Genealogy Trails


Tornado struck city at approximately 3:30 p.m. March 23, 1917. Moved through north side of town, affecting roughly ninety blocks. Mayor and others formed Citizens Relief Committee. Next morning Red Cross joined forces with Committee; within hours, workers deployed throughout affected area. Red Cross nurses treated injured at St. Edward Hospital.

Tornado killed at least 45 people, injured hundreds more, destroyed approximately 300 homes and buildings, left 2,500 homeless, cost over $1,000,000 in total damage. At this site, "Olden Street Colored School" collapsed during the storm, trapping teachers and students; there were several deaths. Tornado ranks among deadliest to strike Indiana since 1900.

Tornado struck city at approximately 3:30 p.m. March 23, 1917. (1) Moved through north side of town, affecting roughly ninety blocks. (2) Mayor and others formed Citizens Relief Committee. (3) Next morning Red Cross joined forces with Committee; within hours, workers deployed throughout affected area. (4) Red Cross nurses treated injured at St. Edward Hospital. (5)

Side two:

Tornado killed at least 45 people, injured hundreds more, (6) destroyed approximately 300 homes and buildings, (7) left 2, 500 homeless, (8) cost over $1, 000, 000 in total damage. (9) At this site, "Olden Street Colored School" collapsed during the storm, trapping teachers and students; there were several deaths. (10) Tornado ranks among deadliest to strike Indiana since 1900. (11)

(1) American Red Cross and New Albany Citizens Relief Committee, Tornado Relief, New Albany, Indiana, March 23rd, 1917, Joint Report (July 1917) [hereafter referred to as Joint Report].

(2) Joint Report B050026); "Indiana Weather History “ March, " National Weather Service “ Indianapolis, (accessed December 19, 2005) reports tornado was "1000 feet wide" ; Ferdinand J. Walz, "Tornado of March 23, 1917, At New Albany, Ind., " Monthly Weather Review (April 1917): 169-171 [hereafter referred to as Walz, MWR], states length of storm was 3 ½ miles (B050034); "New Albany Tornado, " Blue River Gazette (Fredericksburg, IN), March 29, 1917 reports tornado "cut a path about three blocks wide across the city" 

(3) Mayor Robert W. Morris and other citizens formed the Committee on Friday evening after the tornado had passed through. Joint Report .

(4) Joint Report (B050026).

(5) Joint Report (B050026).

(6) There are some discrepancies in reporting how many people were killed. Two reports from the National Weather Service (Indianapolis, IN), "20th Century Weather Highlights for Indiana, " National Weather Service Indianapolis, IN, (accessed December 14, 2005)  and "Indiana Weather History “ March" ; three newspaper reports in the Indianapolis Star and Indianapolis News, "Tornado Disasters in Indiana, " Indianapolis Star, November 7, 2005, sec. A, p. 8, c. 2 , "Fastest Tornado on Record Hit Indiana, " Indianapolis News, May 7, 1953 , and "Roaring through Indiana, " Indianapolis Star Magazine, November 15, 1953 ; and Walz, MWR (B050034), all indicate that 45 people were killed in the tornado. Joint Report indicates two death totals. Joint Report claimed there were "45 deaths altogether, " in its written summary of the event. This number is contradicted by information about the immediate aftermath of the tornado and the number of persons who died later in the hospital. Joint Report claimed 40 people lay dead in the debris of the storm and that 6 later died in the hospital due to the tornado, bringing the total to 46 

Four later newspaper articles appearing the in the 1960s list the total number killed as 46. "Terror of Tornado Known to Indiana, " Indianapolis News, July 15, 1960 ; "Weathermen Outline Tornado Safety Tips, " Indianapolis Star, March 7, 1961 (B050044); "Nerves Go Twang as Wind Does Twist, " Indianapolis News, April 4, 1963 ; "Tornadoes Have Killed 281 Hoosiers, " Indianapolis News, March 29, 1965

