement weather month. Early May saw severe storms covering the Midwest and Southern states. May 15th started one of the worst periods of tornadic history in North America. And expert Tom Grazulis named May 24-28th “the most violent single week of tornadic activity.”

In the second half of the month there were four tornadic outbreaks, three F5 tornadoes (the highest level of danger on the Fajita scale), and the 3rd deadliest tornado ever (as will be discussed below). 38 different tornadoes affected 8 states significantly but also reached past the standard “tornado alley” region to as far as New York and Philadelphia. Almost 500 people were killed during these outbreaks.

The May 27th Storm Was a Savage Beast

The morning of May 27, 1896 in St. Louis, Missouri was sunny and pleasant. Though some storms were expected, certainly no one could’ve been prepared for the epic destruction that would arrive later that day.

St. Louis was still a boom town, among the ten largest cities in the nation. The citizens were enjoying the last of the guilded age while prosperity increased with the industrial age. The relatively new Eads Bridge had opened the gateway to the west with railroad traffic. People went about their business as usual that morning. But as afternoon approached, the air became increasingly humid and skies darkened.

The Weather Bureau Observatory was not concerned. Even though a few hours earlier a smaller tornado killed a woman and injured her child in the small town of Bellflower, Missouri. It is unclear whether the Observatory knew of this incident.

A weather hobbyist, Reverend Hicks, had noticed that his barometer had begun to drop rapidly. He wired the Superintendent of St. Louis City Schools. The Superintendent agreed to let out school early for hundreds of children, possibly sparing many of them from the oncoming tornado in the process.

The Storm Begins

By 4:30pm, dropping temperatures and greenish black clouds on the horizon only furthered fears of St. Louis residents as they hurried home. At 5:00pm, skies darkened as if it was nighttime. Within moments, winds increased from 35mph to over 80mph near the city Lunatic Asylum. An immense shelf cloud produced two funnels. In another five minutes, one of them had fully touched down and skirted the popular Tower Grove Park, which had been donated by the wealthy businessman, Henry Shaw.

By the time the twister had crushed through the stony Compton Heights neighborhood and roared into Lafayette Square, it was cutting a path a mile wide. In Lafayette Park, the barometer recorded an astounding low of 26.74 inHG. Almost every tree in the 36 acre park was levelled. As the cyclone pushed through the core of downtown St. Louis and tore into E. St. Louis, it sunk over 20 riverboats, damaged the Eads Bridge, and increased in intensity from an F4 to an F5 tornado. A 2”x10” wooden plank had been driven through a 5/16” thick wrought iron plate near the bridge.

The cyclone continued to drive several more miles before dissipating into Illinois farmland. Approximately 7 other tornadoes touched down in the region that day.

The Aftermath

This cyclone, which we now call a tornado, is widely considered one of the worst in history. 255 people were killed and over 2,500 were injured within 20 minutes. By today’s Fujita Scale, it would have been rated an F4 tornado with winds clocking up to 260 mph. In U.S. history it became the 3rd deadliest and most costly storm.

The path extended over 12 miles and breached the mighty Mississippi River into East St. Louis, Illinois. 311 structures were levelled, over 7,200 buildings sustained substantial damage, and approximately 1,300 others had significant damage that required repair. Close to 6,000 people became homeless instantly. The devastation was so widespread, that there were concerns that the Republican National Convention would need to be moved from St. Louis in June of that year. The cost of the cyclone was approximately $10,000,000, which would be $4.55 billion by today’s estimates.

Reporters from St. Louis and Chicago were collecting stories of the survivors and the dead by the next day. Within a few days, news reporters came from as far away as Europe to cover the damage. A week later, the first booklet about the disaster was published and others soon followed.

Fortunately, the city did recover, and very well indeed, as the 1904 World’s Fair and Olympics was hosted by St. Louis just a few years later.

Special thanks to the St. Louis Central Library Special Collections. Sources: The Great Cyclone at St. Louis and East St. Louis, May 27, 1896 by Julian Curzon and Tornado Scenes in St. Louis.

_____

Victoria L. Szulc is a multi-media Steampunk artist/writer who is working her six and seventh Steampunk novels, “A Dream of Emerald Skies” and “Lafayette to London”, both of which will be released this summer. You can follow her works at mysteampunkproject.wordpress.com and her author page on Amazon

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s