THE OMAHA TORNADO
GRAPHIC DESCRIPTION OF THE DESTRUCTIVE STORM THAT DEVASTATED THE NEBRASKA CITY ON EASTER SUNDAY.
Death and destruction unparalleled in the history of Omaha, and a property loss even exceeding that of the St. Louis disaster of 1896, traveled with a terrific tornado which mowed a wide and grewsome path through the big Nebraska city late on the afternoon of Sunday, March 23, 1913.
A balmy spring day, typical in its fleeting glimpses of the sun and threatening of showers, developed into a driving rain storm and then, in a twinkling of an eye, into a devastating monster of annihilation. And as the dead were carried to the morgues, and the maimed moaned from the wreckage, and the yellow skies glowed with the carmine reflection of hundreds of burned homes, it was recalled that it was Easter Sunday!
Cyclonic conditions, unknown to all, prevailed over the Missouri valley during the day, and a gigantic twister suddenly appeared, at 5 :45 o’clock, as a manifestation of this disturbance.
The wind demon came careering over the prairies from the southwest and drove a diagonal course through the residence district to the northeast, finally crossing the river near the Illinois Central bridge and wreaking its half-spent fury on the city of Council Bluffs.
In its wake was left a death list of 115 in omaha alone, nearly 2,000 ruined homes and a total monetary loss of over $8,000,000 in the metropolis.
Before and after blazing its horrid trail through Omaha, the roaring fiend reaped a grim harvest of lives and property in the outlying districts of Nebraska and Iowa, but it was in Omaha that its awful power was felt most keenly.
The huge, fashionable residences of the denizens of West Farnam hill suffered alike with the simple cottages of West Side and the substantial homes of Bemis Park and northern Omaha. Great industries saw their buildings collapse like cardboard creations of childhood, traffic companies saw their well-oiled systems tied up completely; municipal fire and police departments were made to realize an absolute and humiliating helplessness. United States troops and the Nebraska National Guard companies of Omaha, called into service in this incomprehensible disaster, found themselves all too few.
Omaha had long been regarded as tornado-proof, on account of its barricade of surrounding hills, but this imaginary protection was swiftly proven a flimsy fabric indeed. The twister, reaping a harvest over half a mile wide, swept over the hilltops and down the valleys with the neat and deadly precision of some omnipotent mowing machine. In its ghastly path nothing escaped. That the carefully checked list of dead was not already much larger is inexplicable. The obliteration, complete and incomprehensible, of whole blocks of residences furnishes ocular proof of the irresistible force of the mighty, whirling gale.
The business section escaped almost intact, but the prized and boasted residence section of the city became, for the most part, but a dismal reminder of what has been. Streets and boulevards were so enmeshed in wreckage that travel, even on foot, was practically impossible, while street car and telephone service was, for two days, almost nil. Automobiles and other vehicles were likewise nearly helpless and the great metropolis did not realize for several days the full extent of the disaster which had fallen upon it.
The great tornado entered Omaha near Fifty-first and Center streets, struck the crest of Farnam hill near Thirty-ninth street, plowed on to Sixteenth and Manderson street, thence east across the Missouri and then turned south into Council Bluffs.
Scenes of desolation and horror followed the wind monster into the city. The tornado, when first noticed, seemed to be forming southwest of Ralston, and came seething over the Lane cut-off just west of the point where the Northwestern Black Hills line passes underneath. It carried the complete roof of some big barn or residence, which flapped wildly, like a gigantic and grewsome crow.
It swept down the valley of the Little Papillion creek, and suddenly bent to the east, passing directly along the right of way of the Missouri Pacific railroad, striking West Lawn cemetery and cutting a wide swath between Concordia Park and the city limits. Death and destruction lurked in its wake.
A party of four Omaha business men was returning from a "hike" to Millard on the Center street road, and the five were caught directly in the path of the tornado. They saved themselves by leaping into the muddy creekbed of the Little Papillion and clinging to the roots of the laboring trees. In the party was Robert D. Neely and Charles McLaughlin, of the law firm of Neely & McLaughlin; H. F. Neely, of the Equitable Life Insurance Company, and William Marsh.
This party followed the path of the storm along the Missouri Pacific track to Forty-eighth and Leavenworth streets. No sooner had the twister raged onward into the distance than the rain developed into a terrific downpour, accompanied by hail, and then sleet. The first idea of the damage that had been done came with the dull, crimson spots of fire which broke out, one after another, all over the horizon along the wake.
A slender farmer boy, his face streaming with blood, came galloping down the pike astride a winded, unsaddled horse. He stopped at a tavern at Concordia Park.
"Father is in the ruins and the house is on fire!" he sobbed. "Can you get Omaha on the telephone? I want the fire department! I want the fire department and some men with axes!"
He was assured that the telephone service had been temporarily destroyed. He again mounted his horse and galloped off toward the city. Over the turmoil of the rain, wind and sleet came the echo of his crazed laugh. He would not even say who he was nor where the ruins of his wrecked home were pinning the body of his father to a fiery death.
Mrs. Henry Olson, hysterically weeping, dragged herself into the tavern a few minutes later and merely pointed through the driving storm to a glow which was spelling ruin for herself and home. She was a widow and lost everything. She cannot say how she escaped. Her cottage was close to the entrance to West Lawn cemetery and she was veritably blown out of it.
Telegraph and telephone poles fell across Center street and the network of wires made rescue work impossible. House after house burst into flames, having been turned over upon the stoves within. Twenty minutes after the tornado had passed the party counted seventeen different fires, besides the complete conflagration at West Side and in Omaha. These were the disappearing domiciles of poor people, or, at least, people in very moderate circumstances. Besides these the valley was completely stripped by the wind. The tracks and roads were covered with debris.
