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The Tornado that Changed America

The incredible true story of the deadliest single tornado strike in U.S. history

By Lauren Tarshis
From the March 2021 Issue

Learning Objective: to analyze author’s craft in a work of narrative nonfiction

Lexiles: 850L, 700L
Other Key Skills: text structure, compare and contrast, figurative language, author’s craft
AS YOU READ

As you read the article and study the images, think about how the author helps you imagine what it was like to live through the Tri-State Tornado.

Eleven-year-old Adrian Dillon had heard stories about ferocious monsters lurking near his hometown of Parrish, Illinois—like the Ozark Howler, a bearlike creature with razor-sharp teeth and a bellowing roar. But the monster Adrian was about to face was far more ferocious than any creature of legend. Adrian was about to face the Tri-State Tornado, one of the most catastrophic twisters ever to strike the United States.

The Tri-State Tornado roared out of the sky on March 18, 1925. Over the course of roughly three hours, it ripped through Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana, killing nearly 700 people and sucking entire towns into the sky.

Parrish was one of those towns.

Eleven-year-old Adrian Dillon had heard stories about fierce monsters lurking near his hometown of Parrish, Illinois. He had heard about the Ozark Howler. It was a bearlike creature with sharp teeth and a loud roar. But the monster Adrian was about to face was far more fierce than any creature from a story. Adrian was about to face the Tri-State Tornado. It was one of the most destructive twisters ever to strike the United States.

The Tri-State Tornado roared out of the sky on March 18, 1925. It ripped through Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana in about three hours. The tornado killed nearly 700 people and destroyed entire towns.

Parrish was one of those towns.

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The town of West Frankfort, Illinois, after the tornado struck on March 18, 1925

An Exciting Day Ahead

Adrian was growing up during a time of rapid change in the United States. By 1925, many Americans in cities and big towns enjoyed electric lights in their homes. They owned cars, telephones, and radios for the first time. But in Parrish, a speck of a town nestled within the grassy hills of southern Illinois, life was much the same as when Adrian’s family settled there 100 years earlier. Parrish School did not yet have electricity. Few residents had telephones or radios. Many, including the Dillons, still drove around in wagons pulled by horses.

But as small and un-modernized as the town may have been, for Adrian, Parrish was the center of the world—and never more so than on March 18.

That morning, Adrian woke with a jolt of excitement. The day of the big marbles tournament had finally arrived.

At the time, marbles was one of the most popular games in America, and Adrian and his friends were fanatics. They played every day at recess, trying to knock one another’s marbles out of a ring they had drawn in the dirt. Adrian loved everything about the game—the feel of the cool glass in his hand, the sound of the marbles clacking together, the hoots and shouts of his buddies.

And, of course, Adrian loved to win. He would never brag, but he was one of the best shooters at Parrish School. His prized possession was a sack filled with marbles he’d won in matches. If he did well in the tournament, he’d be the town’s marble champion. His photo would be in the newspaper. He’d be famous!

Adrian lay under his quilt, smiling to himself until the sound of his father’s voice snapped him out of his reverie. Even a marble champ had to do his morning chores.

Adrian hopped out of bed and threw on the worn trousers and shirt he wore to school every day.

The Dillons lived on one of the many small farms that surrounded Parrish. There was always work to be done—horses and cows to care for, buckets of water to fill from the well, fences to mend, fields to weed. That morning, Adrian and his 13-year-old brother, Leonard, milked the cows. Ten-year-old Ruie helped prepare oatmeal and bacon for breakfast. Little Wendell and Faye pitched in by feeding the family’s pet rabbits.

Though the work was endless, the Dillon home was a happy one. Adrian’s parents—Edna and John—had a loving marriage. Edna doted on the kids and their animals. John was a warm man with many friends.

After the chores, the family sat down for breakfast. At 8 a.m., Adrian, Leonard, and Ruie left for school. Adrian waved to his mom, brother, and sister.

He’d never see his house again.

Adrian was growing up during a time of rapid change in the United States. By 1925, many Americans in cities and big towns had electric lights in their homes. They owned cars, telephones, and radios for the first time. But Parrish was a small town in southern Illinois. Life there was much the same as when Adrian’s family settled there 100 years earlier. Parrish School did not have electricity yet. Most residents did not have telephones or radios. Many, including the Dillons, still drove around in wagons pulled by horses.