With regard to injuries incurred from the tornado, both National Weather Service reports  list 250 injured while the Joint Report lists 200

(7) "Indiana Weather History “ March, " states 200 to 300 buildings destroyed . Among the businesses destroyed were Kahler Wood Working Company, Woolen Mills, Rasmussen's Nursery, New Albany Hosiery Mill, and Jacobson's. Joint Report . The Joint Report lists "492 houses hit, 300 totally demolished" . Walz, MWR states 200-300 houses were destroyed 

(8) "Indiana Weather History “ March"  and Walz, 

(9) Joint Report 

(10) There are some discrepancies in reporting how many people were inside the school when it was struck by the tornado and how many were injured or killed. Joint Report states the school collapsed on a hundred children (no mention of injured, dead, etc.); Walz, MWR lists 40 teachers and students inside the building, with 12 dead;  and "Schools Lost $7, 000 in Storm, " New Albany Ledger, April 11, 1917 lists thirty-five children inside the school when the tornado struck, and two children dead as a result of the tornado. (11)"Tornado Disasters in Indiana, " Indianapolis Star was included in the coverage of the November 7, 2005 tornado in Vanderburgh and Warrick counties. "Tornado Disasters" lists the nine deadliest tornadoes in Indiana, with the earliest listed occurring in 1886. The 1917 New Albany tornado ranks fourth, behind the Palm Sunday Outbreak of 1965 (137 killed), the Tri-State tornado of 1925 (74 killed), and the Super Outbreak of 1974 (21 tornadoes hit 39 counties, killing 47) 

According to one local newspaper account at the time, this tornado ranked as one of the three worst national disasters in Red Cross work history. "Disaster is Third Greatest in U.S., " Louisville Evening Post, month, day, 1917  See also, "20th Century Weather Highlights for Indiana, " National Weather Service Indianapolis, IN, (accessed December 14, 2005) 

Ten days before the New Albany tornado, the Indianapolis Star provided a list of Indiana's most destructive storms of the last 10 years. The deadliest listed was March 23, 1913 in Terre Haute, in which 17 were killed and 200 injured. Indianapolis Star, March 13, 1917
Source Historical Indiana Bureau

Twister: Looking back at the 1917 tornado that decimated New Albany
NEW ALBANY — Tornado Marker Dedication: An Indiana Historic Bureau marker recognizing the devastating New Albany tornado will be dedicated on March 23 at 4 p.m., 90 years to the day and almost the exact time the tornado struck New Albany. The marker will be installed at The Children’s Academy, 1111 Pearl St., New Albany, which was the site of the Olden Street School crushed in the tornado (that portion of Pearl Street was called Olden Street in 1917). Representatives from the Floyd County Historical Society and the Louisville office of the National Weather Service will speak. The event is free and open to the public.

 On March 23, 1917, a massive tornado swept through New Albany, cutting a path of destruction three miles long by a half-mile wide. Historic records indicate it was on the scale of an F4, and one of the most devastating storms to ever come through Indiana. Forty-five people were killed, and 300 buildings destroyed. The tornado made national news in its day.

 But chances are, you could have easily lived here all your life and not know that until now. Local author Gary Purlee of Jeffersonville was in the process of writing a book called “Tunnel Mill” on a historic grist mill and later Boy Scout Reservation in Clark County when he discovered a mention of the tornado, or cyclone as 1917 sources call it, in some paperwork indicating the tornado was the turning point for the local, fledging Boy Scout Council. He decided to make a closer look at the tornado his next book project. His book, “The Cyclone of 1917,”was completed recently, just in time for the 90th anniversary of the tornado, which is Friday, March 23. A historic marker will be installed on the site of The Children’s Academy, 1111 Pearl Street, in New Albany, to commemorate the massive twister.

 “This is a story that just hasn’t been told very often, and not very well,” Purlee said.

