SPC Stats

Path length: 0.8 miles

Width:  200 yards

Fatalities:  11

Injuries:  4

Rating:  F3

County:  Albermarle

Tornado Path

SPC coordinates:  Only the beginning point: 38.05 / -78.62

Grazulis track based on Significant Tornadoes:  No Coordinates

Corrected coordinates Based on Analysis of USGS Aerial Imagery:

Start:  37.894800 / -78.657482    End: 38.087583 / -78.649500 

Note:  Exact tornado path may not be straight and/or continuous.

One of the most devastating tornadoes to ever hit the state of Virginia was spawned by Hurricane Gracie on September 30, 1959. The twister tracked through a part of Albemarle County west of Charlottesville and east of the Blue Ridge Mountains. This summary provides a detailed analysis of discrepancies in the path and the number of tornadoes to hit this day. It also focuses on the tragedy near Ivy. In mere seconds, ten members of one family lost their lives.

Hurricane Gracie

Prior to Hugo in 1989, Hurricane Gracie was the last major hurricane to strike the South Carolina Coast. It was initially classified as a Category 3 storm, but a reanalysis performed by the National Hurricane Center showed Gracie made landfall near Beaufort as a Category 4. The central pressure measured by reconnaissance aircraft an hour and a half before moving inland was 951 mb. Peak intensity was analyzed at 115 knots or 132 mph. Gracie was the second hurricane to make landfall in South Carolina in 1959. In July, Hurricane Cindy, a Category 1 storm, pushed ashore near McClellanville.

Image from the Weather Prediction Center overview of Hurricane Gracie.
Hurricane Gracie as viewed on a US Navy radarscope. Photo taken by Navy photographer B.J. Dalma, PH2 and is in the December 1959 edition of All Hands.

How Many Tornadoes
Were Produced by Gracie?

As Gracie moved further inland, tracking through western North Carolina and into the western Virginias, it continued to produce heavy rain and, as we see with most landfalling tropical systems, tornadoes. There are discrepancies in the record on exactly how many tornadoes were spawned by Gracie. The Storm Prediction Center database lists a total of six, and the three strongest were given F3 ratings, all occurring in Virginia. The Tornado History Project has a total of seven tornadoes, including one in the state of Pennsylvania. We were unable to find any details on that PA twister.

Before moving into the main summary, here is a recap of the other two F3s that struck Virginia:

  • A short-lived tornado with a two-mile path hit in Greene County. The roof was torn away from a cement block highway department building southwest of Stanardsville. Cars were tossed from the roads. Several buildings at the Blue Ridge School sustained significant damage, and the campus lost approximately 150 trees. A school maintenance worker, Robert Morris, was critically hurt when an equipment shed collapsed on him. He died later from his injuries. In his book, Significant Tornadoes, Thomas Grazulis gave this tornado an F2 rating.
  • In Fluvanna County, severe damage occurred to numerous homes west of Palmyra. At least three churches and two barns were demolished. Grazulis also gives this tornado an F2 rating.

As we focused on our research for the Ivy-Mechums River tornado, we discovered that Albemarle County might have had additional tornadoes occur on this day. None of these are in the official record. Newspapers at the time reported on these events. One of the best sources we uncovered was Phil James, author of the book “Secrets of the Blue Ridge.” Phil penned an article for The Crozet Gazette about the 1959 tornadoes in Albemarle County. He graciously has permitted us to use the stories and images in this summary. Phil told us that he gained insight on the events of September 30 from the Charlottesville Daily Progress newspaper. He also interviewed several uninjured witnesses to the aftermath. We find him a credible source and will be using a great deal of his information in this summary. In his article for The Crozet Gazette, he outlined the tornadoes that hit Albemarle County. Here is an overview:

  • A brief tornado struck northwest of Ivy Depot around 2:25 pm ET. This was two hours before the devastating Ivy-Mechums River twister. Telephone and electrical services were lost to the western part of the county. There were also downed trees.
  • In the Hickory Hill area south of Charlottesville, a home was demolished. There were 12 people at the residence and only one injury. A tractor-trailer and two cars were tossed from Route 29.
  • There may have been twin tornadoes near Stoney Point. No damage details were given.
  • Around 5:25 pm, homes were damaged by a possible twister near the University Airport, east of Monticello Mountain.
  • Only minutes later, damage occurred to several homes and trees in the Farmington neighborhood from an apparent tornado.

