Stats

Path length: 27.8 miles

Width:  200 yards

Fatalities:  21

Injuries:  345

Rating:  F4

Counties: St. Louis, St. Louis (City) MO / Madison, IL

Tornado Path

SPC Coordinates:

Start: 38.53 / -90.6 End: 38.67 / -90.15     

Corrected Coordinates Based on Newspaper Reports and Thomas Grazulis’ narrative of the path:

Start: 38.533867 / -90.601742 End: 38.698358 / -90.144683 

Summary

A rare winter tornado plowed through the city of St. Louis, MO, in the dead of night on February 10, 1959. It traveled close to 28 miles at an estimated 50-60 mph speed, leaving behind collapsed buildings and littered streets. Sadly, 21 precious souls lost their lives, and 345 were injured.

The devastating St. Louis, MO F4 tornado of February 10, 1959, developed at 1:40 am CST. The National Weather Service (NWS) indicated in their Storm Data Narrative that the first noticeable damage was found in the Sherman, MO area, in the southwest corner of St. Louis County. Houses and other buildings had varying degrees of damage. Troy L. Cooper lived with his family in one of those homes off South Drive, near the Meramec River. According to The St. Louis Globe-Democrat, the father of four awoke to the sound of howling winds and ran to get his wife and children into the basement. After several minutes they emerged to find part of the roof torn to shreds and their 42-foot porch ripped from the home. He told the paper that several neighboring farms had damaged buildings, and two cows were killed.

At 1:48 am, a Trans-World Airline Constellation airplane with 24 passengers and five crew members took off from St. Louis Lambert Airport en route to Kansas City. They began to experience the supercell that produced the tornado only minutes after takeoff, approximately 15 miles west of St. Louis. Per an article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on February 10, 1959, the control tower saw the storm on the radar and directed them around it. Per the newspaper, “The pilot replied to the tower that the storm was one of the worst he had ever experienced and that if he had not been detoured, ‘we probably would have flipped over.’”

According to Thomas Grazulis in Significant Tornadoes, upon leaving Sherman, the tornado caused “minor damage” for approximately 11 miles as it inched closer to dense residential neighborhoods of St. Louis.

As the tornado moved into the far southwestern portion of the St. Louis Metro area, it struck the Warson Woods neighborhood with a bit more ferocity. As reported by the St. Louis post-Dispatch on February 10, 1959, the roof was ripped off the home of G. P. Ziegler on Calais Court. The family was not in town at the time. Donald Aker lived on Mark Drive. His carport was blasted across the street into the residence of Ray Kennedy. The St. Louis Globe-Democrat expounded upon the Kennedy family story in an article from February 11, 1959. It was Ray’s son, Gary, 18, who first heard the thunderous roar of the tornado. As he approached his bedroom door, the carport from the Ziegler home slammed against his house. That noise aroused Ray from his slumber. “That woke me up,” Mr. Kennedy told the paper. “I hit the hall just as Gary got his door open. We went to my younger son Jack’s room and tried to pull the door open. We couldn’t–suction or pressure held it shut.” Once they finally entered Jack’s room, they found him covered in glass, and pieces of wood lay strewn on the floor. The paper reported that the child had been sleeping with his head under the covers, and he did not have a scratch on him.

The twister continued to churn into the Rock Hill area. Windows were smashed, and the tops were torn off homes on Sherrell Court and McKinley Avenue. The St. Louis Globe-Democrat reported on February 11, 1959, an estimated $500,000 in damage at the Rock Hill Industrial Court. The roofs were ripped away from a concrete building owned by the Container Corporation of America and the nearby Midland Products Incorporated. An unknown amount of damage occurred at Froesel-Telle Tire Company.

Further northeast, more homes were damaged in Brentwood. At the intersection of Manchester Road and Brentwood Boulevard, a Standard Oil service station was pulled to the ground. The nearby St. Mary Magdalen Catholic Church had lesser damage. A few shingles and a gutter were removed. Minor damage occurred to the roof of Dr. William Tison’s office on the 8800 block of Manchester Road.

The vortex skirted portions of Richmond Heights and Franz Park before landing in the Clayton-Tamm and Cheltenham neighborhoods south of Forest Park. At this point, the tornado intensified further, and damage became more widespread. A roof on one home was pulled away and tossed into a tree. An article in the February 10, 1959 edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch noted that the owners, Mr. and Mrs. Alphonse Hummert, managed to escape their bedroom and head to the basement before the ceiling crumbled onto their bed. The same newspaper reported that the front section of the roof of the newly built St. James Catholic School on the corner of Wade and Tamm Avenues was wrecked. A few blocks away on Victoria Avenue, the tornado brought down the bell tower of the Memorial Congregational Church. The Reverend Paul Zieke told the St. Louis Globe-Democrat in a February 11, 1959 article that “the tower fell through the roof of the two-story brick Sunday School building.”

KTVI Channel 2, an ABC affiliate at the time, was located at the intersection of Berthold, Oakland, and Hampton Avenues. The destructive winds toppled the station’s 575-foot tower, which fell to the east and smashed through the roofs of two apartment buildings off Oakview Place. Five vehicles parked at the complexes were totaled. The top portion of the tower landed in the St. Louis Arena parking lot.