 Part of what’s made the event somewhat obscure in the collective Southern Indiana consciousness is its date, said Floyd County Historian David C. Barksdale. With the tornado having occurred 90 years ago, the generation that experienced it first-hand is likely deceased, and those stories of where and when they were when the twister touched down were buried with them. "There probably are a few people left out there who can still tell the story, but they were very young when it took place, and you have to wonder how much did they actually experience and how much did their mom and dad tell them about it," Barksdale said.

 To understand the magnitude of it, you need a clear picture of where it hit and what was going on that day. It had been stormy, historic records indicate, and various offices of the National Weather Service had sent communications warning of the storms that were coming. But this was pre-tornado sirens, pre-Doppler Radar, pre-television, and not everyone even had a phone. Not everyone got the warning, if there was one, and not everyone understood what to do about it.

 Purlee notes that a widely-held myth in those days was that the hills surrounding New Albany would protect the city itself from tornados. That, of course, proved fatally wrong that day. The tornado skipped over Silver Hills, and touched down at West Seventh Street, winding its way down Charlestown Road. Children were still in school and men at work when the tornado came through. In just a few short minutes, much of the city was laid to ruins.

 Barksdale recalls stories of the storm from his grandparents. His grandmother went to a neighboring home that provided better shelter because of warnings of the storm, Barksdale said. "Had she stayed at her house, she could have been injured or killed," Barksdale said. "There was considerable damage to their home."

 One of the most dramatic stories that came out of the tornado was the story of the rescue of students at the Olden Street School, an educational facility for black children; today, the site of that school is on the grounds The Children’s Academy, and that is where the historic marker will be placed. The marker’s location largely commemorates the tireless work of Principal Mamie Richardson (she married in 1917 and became Mamie Starks). Newspaper accounts indicate that Richardson sent two of her students to fetch Professor H.A. Buerk, 13 blocks away. Newspaper accounts about events at the school are scarce, but local oral history indicates that Richardson and Buerk worked with flashlights throughout the night to save the lives of many of the children trapped in the rubble. In spite of their efforts, two students and one employee of the school died.

 Purlee’s research indicates that city officials and local residents acted as quickly as they could in the face of scant communication and massive destruction to secure the city and its residents. But the first night was an incredible scene of panic and disarray, Purlee said. "That first night was unbelievable," Purlee said. "People were screaming, looking for family members. People who had lost everything were wandering around trying to figure out what to do."

 In some cases, people simply wandered the streets in a daze, and complete strangers who had shelter to offer called out to those who needed assistance and direction to come in and stay with them. Official help came after that first night. A National Guard unit from Seymour came in within the first 24 hours, Purlee said, and the American Red Cross was on the scene by Saturday morning. But the greatest help came from within: the New Albany Citizens Relief Committee formed by that night to organize assistance for its own people. That group remained together for months, and produced a report, in conjunction with the Red Cross, in July 1917 that detailed the efforts to recover from the tornado and how they helped their own people. Help came from Louisville, too. To keep the city economically afloat, a group from Louisville offered $100,000 of its own money to help retain businesses in New Albany, Purlee said. "It has to be one of the earliest examples of regionalism," Purlee notes.

 Even though the world was in the midst of World War I, New Albany’s tornado made newspapers across the country. This brought in additional help from other cities, but it also brought a new problem: twister tourists. By Sunday, Purlee said, some 30,000 people had come to New Albany simply to view the destruction. The National Guard and local militia sealed off the city so no one could get in or out to help control the chaos.

 The Citizens Relief Committee began taking applications from people who needed assistance in the weeks after the tornado. Each person asking for assistance was personally interviewed, the 1917 Tornado Relief Joint Report said. Volunteers also walked the streets of the affected areas to make sure no one was missed. By mid-April, checks were being issued to people who had lost everything.

The city gradually began to recover. The nation’s attention was quickly drawn back to World War I, and New Albany began to rebuild. New Albany High School was built on the site of the building that housed the Woolen Mills, which was not operating at the time of the tornado. The Depauw United Methodist Church across Vincennes Street from the Woolen Mills burned in 1917, and members of the building committee salvaged brick from the demolished Woolen Mills to create their new church building. Barksdale notes that sections of New Albany lost all of their Victorian housing stock, such as areas near State Street and along Charlestown Road near Vincennes. But on the plus side, Purlee said that several factories took the tornado as an opportunity to upgrade their facilities and build new from the ground up.

