Editor’s note: This guest post was submitted by Jeff Satterly and Robert Muhlhauser from HistoricNaturalDisasters.com.
On March 23, 1913, the city of Omaha was enjoying a relaxing day of church services and Easter celebrations. The skies slowly grew dark, but the unsuspecting people of Omaha weren’t concerned. It was too early in the year for a tornado. And besides, common knowledge was that Omaha was tornado-proof, since most storms that did form broke apart by the time they reached the bluffs surrounding the city.
Complete surprise was the order of the day, then, when the earliest tornado in national history swept through Omaha around 6 that evening. By the time the twister had passed, it had claimed the lives of more than 100 people, hurt more than 300, destroyed 2,000 homes and left 7,000 people homeless.
The storm started just outside of the city in Ralston, which was promptly leveled. It then followed the Little Papillion Creek into the southwest corner of Omaha. Starting on 51st Street, it cut through Westlawn-Hillcrest Memorial Park, where in one instance it ripped a tombstone out of the ground and deposited it more than four miles away. From there it hit the Missouri Pacific Railroad, throwing a string of coal cars into a row of six houses and causing a massive fire.
The tornado then worked its way northeast toward the wealthy Gold Coast neighborhood. By the time it reached Dewey Avenue, the twister was five blocks wide and flattened the mansions in its path. It raged on the famous Joslyn Castle, twisting its roof, flattening its greenhouses, ripping bricks out of the wall and hurling a car into it. From there the tornado headed to the Convent of the Sacred Heart (now the Duchesne Academy) and nearly destroyed it by ripping off an entire side of the building. Then, crossing over 38th Street, the tornado headed toward poorer neighborhoods on the north side. Near 24th and Lake, the Idlewild pool hall was flattened, killing 25. After exiting the city on the northeast side, the tornado crossed the Missouri River into Council Bluffs before losing its power.
After the storm passed, the mayhem continued as natural gas leaks and live electrical wires the tornado’s wrath had exposed led to extensive fires that burned down entire blocks. On Decatur and Franklin streets, the line of homes on fire stretched up to length ¾ of a mile.
The storm that spawned the tornado wasn’t done spreading destruction. As the system moved east into Ohio, it contributed to the massive rainfall that would result in the Great Dayton Flood on March 25.
Thanks so much to Alyssa Schukar for letting us share a piece of this project. We’re humbled by the interest in this project, and we really hope you enjoyed this snippet of history!
We’d also like to thank some of the great archives and archivists who have done so much to work to help preserve the amazing history of the 1913 flood, including the Dayton Metro Library and historian Trudy Bell. The amount of history compiled at these two websites is truly amazing. Lastly, thanks to Jason from InsuranceTown.com, who lent us some of the resources we used to help prepare content for the Web and publish our blog, and inspired our Mapping History Contest.