Main street between 11th and 12th street after 1890 tornado…note railroad bridge over river in background.
On This Date in History:
The Courier Journal headline said a Demon visted Louisville. Snow White and I visited Cave Hill Cemetery yesterday and saw the results of that Demon. Several years ago, we were wandering around the cemetery and came upon many headstones with the same date of death, yet, the names were all different. I said to Snow White, “something catastrophic happened on March 27, 1890 because all of these people died at the same time but they don’t appear to be related.” It was then that I realized it was the Demon that took them and they forever would be in the same brotherhood of victims.
Everyone knows about the tornado outbreak on April 3, 1974 that produced the tornado that ripped up Louisville that afternoon. But, very few people are familiar with an arguably more devastating and certainly more deadly tornado on this date in 1890. The tornado started in the Parkland area of Louisville and basically traveled right through downtown, almost right over the water tower at th end of what present day Zorn Ave and then across the river into Clark County, IN before making a right hand turn back across the river before terminating in near the mouth of Harrod’s Creek. My guesss is that it was a supercell that became so developed that it became what is known as a “right turner.” The present day water tower is a replacement for the one destroyed in 1890. Remember, we are talking about 1890 and that water tower was needed to be able to get the water for the city up the hill to the resevoir.
The city only had enough water for 6 days and water rationing was called on. I suppose it wasn’t all that dramatic given there is a big river right next to the city, but usage in the plumbing system would not be possible and folks would have to use a whole lot of buckets.
Just think what would happen today if the water system was shut down. Anyway, death toll estimates vary but most put it at upwards of 120, though I believe the offiicial number is 76. Either way the National Weather Service lists it as part of the top tornado outbreak in Southern Indiana and Central Kentucky…ahead of 1974. It probably would have been worse had it not hit between 8 and 9 pm since most of the businesses downtown were shuttered for the night. I am told by folks at Cave Hill that funerals were held every hour for a week. As previously mentioned, I first learned of the date of the tornado several years ago when Snow White and I wandered about Cave Hill. You can learn a lot from wandering around a cemetery. There is another section filled with the graves of many small children. That was about 25 years after the 1890 twister during the Spanish Flu pandemic. Another thing that you notice is the number of family plots from the 19th century with children who died very young. We found one today in which 4 of the 5 children died before the age of 12. Each was born on a different army post as their father was in the US Army. What is unclear is how the kids bodies got back to Louisville. For instance, “Lillie” was born on March 15, 1870 in the Wyoming Territory. She died March 16, 1875 in the Montana Territory. Yet, she is buried in Louisville. The other children not only were buried in different places, but they also died in different places. My only guess is that when the family settled in Louisville, they had the children dug up where they lay and had them reburied in a family plot at Cave Hill. Yes, you can learn a lot from a cemetery, but what you learn can often open new questions.
Anyway, every year we hear about the 1974 “outbreak”. Well this was a big outbreak as well. Twenty-four significant tornadoes were reported that day across the midwest. The Louisville tornado is estimated to have been an F-4 tornado. It destroyed some 766 buildings including 5 churches, 7 railroad depots, 2 public halls, 3 schools, 10 tobacco warehouses, 32 manufacturing plants and 532 dwellings were destroyed by the tornado. At least 44 people were killed at the Falls City Hall at 1124 West Market Street where 75 people (presumably men) were at a lodge meeting and 125 children with their mothers were downstairs taking dancing lessons. It is one of the highest number of deaths ever recorded in a single building in US history. The cost of the damage in 1890 dollars was $2.5 million. Today that would be about $65 million if you take it dollar for dollar. Seems to me that replacement costs have probably gone up in many areas greater than overall inflation for the time. Either way, it’s a lot of money and it was a lot of people. Louisville should have a longer memory.
Here is a link to photos from the UL Library
Here is a link from the NWS with the path and information on 5 tornadoes that day in Kentucky
A new book just came out called The Great Louisville Tornado of 1890 and the Courier just did a book review a few days ago. Also, the Filson Historical Society story The 1890 Louisville Cyclone and it’s the complete story with photographs.
I would invite you to visit these websites. I cherry picked much of the information from the Filson society and the NWS sites. Also, I have this stuff in my head from the research I did for my thesis regarding 19th Century Louisville as well as other work I did as a graduate student. I think in all liklihood, local historian George Yater should be given some credit and I would encourage you to check out his work at the LFPL or the Louisville Encycolopedia if you want more information.
One thing I found rather interesting was that apparently the precursor to the National Weather Service, the US Weather Bureau, actually issued a statement saying that very nasty weather could be in the picture. I did not know they were issuing what we would call a watch that early in our history. I know it seems like that with all of our technology and mass communications today that severe potential gets screamed out so much by some people that it seems like overload. Fatalities and injuries are actually going up annually in this country the past several years after many years of falling rates. One might argue its from the “cry wolf” syndrome…tv foofs who try to make a name for themselves by scaring you into watching them. Just check out my blog….I’ll usually tell you several days in advance if I think Mother Nature is up to no good. In 1890, the Courier Journal called it the “the whirling tiger of the air.” Lets hope that doesnt happen again, but it could…and in fact, I’d say someday it will…we all need to pay attention and don’t think “oh it can’t happen here”. Phooey. It can and actually has many times…so wise up…..and remember, if the “Demon” visited today, it would probably rival or possibly outstrip the carnage of the 1974 tornado, especially if it happened during the middle of a workday.
Weather Bottom Line: The map to the left is a map of all of the spring tornadoes in Kentuckiana excluding the last few years. But, they won’t add too many. In spite of all of the tornado warnings that we seem to have, state statistics show that the average annual tornadoes in Louisville since 1850 is just 8.4. That should surprise you given all of the reports that come in. Two things…one is that many reported tornadoes are not verified. The other is that I suspect that the averages will be climbing since the area is more populated and there are so many ways to communicate and report that tornadoes that may have been missed 50 years ago are reported today. It’s the old, “if a tree falls in the woods and no one is there to see it, did it really fall down?” Radars make it so we have an idea where a tornado might be and then there are usually people there, either at home or on a road, to report it.
As for now..forget about tornadoes. Saturday looks lovely. Saturday night perhaps some t’storms following afternoon highs in the mid to upper 60’s. Sunday we’ll probably just be in the 50’s with rain likely. By Monday afternoon, the sun will return and carry into Tuesday. Some time this spring we will be talking tornado, but for now we just look back 120 years ago.