Mr. and Mrs. James Fleener were asleep in the bedroom of their third-floor apartment at 104 Oakview Place. Baby daughter, Lisa, lay in her crib across the room. Per an article in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat on February 15, 1959, Mrs. Fleemer heard a noise outside, went to the window, saw it was raining, and heard the sound of the wind amplifying. She went back to bed and told her husband she was scared. The paper described that James got up and headed to the living room to close an open window. His wife followed and stopped near the bedroom door. “He got to the middle of the room and the tower fell on him,” Mrs. Fleener told the newspaper. “Just at that moment, I looked up and debris started falling in my face.”

The St. Louis Globe-Democrat said, “Steel bars crashed between the Fleeners’ bed and the crib. Plaster, brick and mortar covered the floor. The baby was crying. Mrs. Fleener, cut on the face, arms and legs, ran to the bedroom. The crib was strewn with debris but the baby appeared safe.” From the living room came a cry for help. The devoted wife fumbled around in the dark to look for her husband. “I couldn’t see what I was doing,” she stated. “I just heard his voice. I started pulling off the debris until I had bruises on my fingers.” Mrs. Fleener was able to dig James free, and neighbors and firefighters led the family out of the apartment safely. “I was level-headed,” Mrs. Fleener said. “I had to be. But that night I broke down a little.”

The damage at St. Louis Arena was not confined to impact marks from the KTVI tower in the parking lot. The destruction was documented well in the February 10, 1959 edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The Arena B building, which housed the roller skating rink and bowling alleys, was hit. Per the newspaper, “The roller rink was virtually demolished, the roof collapsing into the one-story structure. Brick walls were damaged. A fire wall separated the skating rink from the 48 bowling alleys. A portion of the roof of the second section collapsed, falling on alleys 13 to 24. The bowling alleys were swept by rain, and appeared heavily damaged.” Part of the high-arched roof of the arena itself was ripped away, and windows were smashed. The south wall of The “A” building crumbled.

East of the arena, the ferris wheel at Forest Park Highlands Amusement Park was “bent double” by the tornadic winds. A wooden wall was blown down, and at least six “tall sycamore trees bordering Oakland Avenue, in front of the Highlands, were uprooted.”

February 10 1959 F4 Tornado St. Louis, MO 1

35mm slide shots of the damage done by a F4 Tornado that ripped through St. Louis, Missouri on FEB 10, 1959 at 1:40 AM. Nearly 2,000 buildings were damaged and it left 21 dead and 345 injured. KTVI Channel-2 TV Tower near Forest park on Hampton was destroyed. – Feb 1959.

View of the crumpled KTVI tower. Image from the Missouri Historical Society.
A closer look at the KTVI tower, driven into an apartment complex and cars at 104 Oakview Place. Image from the Missouri Historical Society.
The severely damaged St. Louis Arena with one of its front entrance towers missing. Image from the Missouri Historical Society.

The twister sliced a narrow path through the southeastern portion of Forest Park. Per the February 11, 1959 edition of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, approximately $75,000 in damage occurred, mainly to the park’s greenhouses and trees. In the February 13, 1959 publication of the same newspaper, the city asked the Board of Estimate and Apportionment for $1,000 to save trees that had fallen but were not seriously damaged. Most of their root systems were still intact. A February 16, 1959 article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that the work was approved to use equipment with a large hoisting apparatus, to replant 187 trees, mainly evergreens.

After leaving the park, the tornado churned through the Central West End. Several apartments, houses, hotels, and churches were extensively damaged. On Kingshighway, endless windows were blown out at the Frontenac, ABC, and Montclair Apartments. Per the St. Louis-Dispatch on February 10, 1959, “Barricades were set up on the sidewalk because of a weakened cornice on an apartment at the northeast corner of Laclede and Kingshighway.” Apartments along Buckingham Court and West Pine Boulevard were battered and bruised forcing families to find temporary shelter at less damaged hotels.

The February 12, 1959 edition of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat shared the story of Vernon S. Beck. The 72-year-old was a big game hunter and veteran of expeditions to places like Africa. The paper documented some of the “close brushes with death,” Mr. Beck had had in his life. “I guess I live under a lucky star,” Vernon told the paper. “This was my third close shave.”

The explorer almost drowned in Lake Superior. While in Africa, his car went off a mountain road. The driver was killed, and three others were hospitalized. “I went all the way down the mountainside and got only a split lip and a skinned knee.” In the middle of the night on February 10, Vernon was aroused from his slumber in his second-story apartment on West Pine Boulevard by two bricks grazing his head. His wife, Lola, who was sleeping in another room, came running in and asked if he was alright.

“I answered I thought I was, and muttered something about being hit by a couple of bricks. They were both on my pillow. As soon as I got up, I saw that the wall was gone. My bed was sitting on the edge of nothing. Then we found the windows were out everywhere. Everything was strewn around the apartment. The tenants upstairs-it’s a six-family building-came down and told us their walls were gone, too, their furniture sucked out. Thank God, no one was hurt. One girl, Vivian Krespi, a graduate student from Turkey, lost her money. It was in a dresser that was blown away. Only a few days ago she moved her bed from the outside wall to the inside. Otherwise, she’d have been blown into the street. Nancy Wehner, a medical student from Detroit, was in a second floor bedroom. The wall was gone there, too.”