 It’s fair to wonder if such a storm today would kill and injure as many people. Weather forecasting has, indeed, advanced dramatically. But Terry Herthel, director of emergency management for Floyd County, said he believes a tornado of such magnitude today could even be worse. "We have a lot more population and the buildings are built differently," Herthel said. "There would be more damage."

 There are 12 emergency warning sirens in Floyd County now, and a few new ones added each year at a cost of $15,000 to $20,000 each, depending on how the property where the siren is going has to be prepped. This year, new sirens are being installed in Edwardsville, near Prosser School of Technology in New Albany and Highlander Point in Floyds Knobs.

Tom Reaugh of the National Weather Service in Louisville has studied the history of tornadoes in Kentucky and Southern Indiana. Reaugh ranks the March 23, 1917 tornado in New Albany as one of the worst in the region. Other major storms were March 27, 1890 in Louisville and April 3, 1974, which spawned multiple F5 tornadoes all around Louisville. For a full look at all of the tornadoes in the area’s history, see and click on tornado history.

 Reaugh points out that even in cases where there is warning, there isn’t always time to get out of the way. Studying storms of the past is a constant reminder to take the threat of severe weather seriously. "My biggest fear would be a tornado coming through the first Saturday in May in Louisville," Reaugh said, the day of the Kentucky Derby.

Tribune News March 19, 2007

“The Day the Herculean Something Came to Town"

The Huff family home on Ealy Street. Mrs. Huff, two of her children, and her young niece, Rose, were killed when the house was destroyed around them.

“Acts of heroism were numerous the afternoon of the tragedy in New Albany. Men dug themselves out of wreckage to work for the rescue of those less fortunate than themselves, while other men ran into the main portions of the city to spread the alarm and get the badly needed help.

The first news of the tornado reached the downtown section of the town when Herbert Keneny, former prosecuting attorney, who was at the home of George Strack at the time, came running into town with the terrible tale.

Louis Strack, chief of the fire department, answered an alarm of fire, left his fire team and swam water six feet deep to assist Frank Enslinger in rescuing a score of badly injured folks on North Pearl.”

New Albany Daily Ledger March 27, 1917

Most of the injured and dying were taken here to St. Edwards hospital on Spring Street. This picture was made shortly after the hospital, New Albany’s first, opened in 1902.

Mrs. Johns was hurled about two blocks away, and crashed through the roof of the roof of the Sarles family at 328 Ealy Street. Her badly mangled corpse lodged behind a dresser in the bedroom. Strangely enough, the home appears to have suffered little more damage than that created by Mrs. Johns. Her husband's badly mangled corpse was tossed another two blocks, while her mother's mutilated corpse flew through the air for another four blocks, and poor six year old Mary Louise sailed a little further east. All four family members are buried in the Fairview cemetery, along with several other victims of the "terrible something" that briefly descended upon the town that stormy spring afternoon. All four name are on one stone, the mother and father on one side of the marker; the grandmother and grandchild on the other.

This is where the Johns family lived, at 1120 Crystal Avenue, or at least they did until March 23, 1917. On that day, a "herculean something," a "tornado of supernatural power," tore through New Albany, and demolished the family's home. Mr. Johns had just kissed his wife and child good bye, before starting his daily trek to his job. He'd gone about two blocks when the storm hit. New Albanian, Mr. James Griswald, a veteran of the Spanish-American War, described the storm in the Daily Ledger. "I was on San Juan Hill with the Rough Riders but I never heard such a noise or went through such an experience as I did in the tornado Friday afternoon."

Taken at On March 23, 1917, at around 3 in the afternoon, New Albany was hit by what was obviously an F-5 tornado