This Month in Climate History: May 27, 1896, St. Louis Tornado
What remains the third most deadly tornado in U.S. history struck St. Louis, Missouri, on the afternoon of May 27, 1896, nearly 120 years ago. At the time, St. Louis hadn’t experienced a major weather disaster in nearly 25 years, and the city had grown into a large metropolitan area. Shortly before five o’clock that Wednesday afternoon, the devastating tornado struck the city from the southwest, near the Compton Heights district. From there, the tornado made its way down the Mill Creek Valley, destroying countless homes as it headed toward the Mississippi River.
Once the tornado made it to the Mississippi, it decimated the steamboats and other vessels in the harbor, breaking them to pieces and scattering them from the Missouri shore to the Illinois shore. Even the Eads Bridge, which was considered “tornado proof” as the first major bridge constructed by making use of true steel, was damaged by the powerful tornado with nearly 300 feet of its eastern approach being torn away. Much of the central portion of St. Louis was also destroyed, as were factories, saloons, hospitals, mills, railroad yards, and churches throughout the city.
Across St. Louis, the tornado completely destroyed block after block of residential housing. Hundreds of miles of electric wires and thousands of telephone and telegraph poles were torn down by the fierce winds. The tornado also uprooted trees more than half a century old and hurled them a distance of several blocks. Heavy iron fences, like the one that surrounded Lafayette Park, were twisted and tangled until they were nearly unrecognizable.
During the less than half an hour that the tornado—which would most likely be rated as an EF-4 today— was on the ground, it tracked a three-mile-wide path of destruction across St. Louis, killing 255 people, injuring 1,000, and rendering countless families homeless.
For more information on the May 27, 1896, St. Louis tornado, see:
- Text Accompanying: Photographic Views of the Great Cyclone at St. Louis, May 27, 1896, from NOAA’s Photo Library
- St. Louis/East St. Louis Tornado of 1896 from the Tornado Project Online
- The Great Cyclone at St. Louis and East St. Louis from Southern Illinois University
- The St. Louis Cyclone of 1896 from the St. Louis American Local History Network
To see a list of the 10 deadliest documented tornado events in the United States, visit NCDC’s Deadliest Tornadoes page.