St. Louis Globe-Democrat Staff Writer, Sue Ann Wood, shared her tornado story in the February 11, 1959 edition. Here is the narrative in its entirety.

“A jolting crash which shook the building woke me at 2:20am. Something was splattering across my window like machine gun bullets. I cowered in a doorway between two rooms, having heard somewhere that this was a relatively safe place during a tornado. Then it was over. I crept to my wind, with bits of glass, pebbles, twigs and roofing crunching under my feet on the floor.

Outside the window, the scene was one of devastation. I could see the ragged edge of a brick wall outlined against the dark sky, where a corner had been ripped off the building across the street from my apartment hotel at 4907 West Pine bl.

In the corridors people were running and shouting excitedly. I dressed quickly and ran to the lobby. The hotel manager was there, receiving reports of broken windows throughout the building. Apparently nobody was hurt.

My car was parked on the street in the next block of West Pine, to the east. The first cars I could see, lining the glass and debris strewn street, were crumpled by fallen trees. Mine was luckier. Only a smashed window and a twister aerial.

An eerie stillness had fallen. The air was warm as a summer night. I stood in the middle of the street with a few other people who had begun to gather, and not a word was spoken. We could only gaze in silence at the gaping holes where there had been apartment building walls.

A small wooden building on a parking lot beside my hotel was now a heap of splintered lumber at the curbing. A steel fire escape about 20 feet from my window had been ripped off and flung against a near-by brick store building.”

The tornado made its way to the east-northeast, striking structures along Lindell Boulevard. On Maryland Avenue, the Westmoreland Hotel had a considerable portion of its wall ripped away. The St. Louis Globe-Democrat reported that about 40 guests were staying at the hotel at the time. Only one woman was injured. She was cut by broken glass. Off Taylor Avenue, Sacred Heart Academy lost approximately 50 windows. This included three large stained-glass panes in the chapel.

McAuley Hall, a Catholic home for businesswomen, was located at 325 North Newstead Avenue. Approximately 150 persons were asleep inside the establishment when the tornado pushed in. Per the Kansas City Star, on February 10, 1959, a “yellow brick smokestack” located near the home toppled onto a two-story garage building on the property. Local St. Louis newspapers noted that John Hantak, 72, Charles Chesky, 61, and Wilbert Churchill, 35, maintenance men employed by McAuley Hall, were asleep in the garage. Mr. Chesky was severely injured with multiple fractures and died en route to the hospital. Mr. Hantak also passed away. It is unknown the extent of his injuries. The official cause of death was heart failure. Mr. Churchill was hospitalized but survived. The Belleville (IL) Messenger, on February 13, 1959, reported that a fourth worker, George Norris, escaped with mostly minor scrapes and cuts.

Next in line were several structures along McPherson Avenue and Westminster Place. The St. Louis Globe-Democrat reported on February 10, 1959, that the top two floors of a four-story building were “sliced off by the wind.” There were reports of people trapped and many sustained injuries, but there were no fatalities in this area.

Mary Elizabeth Ryder founded Mary Ryder Home in June of 1930. Per an archived version of the establishment’s website, she, along with other St. Louis residents, “witnessed first-hand the devastation the Great Depression caused, especially for women who were abandoned, homeless, and without support. Initially the home provided shelter to indigent women and helped them find employment so they could regain their independence. For many of the women, the opportunity to stay at Mary Ryder Home was the first time in their lives they felt safe and well-cared for.” In 1959, there were two Mary Ryder Homes, one at 4341 Westminster Place and the other at 4360 Olive Street. Both properties were damaged. Mary Ryder wrote the following “Letter to the Editor,” which appeared in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat on February 20, 1959.

“The Mary Ryder Homes for elderly women were in the disaster area of the tornado, and while we suffered property damage, God was good, and all our residents, with the exception of fright and panic and discomforts, were uninjured in any way. But we do want to commend our fine police and firemen for the splendid work they so promptly performed and at the risk of their own lives, helping with the task of aiding the injured and the clearing away of dangerous debris.”

The relentless twister then set its sights on Gaslight Square, a local entertainment district near the intersection of Olive Street and Boyle Avenue. Multiple homes and businesses suffered complete destruction. Once a vibrant hub where locals could ride trolleys and frequented restaurants, boutiques, and various forms of entertainment, it now lay in ruins. The February 11 and 15, 1959 editions of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat documented the initial scene of devastation. “In the hard-hit Boyle-Olive neighborhood, two feet of debris covered streets. A panel truck stood burning at mid-street, covered with chunks of cornice and bricks and throwing an orange glow on the wreckage.” One of the first responders to Gaslight Square was Police Sergeant Edward H. Schaf. His father had been on the police force when St. Louis was struck by a similar deadly tornado in 1927. Officer Schaf recalled the damage he saw while running down the street. “All the street lights were out. The [trolley] wire made an awful sound, [it had blown out]. Then it was like a red pencil running down a white sheet of paper. All of a sudden the gas tank on the truck cut loose. The masonry began falling down on the sidewalk and the street. I got away from there quick.”