Shrieks and cries and moans came from every direction along the Missouri Pacific from Center to Leavenworth streets, but rescue work was almost impossible. Hysterical men and women were responsible for much of this awful clamor and seemed unable to tell what they wished done or to express the slightest desire for aid.
A man named Kreidmer, a foreigner, unable to speak but a few words of English, came staggering, stumbling down a hillside in the storm, and by the fitful glare of the lightning the party saw that he was coming from his house, which was tipped from its foundation. The cottage had the rakish, debonaire tilt of a new hat on the head of a drunken man. Kreidmer lives—or lived—at Forty-ninth and William streets—and his wife and two babies were gone. The party explored the damaged residence, but no trace of the missing was found. Kreidmer had just built the house and was unacquainted in the neighborhood. He had no idea where his family had gone, having been away when the tornado struck. The man was crazed with grief, and threw himself into the mire and muck alongside the track. He could not be consoled.
Between Poppleton avenue and Leavenworth street there was a long string of heavily laden coal cars standing on a siding. Against these had been crushed at least half a dozen houses which had previously stood on the slope to the west. The wreck was complete and the stoves had started a long string of fires, which seemed, from a distance, like a sort of magnificent decorative scheme. The flames ate rapidly into the coal, which burned for several days.
In this wreckage was every article of the household badly exposed to view. A splinter, apparently torn from the side of one of the houses, was driven into the side of one of the coal cars so compactly that it could not be even moved.
That portion of Omaha known as West Side was almost completely ruined and wrecked by the storm. What few residences and store buildings were not smashed by the twister were burned by the long series of fires which ensued. Many were killed and injured.
The West Side station of the Missouri Pacific and the switch shanty nearby were turned into emergency relief stations and were crowded with the injured. A druggist applied such first aid as he could supply and an effort was made to secure a relief train from the railroad, but the fact that the roundhouse in North Omaha had been destroyed made this almost impossible. An engine and car finally got through after a few hours and brought doctors and clothing.
Pitiful tales were told by the silent crowd of refugees in the section house.
L. F. Stover, 4952 Poppleton avenue, employed in the wall paper department of Hayden Bros.’ stores, returned to his home to find that it had completely disappeared and his wife and three babies gone. They were later found, injured, at the county hospital.
C. E. Walsh, 1314 South Forty-eighth street, was carrying his baby boy and escorting his wife toward their home from the street car when struck by the storm. All three were rolled and blown nearly three blocks and were severely cut and bruised.
John Hanson, a car sweeper living at Forty-eighth and Maberry avenue, was killed in the wreck of his home and the body of his wife was found in the burned ruins.
Fred Nash, 4535 Leavenworth street, with his wife and three children, were buried in the wreckage of their home when the tornado hit it. Irwin, a 3-year-old boy, was badly hurt, but a month-old baby was taken from the mass of splinters unhurt.
At Forty-eighth and Pacific streets the storm was particularly violent and the damage severe. Twelve houses, largely owned by those who occupied them, were totally destroyed, first wrecked by the wind and then consumed with most of their contents, by fires started from stoves. Eight of the occupants were killed outright and a score injured, more or less seriously.
The tornado missed the county hospital, but all the barns and sheds connected with the institution were destroyed. Eight cows in one of the barns were rescued from the debris with much difficulty.
Two large chimneys on the Columbia school building were toppled over and crashed through the roof of the structure.
A street car was turned over at Forty-eighth and Leavenworth streets. When the motorman saw the tornado coming he jumped and ran, but L. F. Stover, who was on the car, tried to operate it and ran it into a cut across the railroad tracks and farther up the hill. The twister struck before he could do so, however, and he was painfully cut by the flying glass and splinters. A baby was killed in his father’s arms in this car.
Charles Clavier, 4669 Leavenworth street, was at dinner with his wife and 18-year-old daughter when his house was blown down about his ears. They all crawled from the wreckage badly bruised.
Ambulances could not reach this badly smitten district for a long time because of the fallen poles and network of wires.
Those whose homes were not injured did all in their power to relieve those left destitute, but the work was slow, because of the absence of all telephonic communication.
Omaha, Neb., the largest city of Nebraska, capital of Douglas County, is on the Missouri, which is crossed by a railroad bridge 2,750 feet long. The city is built on a plain 80 feet above the river, which rises gradually into bluffs. The business section is on the level portion, while the bluffs are occupied by tasteful homes. The city hall, United States courthouse, Omaha Bee building, New York Life Insurance Company’s building, Boyd’s Theater, St. Joseph’s Hospital, chamber of commerce, state asylum for the deaf, Creighton College, a medical college and over 100 churches are among its prominent buildings. The Bee is the most important newspaper published between San Francisco and Chicago. Omaha ranks with Chicago and Kansas City as a live-stock market, having immense stockyards, which cover over 200 acres, and large beef and pork-packing establishments, being the third city in the United States in the value of its pork-products. The manufactures include linseed oil, boilers, safes, bags, soap and beer. The largest silver smelting works in the world, using one-fourth of the silver ore mined in the United States, are at Omaha. The military department of the Platte, covering 82½ acres, with fine barracks, is near the city. The public schools are maintained at an annual cost of $1,500,000; the buildings consist of 49 grade schools and one high school; besides, the city has a public library, Creighton College two, the Y. M. C. A. one (and six other libraries belong to fraternal societies) and a fine art gallery. Fourteen trunk lines enter the city, and there are two magnificent stations. Omaha was founded in 1854, and rapidly became one of the leading western cities. Population 124,096.
The Terrible Tale of America’s Worst Tornado.
Back to Legacy
© 2001, Lynn Waterman