SPC Stats

Path length: 69.4 miles

Width:  440 yards

Fatalities:  44

Injuries:  207

Rating:  F5

County:  Franklin, Miami (KS) / Jackson, MO

This F5 is commonly known as the “Ruskin Heights Tornado” because of the tremendous damage inflicted there.  It has also been called “The Kansas-Missouri Tornado” and “The Ottawa-Kansas City Tornado”.   It developed southwest of Williamsburg, KS, traveled close to 70 miles and ended near Knobtown, MO.  This tornado was the strongest of 35 that occurred on May 20, 1957.

Per the Climatological Data National Summary (CDNS), a supercell formed south of Emporia and moved NE toward the southern parts of Kansas City.  A number of tornadoes and funnel clouds were produced.  One caused damaged near Hartford, KS.  Another hit near the Verdigris River.  This Ruskin Heights Tornado was the main one of the family traveling through Franklin, Miami, and Johnson Counties in KS and ending in Jackson County, MO.  

A total of 44 fatalities were reported.  The SPC only lists 207 injuries. Thomas Grazulis in Significant Tornadoes states the injury count at 531.  

Details from the Climatological Data National Summary

Kansas Portion of Entry:

Severe thunderstorm developed south of Emporia and moved northeastward to southern Kansas City, MO from about 5:30 to 8pm.  A number of funnel clouds and tornadoes were spawned by this thunderstorm cell.  At Hartford, 14 miles southeast of Emporia, tornado at 5:45pm followed short, east-southeastward path through town, damaging trees, roofs and windows with damage of $300.

Funnel cloud aloft sighted southeast of Quenemo, Osage County, about 6pm had a white appearance.  

Funnel observed aloft about 2 miles west of Madison, Greenwood County, at 6:15pm, had well-defined “elephant trunk” appearance; struck ground near junction of 2 branches of Verdigris River, 1-1/2 miles northwest of Madison and moved northeastward.  Trees, old sheds and minor roof damage done.  Had roar louder than jet plane.

Main tornado of this storm struck ground about 2 miles southwest of Williamsburg, Franklin County, about 6:15pm and followed northeastern course of 71 miles to about 2 miles northeast of Knobtown, MO.  Kansas part of path approximately 57 miles.  Tornado passed out of Kansas 1 mile southwest of Martin City, MO at 7:37pm.  

Another tornado left damage path of about 7 miles adjacent to and paralleled with main path from 1 mile northeast of Williamsburg to about 3 miles northeast of Homewood.  

3 funnels observed east of Ottawa in addition to main tornado.  1 funnel sighted aloft and heard as it passed northeastward over Overland Park and Fairway.

Main tornado on ground virtually all the length of path.  Noise of tornado terrific and could be heard at least 5 minutes in advance.  Debris carried to height of 30,000 feet and to many miles from damage path.  Cloud was well-defined funnel variously described from light to dark, and which because larger and narrower near its termination.  Destruction indicated great intensity of storms.   Damage to property estimated at $1,000,000; to crops $10,000.

Missouri Portion of Entry:

Tornado first spotted at 6:15pm near Williamsburg, KS.  It was tracked by radar and reported by persons observing storms along its entire track.  Crossed Kansas-Missouri border just north of southwestern corner of Jackson County at 7:37pm.  From there it hit Martin City, Ruskin Heights and near Knobtown.  Speed of motion calculated at from 31.4 to as much as 46.9 mph at various times along its path.  

Some indications tornado lifted near Knobtown, then either came back down, or another funnel formed near Sibley then moved into Ray County across river.  Witnesses at Hardin and Richmond told of seeing tornado and considerable damage to property done at Richmond about 8:30pm.  Debris from Hickman Mills found later at Ottawa, IA and at many points in north-central Missouri.