The streets of Gaslight Square were filled with cries for help coming from people – many injured – under the collapsed buildings. Cars on the roads had burst into flames, and on the southwest corner of Olive and Boyle, the four-story Musical Arts Building had its top floor ripped apart, leaving bricks littered on the streets below. Popular businesses Pagano’s Pizza and Collector’s Corner antique shop also suffered major damage.

The Musical Arts Building with shattered windows and its roof mostly removed (top right of photo). Image from The State Historical Society of Missouri.

The five children and family pet dog of Ocie Mae Cole had been sleeping on their third-floor residence above the Golden Eagle nightclub. When the tornado struck, three of the children were injured and taken to the City Hospital. Hours later, they were all treated and reunited with their worried mother and siblings. However, their pet Trixie was assumed not to have survived.

Meanwhile, after spending about 80 hours above the wreckage, a roofer, Doyle Sander, and rescuers on the third floor found a dog alive. She had survived by huddling in a sleeping box as beams descended violently around her. In a February 14, 1959 edition of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, Russ Frederic recalled an ironic happy memory with the pup. “It started wagging its tail and licking our hands like mad. It was so glad to see somebody. It was a sight to see.” Mr. Frederic was the vice president of a roofing firm working on the Golden Eagle building. Given the tiny miracle and circumstances, the dog was given the name “Tornado” by her rescuers. Through all the chaos, the poor canine had initially lost her owners. However, Mr. Sander was able to track down the Coles, and Trixie was soon reunited with the jubilant family.

Within the vicinity of Gaslight Square along Olive Street, several residences were severely damaged, destroyed, or rendered uninhabitable. The large family of Mr. and Mrs. Ovie Johnson and their ten children (ages 2 to 17) was among those seeking a temporary place to live in the storm’s immediate aftermath. Leaving with only clothing they could salvage, the Johnsons fled to nearby Galilee Baptist Church, where an emergency quarters was in place. Nina Mae Winters and her 11-year-old daughter followed suit from the same apartment complex. “We’re grateful to be out of the cold and to be alive,” Mrs. Winters said in the February 11, 1959 edition of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat. At a nearby multi-story flat along Olive Street, 20 people were rescued from the rubble. Less than a block away from the Golden Eagle on Olive Street, Major League Baseball star first baseman for the St. Louis Cardinals, Joe Cunningham, was hosting a late-night Bible study. He and his friend Teddy Glenn were at Cunningham’s apartment above Smokey Joe’s Grecian Terrace, where Glenn worked as a cook. Cunningham described his terrifying encounter that night on the February 11, 1959 editions of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat and Paducah Sun, and in a 1997 interview featured on the Nine PBS’ 1959 Tornado | Living St. Louis YouTube documentary of the event: “My buddy and I were discussing a Bible passage. I heard the wind and kind of felt the big glass double doors bulge between the front and middle rooms. Then there was a roar. The room began to dance. I got up to check the doors when this big chunk of the ceiling fell onto the chair where I had been sitting. Teddy made it into the hall and was blown right into the kitchen when the wind blew out the window. Teddy landed on the floor and the wind blew a nail into the heel of his foot. I crouched in a corner of the next room until we could make our way to the street. When we finally got dressed and went down the stairway, there was a lot of rocks and glass and everything there. And when we went out on the street, then we saw, it was like an air raid. The police and rescue squads arrived with remarkable speed and did a wonderful job. They pulled a woman with two babies apparently unhurt out of the next apartment.”

Damage to Smokey Joe’s and above apartment where Joe Cunningham lived. Image from The State Historical Society of Missouri.
A wider view of the destruction in Gaslight Square near Smokey Joe’s (right side of photo). Image from The State Historical Society of Missouri.
A destroyed three-story home in Gaslight Square. Image from The State Historical Society of Missouri.
Piles of debris litter the streets of Gaslight Square during cleanup, with roofless buildings towering above. Image from The State Historical Society of Missouri.
A building in Gaslight Square lies in ruins, whereas another building just across the street sits relatively unscathed. Image from The State Historical Society of Missouri.
A structure of at least three floors in Gaslight Square with its roof removed, and corner gutted into the streets. Image from The State Historical Society of Missouri.
View of Gaslight Square devastation. Image from The State Historical Society of Missouri.
Looking north towards Washington Avenue from an alley between Boyle Street and Washington. Image from The State Historical Society of Missouri.

Leaving Gaslight Square in ruins, the tornado continued its brutal onslaught as it crossed the 4200 block of Washington Avenue. Many multi-family homes filled with sleeping residents were flattened, and death became more frequent. Firemen arrived and frantically began searching for survivors. One home revealed the lifeless bodies of Belle Bugg, 24, and her son Lee Jr., 17 months, both of whom had suffocated under the collapse of their home. The father, Lee Bugg Sr., 26, along with Nathaniel Brown, 15, Marlene Carter, 25, Wilbert Carter, 2, Deborah Williams, 2, Catherine Williams, 23, and Marie Williams, 17, all survived their injuries.

Near the intersection of Washington Avenue and Whittier Street, the Brown family sheltered on the first floor of their apartment. According to the February 13, 1959 edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Willie Brown and her two children, Theodore, 12, and Nathaniel, 15, were huddled in the kitchen as the tornado began to rip at their home. All of the windows blew out, and a wall was torn away. Able to act, Willie started to rescue her family and neighbors ahead of law enforcement efforts en route. She saved her granddaughter from a door that had fallen on her. Nathaniel was found injured but would recover. However, Willie’s sister Zula Brown, 42, was found dead under the rubble. It was the second time in the past year that Willie had lost a family member, as her husband had passed away just three months prior. In total, there were six injuries at the apartment.

