The Day Louisville Was Visited By A Demon

On This Date In History Headline Louisville 1890…

Tornado: Louisville Visited By Storm Demon This Evening

Main street between 11th and 12th street after 1890 tornado…UL special collection…note railroad bridge over river in background.

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, terminating near the end of present day Zorn Avenue and the water tower. 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. 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. I first learned of the date of the tornado when I wandered about Cave Hill and found a section with numerous headstones with the same date of death. I knew then that something catastrophic had happened and recalled the 1890 tornado. You can learn a lot from wandering around a cemetery.

We hear about the 1974 “outbreak”. Well this was a big outbreak as well. Twenty-four significant tornadoes were reported that day across. 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.

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

Here is an article from the Filson Club

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. Well, I can tell you in my 20 years of doing tv weather, I’ve never been associated with more responsible and thorough meteorologists as we have in Jay and the rest of the team. If we tell you something is amuck, you can bet there is something there and we’re not just making it up. Does that mean that every time we say there is a threat that we are doomed? No. But it does mean that you should stay tuned to WLKY 32 or check out our website for the latest. Or 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 so wise up….but I’m not too concerned about it any time soon..I’ll let you know.


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