The Ivy-Mechums River Tornado

Finding the Path

Discrepancies regarding the track of a tornado, especially older ones like this one, are normal to find. That being said, the situation with this twister was anything but typical. The September 1959 Storm Data Narrative placed the tornado six miles west of Charlottesville with a path length of ¾ of a mile, and the Storm Prediction Center Database has a path length of 0.8 miles. They list only a start point for the path and no endpoint. The official record is incomplete in regards to the track of this tornado.

We looked to other sources to help hone in on the actual path. Thomas Grazulis in Significant Tornadoes stated that the tornado moved east from the Mechums River near Crozet to Ivy, six miles west of Charlottesville. He has a path length of 4 miles.

Phil James, author of “Secrets of the Blue Ridge,” had a completely different analysis of the path based on newspaper and eyewitness accounts. He wrote that several witnesses detected a “black funnel” forming south of Charlottesville. The tornado crossed Route 29 and overturned a car. As it passed over Ragged Mountain, it veered to the northwest, “plowed a furrow 200 feet wide over a sharp ridge and dropped down into a small valley on Lindsay’s farm near Ivy.” From there, the tornado moved north into the Mechums River community and caused tremendous damage. Now that we had contradicting accounts of the path, a next step was taken to refine the Ivy-Mechums River tornado track.

Old aerial photographs from the USGS archives were acquired and examined to try and find the swath left behind. While damage reports in newspapers regarding the track were often conflicting, some were valid locations to search. Low-quality photos from December 1959, and higher resolution imagery from March 1963, proved invaluable. In a few cases, contrast-enhancing the photos was enough to reveal patterns of fallen trunks. Once probable remnants of a tornado path were found in one, other images canvassing the area were overlaid into Google Earth. Images taken much later at intervals after the older (and closer to the tornado event) photos were compared. This was important because it showed areas where forest was recovering or growing back. Those places could be given closer scrutiny, and often the source of the destruction was indeed the Ivy tornado. Using all of these tools, along with identifying addresses of victims and comparing ground-level photos with the area’s geography, was enough to create a track and a polygon for the swath. It is worth noting that because the tornado was so weak at the start and end points, there is some uncertainty as to where the exact formation and dissipation happened.

Based on this analysis, it is our determination that the Ivy path began approximately five miles south of Route 29. The start point is not exact but is around 10-13 miles SW of Charlottesville. It moved north-northeast for about 4 miles before turning to the northeast, traveling that direction for a mile. The tornado turned in a more northerly direction at Route 29, 2.5 miles west of Dudley Mountain. It moved north-northwesterly over Ragged Mountain, southwest of Ivy over the Lindsay farm, and into the Mechums River area, ending somewhere north of Route 250. The total path length is estimated at 13.69 miles.

Three views of tree damage where the twister crested Ragged Mountain. Camera technology rapidly improved throughout the 1960s, so better and better quality views of this location can be seen between 1959 and 1968. Despite the rotting trunks being greatly decayed nine years later, the mark of the tornado remained apparent. Images were snipped from contrast-enhanced USGS aerial photographs; the view is looking south.
A March 18, 1963 contrast-enhanced USGS aerial photograph overlaid into Google Earth. The three and a half year old flattened areas of forest had begun to decay and vegetation regrow, but the core swath of the twister is still somewhat visible in the outlined areas. The arc of destruction moved directly over the Lindsay farm at center, causing horrific loss of life.
A closer view looking westward at some of the decaying, three and a half year old treefall just beyond the Lindsay farm. Image created using a March 18, 1963 contrast-enhanced USGS aerial photograph overlayed into Google Earth.
Some of the worst tree damage observed in aerial photographs, with the core area outlined in red. The contrast-enhanced USGS aerial photo was taken December 14, 1959, roughly two and a half months after the tornado.
A tilted, 3D view of the same location. The image was created using a March 18, 1963 contrast-enhanced USGS aerial photograph overlayed into Google Earth, showing the streak of destroyed forest three and a half years later. Mechums River and the C&O bridge are labeled.