Neighboring the Browns, the Brunson family was left scrambling. Having survived the twister, they were now homeless, as their house was ultimately destroyed. Given the understandable state of discomfort, Mr. Brunson, a local restaurant porter, was worried about the possibility of his pregnant wife suddenly giving birth. After gathering what clothes they could, the Brunsons wandered around the debris-filled streets for hours before they were able to rent a hotel room. In the meantime, the Red Cross stepped in. They offered fresh clothing and hotel expenses until the Brunsons could find a new home.

As the tornado violently established its presence in the sleepy residential neighborhood of Central West End, only 2/3 of a mile away, a different phenomenon was recorded at St. Louis University. Along the 3600 block of West Pine Boulevard, the institution’s gymnasium housed a seismograph in its basement. It picked up “unusual recordings,” according to a February 11, 1959 article in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat. A director at the university, Dr. Ross R. Heinrich, noted that “such recordings by seismographs are rather rare. The instrument would have to be close to the center of a tornado to register it so clearly.” The peak of these recordings was noted between 2:13-2:15 am CST while the tornado was ripping through densely populated areas nearby.

Truck driver Roosevelt Hester was at his home near the intersection of Delmar Boulevard and Whittier Street when the tornado reached him. Just across the road was a three-story multi-family home at 4202 Delmar Boulevard, where at least seventeen people resided. Hester described what he saw that night as the twister rumbled through in a February 10, 1959 edition of Effingham Daily News. “I was looking out the window when I first heard the storm. I saw the [home across the street] go just before I ducked. Funny, the only sound I heard was the hail which came before the wind.”

One of the seventeen in the 4202 Delmar home was the building’s owner, Knox Brown, 37. According to the February 15, 1959, St. Louis Globe-Democrat publication, Brown had heard the building begin to rattle, thinking perhaps burglars were attempting to break in. He hurried in his pajamas to check the front door, only to be met with a roaring intruder far more sinister than a typical neighborhood robber. In an instant, he retreated to the floor as the structure crumbled around him under the force of violent winds. Miraculously, Brown survived, with his only injury occurring when a bed fell onto his arm.

Immediately following the tornado, rescuers descended upon Delmar Boulevard, hoping to find survivors. Fireman Harold Hotop and Rescue Squad man John Rodcay described their groups’ rescue efforts and discouraging obstacles at the 4202 Delmar home in a February 12, 1959, St. Louis Globe-Democrat article.

Hotop:

“We knew people were under there – we could hear them crying. But we just couldn’t start throwing things around. We had to be very careful. It’s like working in a sand pile, make a false move and you’ll hurt somebody you’re trying to save.”

Rodcay:

“I worked my way into the basement. I could hear some children crying – I got two of my own – but I couldn’t find them. Finally we traced the cries to one pile of wreckage. When we cleared away some of it I found a TV set. I started to lift it and got the biggest relief of my life when those two kids under there started to wiggle out.”

As rescuers continued to carefully sift through the rubble, pulling survivors to safety, they quickly realized that many would not make it out alive. In a single family, Mildred Campbell, 29, along with five of her children, Michael, 8, Carl, 6, Rosemary, 4, Carrin, 3, and Theresa, 14 months, were all killed. Constance, 5, and Anita, 6, survived but were injured in the process. The young siblings now faced a life-altering future without the majority of their family. Within the same home, Douglas Cooney, 29, and Oscar Murray, 29, also tragically lost their lives, pushing the death toll within the home to eight. In addition to Anita and Constance Campbell and the building’s owner Knox Brown, Fred Bollinger, 33, and William Nance were also injured at the residence.

The collapsed three-story home at 4202 Delmar Boulevard where eight people perished. Image from The State Historical Society of Missouri.

A couple of doors down, Andrew Taylor said the noise woke him up as the tornado was approaching. In the February 15, 1959 edition of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, Taylor said he “reads the Bible a little bit, like I do when I wake up like that.” Minutes later, Taylor realized danger was imminent. “There was something roaring like two or three wood-burning locomotives. I jumped to the window and there was a giant bonfire of lightning coming out of the southwest. Then the window blew in and the dust and wind blinded me.”

Taylor and his wife survived, but she was seriously injured when a slamming door lacerated her hand. While attending to her wound, Taylor looked around and began to realize the scope of catastrophe as the injured rose from the debris-filled streets like zombies.

Just to the southeast of the Delmar Boulevard/Whittier Street intersection, Arleatha Lunceford was expecting the birth of her eighth child over the next month. She and her seven children, ages ranging from two to sixteen, were in their second-floor apartment when the violent winds reached them. An article from the February 13, 1959 edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch described their struggles after the tornado spared their lives. Nearly all their possessions were a loss. Clothes and dishes littered their home. Lunceford had spent all of her money for the month on essentials. The family sought help from a Red Cross station at Samaritan Temple Methodist Church, where they were given food, bedding, clothing for the children, and shelter.