Additional Information from Thomas Grazulis in Significant Tornadoes

  • In Kansas, the funnel passed 2 miles south of Ottawa, 5 miles south of Wellsville and along the north edge of Spring Hill.
  • It crossed into Missouri, about 13 miles south of Downtown Kansas City. 
  • In Kansas, 7 people were killed and 31 injured.
  • Many homes were leveled and many reports of multiple vortices.
  • Two deaths occurred in a farm that was leveled to the ground near Ottawa. 
  • Other houses were leveled north of Rantoul.
  • Five deaths occurred near Spring Hill, four in one family that was fleeing their house and heading for the car. 
  • Possibly break in the path south of Wellsville, KS.
  • At least the last 50 miles were continuous.
  • 37 deaths occurred in Missouri and at least 500 injuries as it passed through and devastated Kansas City suburbs.
  • Hit south side of Martin City and a large part of Ruskin Heights and Hickman Mills.
  • F5 damage done to housing developments and to some of the 15 stores at a shopping center.  
  • 842 homes and businesses were damaged/destroyed.
  • Cancelled check from Hickman Mills was found at Ottawa, Iowa, 165 miles away.
  • Pilots reported debris at an altitude of 30,000 feet.

Tornado Path

Click Map To Enlarge

SPC coordinates:  Start: 38.45 / -95.50   End:  38.98 / -94.40      

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

I have included a path map below from the Weather Bureau 

Tornado Path. Pic courtesy of Kansas City Public Library.

Images via the Kansas City Public Library

Damage photo courtesy of the Kansas City Public Library
Aerial View of the tornado's path through Ruskin Heights, 1957

Images via the NWS Kansas City Summary of the Event

Photo taken from the airport near Ottawa, Kansas. Photographer is facing north. Photo courtesy of Dr. Charles Doswell, CIMMS/University of Oklahoma. Photographed by Charles LeMaster.
Damage to homes. Courtesy of Kansas City Star.
Damage to Hickman Mills State Bank. Photo courtesy of Kansas City Star.
Damage to Ruskin Heights High School. Photo courtesy of Kansas City Star.
Damage to home in Hickman Mills. Photo courtesy of Kansas City Times.
Damage to Ruskin Junior High School. Courtesy of Kansas City Star.
Damage to home in Hickman Mills. Photo courtesy of Kansas City Times.

Videos

Newspaper Clippings

Discrepancies:

We gathered information for this event from the SPC & NCDC Databases, the May 1957 Climatological Data National Summary (CDNS) and Thomas Grazulis in Significant Tornadoes and found the following differences:

Path Length:

  • SPC and NCDC have the length at 69.4 miles.
  • CDNS mentions within their entry the path length was 71 miles.  They mention the KS portion was approx. 57 miles.  In their MO entry, they have that path length as 15 miles.  Add those up and that is 72 miles.
  • Grazulis has the path length at 71 miles and mentions this was a family of tornadoes.  
  • Note:  The path may not have been continuous.

Width:

  • SPC and NCDC has the width at 440 yards.
  • CDNS doesn’t have a width for KS and lists the MO width at 200-300 yards.
  • Grazulis lists the width as 700 yards.

Injury Count:

  • SPC and NCDC lists 207 injuries.
  • CDNS has 170 injuries in MO and no listing for KS.
  • Grazulis lists 531 injuries.

Fatality Count:

  • SPC and NCDC have 44 fatalities.
  • CDNS has 33 fatalities in MO and no listing for KS.
  • Grazulis has 44 fatalities.

Counties:

  • NCDC doesn’t have an entry for Johnson County, KS.
  • CDNS is unclear on the counties.
  • SPC and Grazulis list all 4 counties (Franklin, Miami, Johnson in Kansas; Jackson, MO).

      Sources:

      The Storm Prediction Center

      NCDC Storm Events Database

      May 1957 Climatological Data National Summary

      NWS Kansas City Summary of the Event

      The Ruskin Heights Tornado: Sixty Years Since – Kansas City Public Library

      newspapers.com

      Grazulis, Thomas P. (1993). Significant Tornadoes 1680-1991: A Chronology and Analysis of Events. St. Johnsbury, VT: The Tornado Project of Environmental Films. Page 1007.

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