But as small and unmodernized as the town may have been, Parrish was the center of the world for Adrian. And it was never more so than on March 18.

That morning, Adrian woke up filled with excitement. It was finally the day of the big marbles tournament.

Marbles was one of the most popular games in America at the time. Adrian and his friends loved the game. They played every day at recess. They tried to knock one another’s marbles out of a circle they had drawn in the dirt. Adrian loved everything about the game. He loved the feel of the cool glass in his hand, the sound of the marbles hitting each other, and the hoots and shouts of his buddies.

And, of course, Adrian loved to win. He would never brag, but he was one of the best shooters at Parrish School. He treasured the sack filled with marbles that he’d won in matches. If he did well in the tournament, he’d be the town’s marble champion. His photo would be in the newspaper. He’d be famous!

Adrian lay under his quilt, smiling. Then the sound of his father’s voice snapped him out of his reverie. Even a marble champ had to do his morning chores. 

Adrian hopped out of bed. He threw on the worn trousers and shirt he wore to school every day.

The Dillons lived on one of the many small farms that surrounded Parrish. There was always work to be done. There were horses and cows to care for. There were buckets of water to fill from the well, fences to mend, and fields to weed. That morning, Adrian and his 13-year-old brother, Leonard, milked the cows. Ten-year-old Ruie helped make oatmeal and bacon for breakfast. Little Wendell and Faye fed the family’s pet rabbits.

There was a lot of work, but the Dillon home was a happy one. Adrian’s parents, Edna and John, had a loving marriage. Edna doted on the kids and their animals. John was a warm man with many friends.

The family sat down for breakfast after the chores. Adrian, Leonard, and Ruie left for school at 8 a.m. Adrian waved to his mom, brother, and sister.

He’d never see his house again.

Jim McMahon/Mapman®

The Raging Storm

The Dillon kids walked to school under a bright blue sky. The day was warmer and more humid than usual. The blueberry bushes were in bloom, and the wildflowers were starting to peek their bright heads up through the tall grass. Ruie’s braids danced around her shoulders in the breeze. All seemed peaceful.

Meanwhile, hundreds of miles away, a monstrous storm was brewing. Overnight, violent thunderstorms had lashed Oklahoma and Kansas. Egg-sized hailstones had shattered windows and punched holes in rooftops. Now the storm was in Missouri—and gaining strength. At 70 miles per hour, it was moving as fast as a speeding train toward Illinois.

When the storm blew into Illinois later that day, those summery breezes that had followed the Dillon kids to school would make it more dangerous. Warm, moist air adds power to thunderstorms and makes tornadoes more likely.

But the people of Parrish had not been alerted to the threat of a tornado. The weather forecast that morning had said only that rain was possible. This was wrong, but at the time, most weather reports were wrong. In 1925, scientists were not able to accurately predict the path of big storms. After all, meteorology was still in its infancy. There were no high-tech storm-tracking tools. Weather forecasts were more guesses than scientific predictions.

But that’s not the only reason no tornado warnings were issued on March 18. The very word tornado was banned from government weather reports. Since the late 1800s, meteorologists had not been allowed to use the word in their forecasts. The word tornado was considered too frightening; people might panic. Besides, tornadoes were almost impossible to predict. Why terrify the public with a warning that was probably inaccurate?

And so, on March 18, thousands of people in the storm’s path went about their day. 

For their part, Adrian, Leonard, and Ruie settled in at Parrish School, a brick building not far from the center of town. Like most country schools in the 1920s, Parrish was a one-room schoolhouse. One teacher was in charge of about 40 kids ages 6 to 14. The youngest children practiced their letters, scratching away on small slate chalkboards. Older students worked on grammar and math and took turns reciting poems. At recess, Adrian practiced his marbles shots.

No one had any idea that disaster was about to strike.

The Dillon kids walked to school. The sky was bright blue. The day was warmer and more humid than usual. The blueberry bushes were in bloom. The wildflowers were starting to peek up through the tall grass. Ruie’s braids danced around her shoulders in the breeze. It was peaceful.