Tragedy Near Ivy

Then I thought of all those people down there in those houses, and I thought maybe I should go to see about them. I went down there and I found death and destruction.

Mrs. Leana Sims

The story of the Ivy-Mechums River tornado is overwhelmingly tragic. Most of the destruction occurred at three duplexes on the W.E. Lindsay farm off Route 708 southwest of Ivy. Significant damage also extended further north near Route 250 in the Mechums River community.

The Ervin Morris Sr. family lived on the W. E. Lindsay property in a two-story house set on the side of a small valley surrounded by an apple orchard. Fifteen family members lived at the duplex. Ervin Sr., his wife Frances, and their children James, 18, Ruby, 15, Georgia, 13, Mary, 11, Herbert, 8, and Frances Ann, 5, occupied the home with second eldest son Ervin Jr., 21, his wife Frances, and their three children, Shirley Ann, 3, Peggy, 2, and Michael, 7 months. George Morris, brother to Ervin Sr., and Wilmer Morris, 15, a nephew, also lived there.

From The Richmond Times-Dispatch on October 2, 1959, “In the day when the W. E. Lindsay apple orchard was fruitful, the Morris house was used as a bunkhouse for apple pickers.” The article described the residence as “…a wooden structure of three rooms on the main floor. Below was a storage cellar and above was a single big attic room, which the Morris family didn’t use. The 15 of them lived in three rooms. The house had electric lights and an old refrigerator. There was no plumbing. Water had to be toted in from a spring.”

Leana Sims worked for the W.E. Lindsay household and was cooking dinner during the late afternoon of September 30. She described the tornado to the Charlottesville Daily Progress a year after the event, “I watched it come in, but I didn’t know what it was. It was inky black above and snow white below, like a black cloud whirling around. It sounded like a lot of airplanes. Then I couldn’t look to see what was going on – part of the roof blew off and I had to cover up furniture.”

Raymond Bruce, his wife Lilly, and their son lived about 100 yards from the Morris family in another duplex on the farm. Raymond told Charlottesville Daily Progress in the October 1, 1959 edition, “I had been up visiting my sister, and the rain started about 15 minutes after I got home. I heard a roaring back up the orchard. It sounded like a train. It’s bound to have been a tornado. I saw Ervin Morris running into his house, and the roof started coming off my house.”

In the blink of an eye, a twister, just under a half-mile wide, barreled through the homes on the Lindsay farm. Raymond Bruce stated that he and his wife ran to the kitchen beside the flue. “Then, the chimney came down. More of it hit my wife than me. My son was out in the sitting room. That’s why he didn’t get hurt.” Sadly, Lilly Bruce was killed. Her brother, Joseph Sullivan, told the Charlottesville Daily-Progress that she was alive when removed from the home but had passed away before arriving at University Hospital. Another residence nearby was demolished. No one was home at the time.

Thirteen members of the Morris family were at home when the tornado struck. Daughters of Ervin Sr., Mary and Georgia had gone to school that day and were at a friends’ house waiting out the storm. Don Devore, a reporter for the Charlottesville Daily-Progress, documented the scene this way, “The screaming winds tossed bodies over an area 150 yards in diameter. Pieces of the demolished homes were found hundreds of yards away on the side of a small mountain. Clothing was ripped from the victims’ bodies. Huge oak trees were uprooted as if they were saplings.” Only three people at the duplex survived.

Per the Richmond Times-Dispatch on October 2, 1959, “the first people to reach the scene may have been the two daughters who had gone to school.” The girls were with a neighbor, Paul Evans, 14. He told a reporter, “We could see trees were down. Mary and Georgia went on over the hills to their house and I heard one of them start crying for her mother. I went down there and found two of their brothers dead. Everything was torn up. One of the men was 500 yards up the hollow. He was all mangled. About 200 yards from where the house was, I saw a man and a little boy, and a little girl lying close together. The man’s arm was over them like he was trying to protect them. I guess he couldn’t do much.”