Damaged homes along a Central West End neighborhood street. Image from The Historical Society of Missouri.
A man looks over damaged Central West End homes. Image from The Historical Society of Missouri.
A passerby gazes in awe at the devastation in Central West End. Image from The Historical Society of Missouri.

The twister continued to churn through houses in the Vandeventer neighborhood, trapping residents and causing several injuries. Fire Captain Leonard W. Grams told the St. Louis Globe-Democrat in the February 15, 1959 edition that his unit was called to 4123 Enright Avenue. “When we got to the house, we heard these people yelling that there were people trapped inside. We saw a fireman, George Turner, inside chopping at the walls. We could hear a woman. We could see her, too, through a crack in the door. We told her not to move because the ceiling would come down. George chopped the wall open and she walked out.”

Two buildings crumbled at Sarah Street near the Hodiamont streetcar tracks, and people were buried in the rubble. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported on February 10, 1959, that between Cook Avenue and Page Boulevard, “the tornado cut through a three-story building as with a cleaver. The north part of the structure was intact, the south chopped cleanly off.”

Tragically, more lives were lost as the twister crossed through the northern edge of the Grand Center neighborhood. On Page Boulevard, Harry Martin, 44, his wife Harriett, 41, and their 3-year-old son Johnie, were killed in their tenement home. Across the street, Alma Pearl Womack, 8, died due to her injuries when the tornado struck her house. Multi-family dwellings in the 3800 block of Evans Avenue were gutted, leaving several injured.

John and Mary Franklin lived with several family members in their dwelling on Cozens Avenue. At least five were injured in the home, and the couple’s 2-year-old son Lonnie was killed. Per the February 11, 1959 edition of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, the child was thrown from the building into an alley off nearby Easton Avenue (present-day Martin Luther King Drive).

Mrs. Gertrude Watson and her six children, ages seven months to 12 years old, lived in an upstairs apartment on Cozens Avenue. The building collapsed on top of the family, but they all escaped with only slight injuries. The loving mother stayed with her kids at one of the shelters at the Bricklayers Union Hall. “We had a nice lunch-sandwiches and spaghetti,” Mrs. Watson said in the same Globe-Democrat edition. “It’s been a blessing from God. They’re doing the best they can and they’re very nice to us. But anybody would rather be in her own home.”

The violent winds continued to afflict several sections of the Jeff-Vander-Lou neighborhood. Per the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, on February 10, 1959, at the American Packing Company, a 60-foot portion of a wall crumbled. A large garage next to the Laclede Packing Company plant was obliterated, and several meat delivery trucks inside were crushed. The paper also reported that in the 1800 block of Prairie Avenue, “the entire front wall of a two-story building containing 14 flats was sheared off by the wind. Interiors of rooms were exposed like pigeon-holes in an old-fashioned desk.”

Joseph Evans was a resident in one of those apartments. He told the Dispatch that he turned his radio off just after 2am and saw the storm come in. “The lightning appeared to be getting closer and flashing more frequently,” he stated. “It was getting reddish in color. I felt the building begin to shake. My wife and I were thrown out of bed onto the floor. I told her: ‘If we’re going to die, honey, we’ll die together.’” The couple was not injured, and the paper reported that no one else at the complex was seriously hurt.

The Bates School at 1912 North Prairie Avenue sustained significant damage. The St. Louis Globe-Democrat stated in a February 11, 1959 article that windows were broken in 21 of the 24 classrooms. Part of a roof overhang and a ventilating tower were wiped away. Mrs. Alice Webb, 84, was rescued from the rubble of what was left of her Cote Brilliante Avenue apartment. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch stated that Hallie Harris, Alice’s granddaughter, was on the first floor when the storm began. “Mrs. Harris said that before she could return to bring down Mrs. Webb, the entire roof and second floor crumbled under the tornado’s impact. Police and volunteer workers dug out Mrs. Webb. She was taken to Homer G. Phillips Hospital with serious injuries.”

It wasn’t the howling winds that woke up Walter Wilson from his slumber. The resident on Cottage Avenue heard the sound of his car horn blaring, and that roused him from a deep sleep. When he got up, he found the front of the four-family flat was gone. Per the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on February 10, 1959, “His car’s horn button had been depressed by debris which crushed the machine.”

On North Grand, The Weber-Deibel Motor Company building was wrecked, and automobiles on the adjacent lot were heavily damaged. The roof was removed at the A&P food store, and products on shelves littered the floor. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported the following on February 10, 1959. “Some pre-dawn pedestrians halted uncertainly when they first encountered what appeared to be a macabre scene at Grand Boulevard and St. Louis. Winds that had blown out the display windows of a women’s shop had strewn clothed mannikins on the sidewalk and in the street. Some passersby looked hard to make sure they were not tornado victims.”

At least five residents at the Ozanam Home for Men on Montgomery Street were injured, mainly by shattered glass from windows busted by the winds. They were taken to Homer G. Phillips Hospital. Newspapers also reported that part of the roof was ripped away and there was wall damage.

The tornado continued to cause devastation and more fatalities in the 2700 Block of Bacon Street. Tenement homes in this area collapsed, trapping residents. Some were dug out of the rubble with extensive injuries, but sadly, two women were killed. Willie Whirley, 54, died at 2756 Bacon Street. Four others in the flat, including her husband John, were hurt.

