This Month in Climate History: May 27, 1896, St. Louis Tornado

Photo of the Eads Bridge after the May 27, 1896, St. Louis, Missouri, tornado

In crossing the river from the Missouri to the Illinois shore, the tornado tore away some 300 feet of the super structure of the Eads Bridge. Some of the stone blocks were hurled several hundred feet, and a wagon that was on the bridge was dashed to pieces with its two occupants.

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:

To see a list of the 10 deadliest documented tornado events in the United States, visit NCDC’s Deadliest Tornadoes page.