After the tornado had passed, Leana Sims made her way through the debris to try to help. She told The Charlottesville Daily-Progress, “Then I thought of all those people down there in those houses and I thought maybe I should go to see about them. I went down there and I found death and destruction.” Leana saw Lilly Bruce and wrapped her body in a blanket. She did the same for three members of the Morris family, including two children. Leana recalled hearing a child crying. “She was just a little thing, caught under some rubbish-it was part of a bed. I got one of the boys to raise the bed, and we wrapped her up and later we got her to the hospital.” That little girl was Frances Ann Morris, age 5.

Albemarle Sheriff W. Shirley Cook was the first officer on the scene. He found Ervin Jr. and two of his children in a car. The father was alive but unable to speak. One of the children had a faint pulse, and the other had passed away. Per the Charlottesville Daily-Progress, “Searching further, Cook said he found three more bodies to the west of the Morris home on a hillside. Then after rescue units began arriving, four more bodies were found. Eight ambulances were dispatched to the scene at one time or another during the night.” Ten family members passed away. Nine bodies were found the night after the tornado. The Monticello National Guard assisted State Police the following day to search for the last missing family member, and they found the body of 3-year-old Shirley Ann Morris behind a tree stump.

Here are the names of those who died: Ervin Sr., his wife Frances, and children James and Ruby. Nephew Wilmer also died. The wife of Ervin Jr., Frances, perished along with her three children, Peggy, Shirley Ann, and Michael. George Morris also passed away. The only family members in the home that survived were Ervin Jr., Herbert, and little Frances Ann, who Leana Sims saved.

Little remained of the home of Ervin Morris Sr. near Ivy, where ten members of one family perished. Photo from Phil James/Secrets of the Blue Ridge.

Mechums River

The devastating tornado left the homes at the Lindsay farm in ruins with the unfathomable loss for the Morris family. From here, it moved north toward the Mechums River community. Reports from this area showed that the winds had become less intense, but heavy damage still occurred.

M.P. Mitchell lived in a historic home in this community. It was allegedly a place where Stonewall Jackson stopped before his Shenandoah Valley campaign during the Civil War. “I didn’t know it was here until it started tearing down trees,” Mitchell told the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Mitchell lost the roof of his house, and it was blown 600 yards.

It was a harrowing experience. We had no idea we were approaching a storm, until we felt that the bridge was being destroyed and falling upon us.

Mrs. T. Glenn Womble

Mr. and Mrs. T. Glenn Womble had traveled to Charlottesville on this day and were on their way home to Staunton. They were traveling westbound along Route 250 near the C&O railroad bridge when they found themselves in the midst of the twister’s winds. Mrs. Womble told The News Leader (Staunton) the day after the event, “The fury of the storm struck us as we were under the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway overhead bridge at Mechums River. We thought at first the bridge was falling. All around us timbers, tin, signs, trees, paper, gravel, sand, etc., were flying, beating on our car.  We did not know what had happened but we cannot explain how terrible it was.”

The couple drove under the bridge and watched a truck headed eastbound approaching the bridge “rocking and swaying like a piece of tissue paper.” Mrs. Womble continued to describe the wind’s impact, “Pieces of wood and rock smashed our windshield. My husband’s outer shirt and undershirt were torn to shreds. He was not wearing his coat at the time. He was dazed by the impact. We realized that it would be fatal to keep moving. We pulled over to the side of the road, seeking what protection an embankment could afford. Meanwhile the truck driver stopped his vehicle and also sought shelter near the bank. I just cannot explain how terrible it was. We thought our car would be lifted any moment and thrown into the river.” Mrs. Womble described that the truck was lifted by the wind and thrown approximately 50 yards in front of their car.

A good samaritan driving by took the couple to University Hospital, where Mr. Womble stayed overnight. He had a broken finger on his right hand and chest injuries, and Mrs. Womble had a broken bone in her right arm. “It was a terrible blast, said Mrs. Womble. “We expected to be crushed to earth any second. Today we can count our blessings. God certainly was good to us.”