Fannie Ivory, 57, lived with her sister Amelia Brown at 2758 Bacon Street. Both women were pinned in the ruins. Neighbors were able to pull Amelia to safety. Per the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, she cried out to rescue workers that her sister was trapped. “Firemen and police found Mrs. Ivory’s body on her bed, buried when the second floor caved in about her.”

Significant damage at 2758 Bacon Street where Mrs. Ivory lost her life. Image from the Missouri Historical Society.

The twister swiped Grace Lutheran Church at St. Louis and Garrison Avenues, shattering five large stained glass windows. Pews from the balcony were thrown to the sanctuary floor.

Next in line was the northwest corner of the St. Louis Place Neighborhood and then into the Hyde Park area. The St. Louis Globe-Democrat documented the damage at the Irving School on 3829 North 25th Street. “Falling debris tore a hole in the roof. Rafters at one corner were lifted out of position. A parapet wall was demolished. Wind and sash damage, caused by flying debris, was so extensive that the south portion of the school is not usable.” The tornado hit the Farrar Street home of Rosa Coker, 52, and she was killed. Her husband William suffered injuries. More damage occurred off Salisbury Street, with several extracted from collapsed buildings. The roof was removed from the Kroemeke Furniture Company.

The tornado was nearing the end of its time in Missouri. It pressed over I-70 and into the Near North Riverfront community. A building collapsed at Bierman Iron & Metal Company on Hall Street. As it crossed the Mississippi River into Illinois, a tollhouse was “wrecked,” according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on February 10, 1959. “A toll collector on duty was reported to have left the station before the wind struck the bridge.”

After crossing the river, the weakening tornado impacted the communities of Venice and Granite City in Illinois. In the latter, several industrial plants were damaged. An article in the February 11, 1959 edition of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat described a section of City Products Corporation Ice House’s roof getting blown away onto nearby Granite City Steel Company railroad tracks. On 19th Street, Union Starch and Refining Company lost a portion of a brick wall on the third story. Shortly beyond this location, the tornado finally lifted. However, the parent storm continued to inflict wind damage in the nearby communities of Collinsville and Edwardsville.

Aftermath and Recovery

Because the twister hit in the middle of the night, many were unaware of the extent of the damage in St. Louis until the light of day. Search and rescue had been ongoing through the wee hours of the morning, and with the rising sun, it became evident that the road to recovery would be long for many. The city, though, worked diligently to regain some sense of normalcy for their residents.

The Red Cross set up four shelters for tornado victims and began raising funds. On February 11, 1959, the St. Louis Globe-Democrat reported that the agency had received more than 1300 inquiries from across the country on the safety of friends and family. On February 10, The Post-Dispatch and its television and radio affiliates, KSD-TV and KSD, created a “Tornado Relief Fund” to help those in need. “The newspaper recognized that the victims hardest hit by the tornado are among those least able to meet the expense of heavy losses and damages they have suffered. For this reason the tornado relief fund was established.” The Post-Dispatch published hundreds of donations that had come in with so many heartfelt notes. Here is just a sampling:

A $5.28 pledge was sent in from Mr. and Mrs. Charles Gates with this message: “The 28-cent donation is a contribution from our four-year-old daughter, Nancy’s, piggy bank on behalf of her one-year-old sister, Terri, and her dog, Wonnie. She requests that the money be given to some children so that they can buy anything they want. God bless you all in your work.”

Patricia Winschief sent a letter with 15 cents. “I’m sorry but this is all I have and I’ll send more about Friday, Saturday, or Monday. I’m saying prayers for those who are injured. I’m twelve. My name is Patty–Love, Patty.”

Elizabeth Brooks sent $2 and the following letter, “I am blind but I have a roof over my house and I hope this little money I am sending will help the people in some way. May God be with them all.”

The organization raised over $80,000 and delivered it to The Red Cross. KMOX Radio held a pledge drive and, by February 12, had raised $30,000 for the victims. Calls came in from across the fruited plain during the 26-hour campaign. The Globe-Democrat reported that “among the many donations received by the St. Louis Bi-State Chapter of the Red Cross to aid tornado victims was a $2 anonymous gift signed, ‘A Widow, a Victim of the 1896 Tornado.’”

Phone scams are nothing new. They happened after the St. Louis tornado disaster and warranted a warning from the Better Business Bureau (BBB). The Globe-Democrat reported just a day after the event for folks to be “on the alert for an expected rash of phony disaster relief appeals.” According to the BBB, “Some of these appeals are no doubt bona fide. But persons who are solicited to give money for the relief of tornado victims should make sure that the solicitor represents an authorized agency.”

While there is always news of those trying to take advantage of people during a catastrophe, there are heartwarming stories that outweigh the negative ones. The St. Louis Globe-Democrat posted a story about children at the McKnight Elementary School in University City, MO, who decided, on their own, to help tornado victims. “Miss Rose Adams, fourth-grade teacher, said her pupils-without her suggestion-yesterday voted to give up valentines. They’ll donate money they would normally spend on valentines to disaster relief. Another group, the second graders of Mrs. Edith McKinnon, are going to donate the nickel they would normally spend on dessert in the school cafeteria. Cub Scouts at the school are campaigning for clothes, and a mothers’ organization is collecting food for tornado victims.”