Meanwhile, a monstrous storm was brewing hundreds of miles away. Violent thunderstorms had struck Oklahoma and Kansas overnight. Hailstones the size of eggs had shattered windows and punched holes in roofs. Now the storm was in Missouri. It was gaining strength. And it was moving as fast as a speeding train toward Illinois.

The storm reached Illinois later that day. Those summery breezes that had followed the Dillon kids to school would make it more dangerous. Warm, moist air adds power to thunderstorms. It also makes tornadoes more likely.

But the people of Parrish had not known a tornado was coming. The weather forecast that morning had said only that it might rain. This was wrong. Most weather reports were wrong at the time. Scientists were not able to accurately predict the path of big storms in 1925. After all, weather science was still in its infancy. There were no high-tech tools to track storms. Weather forecasts were more guesses than scientific predictions.

But that’s not the only reason no tornado warnings were sent out on March 18. The very word tornado was not allowed in government weather reports. Meteorologists had not been allowed to use the word in their forecasts since the late 1800s. The word tornado was thought to be too frightening. People might panic. Besides, tornadoes were almost impossible to predict. Why terrify the public with a warning that was probably not correct?

And so, on March 18, thousands of people in the storm’s path went about their day.

Adrian, Leonard, and Ruie settled in at Parrish School. It was a brick building not far from the center of town. Like most country schools in the 1920s, Parrish was a one-room schoolhouse. One teacher was in charge of about 40 kids ages 6 to 14. The youngest children practiced their letters, scratching away on small chalkboards. Older students worked on grammar and math and took turns reciting poems. Adrian practiced his marble shots at recess.

No one knew there was about to be a disaster.

George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images

Kids play a game of marbles, one of the most popular games at the time.

The First Victims

The Tri-State Tornado was born at about 1 p.m. in a Missouri forest 150 miles west of Parrish. It was just a ropy little funnel when it dropped from the sky, but it was powerful enough to chew apart trees and scatter branches.

The tornado killed its first victim, a farmer named Sam Flowers, then sped northeast. At about 1:15 p.m., it reached Annapolis, Missouri.

Whoosh!

In less than 60 seconds, the tornado obliterated all but seven of the town’s 85 homes. Annapolis School, a small stone building, was smashed to rubble with all 32 students inside. Main Street’s shops and restaurants were swept away. Incredibly, the tornado took the lives of only four people in Annapolis. All 32 schoolchildren climbed from the wreckage alive.

The tornado then whirled across miles of thick forests and craggy hills until it reached the town of Biehle.

Whoosh!

It devoured homes and farms and killed 17 people before setting its sights on the school. It lifted the building clear off the ground. As the school broke apart in midair, the children and their teacher were scattered into nearby fields.

Astonishingly, they all lived.

The Tri-State Tornado began at about 1 p.m. in a Missouri forest, 150 miles west of Parrish. The storm was just a ropy little funnel when it dropped from the sky. Still, it was powerful enough to chew trees apart and scatter branches.

The tornado killed a farmer named Sam Flowers. Then it sped northeast. It reached Annapolis, Missouri, at about 1:15 p.m.

Whoosh!

The tornado obliterated most of the town’s homes in less than a minute. Annapolis School, a small stone building, was smashed with all 32 students inside. Main Street’s shops and restaurants were swept away. Incredibly, the tornado took the lives of only four people in Annapolis. All 32 schoolchildren survived.

The tornado then whirled across miles of forests and hills until it reached the town of Biehle. 

Whoosh!

It devoured homes and farms, killing 17 people. Then it moved towards the school. It lifted the building clear off the ground. The school broke apart in midair. The children and their teacher were scattered into nearby fields.

Astonishingly, they all lived.

JHU Sheridan Libraries/Gado/Getty Images

There are no surviving photographs of Adrian’s school in Parrish, but this photo shows a typical one-room schoolhouse from the time.

A Hungry Beast

By the time it reached Biehle, the tornado had been on the ground for more than an hour, which was highly unusual. Of the more than 1,200 tornadoes that strike the U.S. every year, most blow over a few trees and mailboxes and then dissipate. A typical tornado stays on the ground for about 10 minutes before losing strength.

What made the Tri-State Tornado so unique and horrifying was that it did not lose strength. Quite the opposite, it grew larger and stronger as it consumed everything in its path.