Mountain Plain Baptist Church was established in 1812. The brick building sits at an intersection where Old Three Notch’d Road and Brown’s Gap Turnpike come together near Mechums River. The tornadic winds peeled away the roof, the front of the sanctuary collapsed, and the weight of the debris crushed part of the church floor. An article in the September 2012 Crozet Gazette noted that “pages in the opened pulpit Bible were not ruffled in spite of the tempest.”

Mountain Plain Baptist Church at Mechums River sustained extensive damage in 1959 from a tornado spawned from remnants of Hurricane Gracie. Photo from Phil James/Secrets of the Blue Ridge.
Damage to the Mountain Plain Baptist Church. Photo by Les Gibson in the September 2012 editon of the Crozet Gazette.

Off Old Three Notch’d Road, the farm of John Clayton was landed a harsh blow. Per Phil James, “the roof was lifted from his main house, which was damaged beyond repair-all while Mrs. Martha Clayton remained at her work desk.” The Sunday after the event, O.R. Enswiler of Lacey Spring, VA, visited the Clayton family. He handed John a banknote with his signature on it that was found in his yard over 30 miles away. It was “deposited there by the winds that had plucked it from atop Mrs. Clayton’s desk.”

Destroyed barns and bales of hay at the John Clayton Farm at Mechums River. Photo from Phil James/Secrets of the Blue Ridge.
On Clayton's hilltop farm near Mechums River, numerous barns and work sheds were lost. The main house was damaged beyond repair. Fences were blown flat to the ground, releasing livestock. And, amazingly, a water pump with twenty-odd feet of pipe still attached was sucked from a well. Photo and caption from Phil James/Secrets of the Blue Ridge.

Aftermath and Recovery

Three days after the tragedy near Ivy, over 500 people attended a funeral for the ten members of the Ervin Morris family. Per the Newport News Daily Press, “Burial was in a hillside cemetery adjoining Hebron Baptist Church near Avon in Nelson County. Seven hearses carried the bodies from Charlottesville. There were seven plain gray caskets and three small white children’s caskets, one only 32 inches long.” Ervin Morris Jr. was released from the hospital and attended the funeral. The children who survived, Frances Ann and Herbert, were still in the hospital. Daughters Mary and Georgia chose not to go to the service. The newspaper reported, “In a final note of irony, a soldier who had planned to attend the funeral was killed Friday night in a highway crash. He was Harold Stuart Mealer, 22 of Grottoes.”

Clean-up across the hard-hit Blue Ridge communities began immediately, and as we see in so many of these tragic tornado tales, volunteers from far and wide came to help. The Red Cross was dispatched immediately and released this statement that was posted in the October 2, 1959 edition of The Daily Progress, “Emergency needs have been met, mostly through friends and relatives. We are now contacting all families on an individual basis to determine what their rehabilitation needs may be.”

Several churches from across the Shenandoah Valley worked together to build a new home for Raymond Bruce and his family. The estimated cost for repairs to The Mountain Plain Baptist Church was $7,000. The congregation held services in the basement of their Sunday School building. Volunteers from across the region helped with the rebuilding effort.

The Charlottesville Daily-Progress followed up with the surviving members of the Morris family a year after the tragic event. Georgia, Mary, Herbert, and Frances Ann went to live with their older brother John Otis Morris and his wife in their five-room home near Afton. Ervin Morris Jr., who also survived the disaster, moved in as well. “They don’t say much about the tornado,” sister-in-law Mrs. John Otis Morris told the paper. “When I do hear them talking, it’s mostly about the little ones, hardly ever about their parents. But they seem to be happy now.” Mrs. Morris reflected back on the decision to adopt all four kids. “Nobody said they wanted, all four. Otis said he wouldn’t have it any other way. If you take them and put them in separate homes, separate them, what would they have? That’s all they have got – each other.” The little girl saved by Leana Sims, Frances Ann, started first grade the year after the tornado. Ervin Jr. worked at a sawmill with his brother but was scheduled to enter the Army at the time of the article. “We can’t give them as much as some people could,” said Mrs. Morris, “but we take them with us whenever we go, and we give them what we’ve got.” The article ended this way, “Of the four Morris children, only Frances Ann bears a scar. It is on her right temple, and she wears her blonde hair in a side-bang to cover it.”