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch announced on February 12, 1959, that work of clearing debris from the streets of St. Louis had been completed two days after the disaster. Only the intersection at Olive Street and Boyle Avenue was still closed at that point to vehicle traffic. Most of the telephone communication had been restored as well. Per the newspaper, “Street Commissioner Gilmore estimated that 2000 truckloads of rubble were removed from streets and alleys. The city employed 115 trucks in the work and each averaged about eight loads a day.” The article continues, “Joseph P. Sestric, director of public safety, praised the work of 350 firemen who were on the job immediately after the storm passed. Using power tools and lifting equipment, they dug 55 persons from the ruins and nine of the 21 bodies.”

Insurance underwriters estimated that the damages to the St. Louis Area totaled $12 million. From the above newspaper, “Gen. Francis P. Hardaway, Civil Defense director, estimated the damage caused by the storm at about one-fourth of that sustained in the city’s 1927 tornado.” Several publications posted a damage survey from the Red Cross. “20 businesses destroyed; 69 businesses with major damage and 354 with minor damage. Twenty-one multiple dwellings destroyed; 141 with major damage and 1104 with minor damage. Two single-family dwellings with major damage and 11 with minor damage.”

Removed from the disaster scene but still a part of it, long distance telephone operators handle switchboards which helped put through a record 83,785 calls yesterday. Operators here are some of the 1000 who worked through the day at Southwestern Bell Company’s toll office at 2654 Locust street. To help with the flood of calls, clerical and headquarters personnel were pressed into service at boards where the previous record was 56,623 calls.

The St. Louis Globe-Democrat published a detailed article one year after the tragic tornado. In it, they recapped areas in the city that had seen improvements and other parts that struggled to rebuild. We looked at that edition and ones for the 30th and 50th anniversaries of the event to get a glimpse at St. Louis after the 1959 twister.

The 150-foot tall base of the KTVI television tower was still standing. The station had been using a new tower in Sappington. It was unknown a year later if the base would ever be used. It was discovered that it was dismantled in the mid-1980s. St. Louis Arena was still under repair in February of 1960. Renovations finally occurred at the establishment, held several big sporting events, and became the home of NHL’s St. Louis Blues until 1994. The Arena was demolished in 1999.

Per the newspaper a year later, empty lots replaced what used to be apartment buildings in the 4900 block of West Pine Boulevard. McAuley Hall, a Catholic home for businesswomen, was rebuilt, and repairs were near completion at Westmoreland Hotel. The hard-hit section at Boyle and Olive had been entirely restored by February 1960. It was reported that nightclub and antique shop owners refer to the tornado as “the ill wind that blew good.” The area, known as Gaslight Square, was a hub for the jazz scene until the early 1970s.

Miss Adeline Ruenzi, founder of the Service Club for the Blind on Olive Street, told the paper that “insurance and numerous liberal donations have made possible a rebirth of the center, which aids blind and partly blind persons.” An $8,000 renovation had just been completed before the twister struck. Three weeks later, “wiring damaged in the tornado sparked a fire which caused even more destruction to the center.” Miss Ruenzi told the Globe-Democrat, “Thank God, nobody was hurt in the building during the tornado or the fire. Thanks to insurance and generous donations, we have been able to get our building in better shape than it was before the storm. We’re back in business now, as good –or even better–than before.”

The paper checked in with big-game hunter Vernon Beck. He and his wife moved into an apartment on the same block as before, on West Pine. “We like this neighborhood. I’m an optimist. I think surely we won’t be in the path of a tornado again.”

Hopefully, Mr. Beck managed to stay clear of any twisters for the rest of his life. Unfortunately, St. Louis County would see another significant tornado, rated F4, less than ten years after this one on January 24, 1967. It stayed north of the city limits, and tragically three people were killed and 216 injured. That was the last F4/EF4 to strike the metro area until April 22, 2011.

In Loving Memory

John J. Hantak, 72

Raymond Charles Chesky, 61

Belle Fox Bugg, 24

Lee Auther Bugg Jr., 17 months

Zula Anderson Brown, 42

Mildred Campbell, 29

Carl Campbell, 6

Carrin Campbell, 3

Michael Campbell, 8

Rosemary Campbell, 4

Theresa Patricia Ann Campbell, 14 months

Douglas Cooney, 29

Oscar Dupree Murray, 29

Harry Sylvester Martin, 44

Harriet Johnson Martin, 41

Johnie Sylvester Martin, 3

Alma Pearl Womack, 8

Lonnie A. Franklin, 2

Willie Gregory Whirley, 54

Fannie Davis Ivory, 57

Rosa Gladys Archibald Coker, 52

Videos

Discrepancies:

We gathered information for this event from the SPC & NCDC Databases, the February 1959 Storm Data Publication, newspaper reports, and Thomas Grazulis in Significant Tornadoes and found the following differences:

Path Length:

  • SPC/NCDC have a 23.9 mile path.
  • Grazulis has a length of 27 miles.
  • Storm Data lists a 25-mile path. It only lists details for St. Louis County.
  • Detailed analysis based on a combination of Grazulis’ narrative and newspaper reports indicate a total track length of approximately 27.8 miles.

Sources

The sources compiled in our research for this summary can be found here.

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