After passing through Biehle, the storm continued east, feasting on forests and farms and claiming another eight lives.

Back in Parrish, Adrian kept his eyes glued on the clock. School let out at 3:15 p.m., but he and four other boys were being dismissed early for the marbles tournament.

Meanwhile, the tornado crossed the Mississippi River into Illinois. The twister was now about three-quarters of a mile wide. Its swirling winds carried tons of wreckage—shards of glass, slabs of wood, dirt and mud scoured up from the ground. It also carried thousands of objects ripped from homes, like pots and beds and quilts and toys. All of this was spinning around in the tornado at 300 miles per hour.

Just inside the Illinois border, the tornado smashed into the town of Gorham. It took one minute for every building to be annihilated. Twenty-seven people were killed.

Six minutes later, the tornado hit Murphysboro, a thriving city of 12,000 people. It had taken 100 years for Murphysboro to grow from a scrappy railroad town into one of the most prosperous cities in southern Illinois. It took less than two minutes for the heart of the city to be destroyed, for 237 people to lose their lives.

The tornado wasn’t finished.

Within minutes, it struck its next victims: the farming towns of Bush and De Soto. Both were almost entirely demolished. At 2:38 p.m., the tornado plowed through West Frankfort, killing 127 people.

At this point, the tornado had been on the ground for 100 minutes. Behind it was a trail of death and ruin more than 100 miles long. And now, it had taken aim at Parrish.

By the time it reached Biehle, the tornado had been on the ground for more than an hour. This was very unusual. More than 1,200 tornadoes strike the U.S. every year. Most of these storms blow over a few trees and mailboxes. Then they dissipate. A typical tornado stays on the ground for about 10 minutes before it loses strength.

What made the Tri-State Tornado so different and horrifying was that it did not lose strength. Quite the opposite, it grew larger and stronger as it sucked up everything in its path.

After passing through Biehle, the storm continued east. It feasted on forests and farms. It killed another eight people.

Back in Parrish, Adrian kept his eyes on the clock. School let out at 3:15 p.m., but he and four other boys were being let out early for the marbles tournament.

Meanwhile, the tornado crossed the Mississippi River into Illinois. The twister was now about three-quarters of a mile wide. Its swirling winds carried tons of wreckage, including pieces of glass, slabs of wood, and dirt and mud. It also carried thousands of objects ripped from homes, like pots and beds and quilts and toys. All of this was spinning around in the tornado at 300 miles per hour.

Just inside the Illinois border, the tornado smashed into the town of Gorham. It took one minute for every building to be destroyed. Twenty-seven people were killed.

Six minutes later, the tornado hit Murphysboro, a thriving city of 12,000 people. It had taken 100 years for the city to grow from a scrappy railroad town into one of the most prosperous cities in southern Illinois. It took less than two minutes for the center of the city to be destroyed and for 237 people to lose their lives.

The tornado wasn’t finished.

Within minutes, it struck its next victims. The farming towns of Bush and De Soto were both almost entirely demolished. The tornado plowed through West Frankfort at 2:38 p.m. It killed 127 people.

At this point, the tornado had been on the ground for 100 minutes. Behind it was a trail of death and ruin more than 100 miles long. And now, it was moving towards Parrish.

Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

The Damage

A child sits with his puppy in the ruins of a building following the Tri-State Tornado.

Nothing Left

Just after 3 p.m., Adrian and four other boys arrived at Parrish’s railroad depot, where the marbles tournament was to be held. By then, the skies had turned purplish black, like a gigantic bruise. Thunder growled in the distance. The boys groaned. Would the marbles tournament be canceled?

Then Adrian saw it: a roiling black cloud advancing from the west. His blood turned to ice as he realized what he was looking at.

At first the boys thought to take shelter in a small store. But Adrian shook his head. “We have to get back to school!” he shouted.

In a blink, the boys sprinted across the tracks toward school. Rain started to fall. The day turned to night. They made it inside just as the tornado hit.

Crash!

Every window shattered. The school shuddered. Dirt and shards of wood flew through the air.

And then everything went still.

The tornado had passed.

On shaking legs, Adrian and the other students made their way outside. Adrian stared in shock: All he could see in any direction was wreckage. Not one building stood except the school and the church. The scene looked more like a bombed-out b