Image from The Charlottesville Daily-Progress on September 29, 1959.

Discrepancies:

We gathered information for this event from the SPC and NCDC Databases, the September 1959 Storm Data Publication (SDP), Thomas Grazulis, Phil James, Newspaper accounts, and analysis of USGS aerial imagery and found the following differences:

Path Length:

  • The SPC/NCDC list a path length of 0.8 miles.
  • Storm Data lists a path length of 3/4 miles.
  • Grazulis lists a path length of 4 miles.
  • Analysis of the USGS aerial imagery indicates a path length of 13.69 miles.

    Path Width:

    • The SPC/NCDC/SDP list a maximum width of 200 yards.
    • Grazulis has a max width of 500 yards.
    • Analysis of the USGS aerial images indicates a max width of 960 yards.

      Injury Count:

      • The SPC/NCDC/SDP list 4 injuries.
      • Grazulis lists 9 injuries.

          Sources:

          The Storm Prediction Center

          September 1959 Storm Data Publication

          NCDC Storm Events Database Entry-Albemarle County

          WPC Overview of Hurricane Gracie

          Reanalysis of 1956 to 1960 Atlantic hurricane seasons completed

          1956 to 1960 Atlantic hurricane seasons reanalysis

          NWS Charleston-Hurricane Grace: Sept 29, 1959

          Hurricane Gracie

          All Hands: The Bureau of Naval Personnel Information Bulletin-December 1959

          Google Earth

          USGS

          Tornado Project Online

          newspapers.com

          ancestry.com

          The Crozet Gazette

          Phil James

          History of Blue Ridge School

          Grazulis, Thomas P. (1993). Significant Tornadoes 1680-1991: A Chronology and Analysis of Events. St. Johnsbury, VT: The Tornado Project of Environmental Films. Page 1023

          Cheek, Aimee Lee. “Tornado Orphans Leading New Lives.” Daily Progress, 29 Sep. 1960, p. 3. https://search.lib.virginia.edu/sources/uva_library/items/uva-lib:2646665

          Devore, Don. “Tornado Kills Eleven at Ivy.” Daily Progress, 1 Oct. 1959, p. 1-22. https://search.lib.virginia.edu/sources/uva_library/items/uva-lib:2733082

          Devore, Don. “Albemarle Begins Cleaning Up After Tornado Havoc.” Daily Progress, 2 Oct. 1959, p. 15. https://search.lib.virginia.edu/sources/uva_library/items/uva-lib:2733127

          Gazette, The Crozet, and Crozet gazette. “Crozet Gazette September 2012.” Issuu. https://issuu.com/crozetgazette/docs/crozet_gazette_sept12-web

          The Daily Press, 4 Oct. 1959. https://www.newspapers.com/clip/86334256/the-news-leader/

          The News Leader, 1 Oct. 1959. https://www.newspapers.com/clip/86334256/the-news-leader/

          The News Leader, 2 Oct. 1959. https://www.newspapers.com/clip/86104957/the-news-leader/

          The News Leader, 29 Oct. 1959. https://www.newspapers.com/image/315769091/

          The Times Dispatch, 1 Oct. 1959. https://www.newspapers.com/image/615921100/

          The Times Dispatch, 2 Oct. 1959. https://www.newspapers.com/image/615921744/

          The Times Dispatch, 3 Oct. 1959. https://www.newspapers.com/image/615922673/

          The Times Dispatch, 6 Oct. 1959. https://www.newspapers.com/image/615926518/

          The Times Dispatch, 8 Oct. 1959. https://www.newspapers.com/clip/86334045/the-times-dispatch/

          The Times Dispatch, 16 Oct. 1959. https://www.newspapers.com/image/615920767/

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