NEW ALBANY — Editor’s note: This is part of an ongoing series about the people and events that have shaped the 200-year history of New Albany. Read all installments by clicking on the bicentennial link under the “seasonal content” header at newsandtribune.com
After witnessing the deadly March 2, 2012 tornadoes, Southern Indiana understands the power of Mother Nature. Yet nearly 100 years earlier, another disaster struck New Albany, one that most citizens today haven’t heard much about. On March 23, 1917, a little after 3 p.m., a massive F4 tornado leveled homes and businesses in the river town. According to newspaper accounts, the “cyclone” claimed at least 45 lives and left more than 2,000 people homeless.
“At the time, this was the second worst disaster that the Red Cross had been involved with. I think the San Francisco earthquake was the first and the New Albany cyclone was the second,” said Floyd County Historian David Barksdale. “Considering the distance that the cyclone traveled in New Albany ... the path of destruction was just immense.”
Without televisions or radios, little warning was given to citizens regarding the danger of the incoming storm that Friday afternoon. Even if the technology were available, quite a few locals speculated the knobs would shield the Ohio valley from any twisters. An April 7, 1917, report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration listed this common misconception by stating the hills were “previously supposed to offer complete protection from tornadic and ... destructive storms.”
Not even the knobs could prevent the greenish, black clouds from entering New Albany that afternoon. At around 3:08 p.m., a tornado touched down near Corydon Pike and subsequently followed a path that hit West Seventh, Cherry, Ealy, State and Pearl streets and then Grant Line and Charlestown roads. In its wake, more than 300 homes and businesses had been destroyed. Property damages alone totaled approximately $2 million.
“The hurricane caught the city wholly unawares [sic]. It had been raining slightly early in the afternoon, but no storm indications came to give the people warning. All at once the sky became black and a peculiar funnel-shaped cloud appeared close to the earth in southwest,” said the March 24, 1917, edition of the NA Daily Ledger. “With terrific speed it tore through the street for a distance of three blocks, laying everything low.”
Photos from the time show utter destruction after the twister tore through. Two schools, Ogden Street School and Silver Street School, had been hit with pupils being present at both for the devastation. Silver Street “held” but Ogden Street, the racially segregated school for blacks, collapsed.
Oral history seemed to suggest Principal Mamie Starks personally rushed to the school superintendent for assistance in rescuing her students from the debris. However, newspaper reports following the event confirmed that instead two children found the man and brought him back to Starks who had stayed with her wards. Differing accounts vary as well regarding the number of fatalities at the school. Depending on the source, either two or twelve people died in the old brick building that day.
Throughout town, casualties began to mount as rescue workers attempted to help the injured. Entire families were killed in the storms. At Kahler Furniture Company, at least six people died with many more wounded.
Miracles occurred, though, too. Upon his escape from the above factory, a man named Essie Stephens returned home to find that a doctor had delivered his baby during the chaos. Yet, so haphazard was the tornado, just across the street the twister had only moments before killed a woman. Once again, the number of deaths reported varies but between 45 and 58 people died as a result of the storms.
Word of the tragedy spread quickly throughout town. Volunteers worked through the night to free victims from the wreckage. Hospitals became overran with the roughly 400 injured. Churches and ordinary citizens opened their homes to those needing shelter. Firefighters and police officers came from Louisville to help with rescue efforts.
“It was a pitiful sight. Women and children shrieking and crying were standing around wringing their hands or running about seeking relatives and friends. Frenzied mothers were hunting for their children,” said newspaper printer William H. Embrey in a 1917 Courier-Journal article detailing the damage. “The district which suffered heaviest consisted of cottages occupied and mostly owned by working people.”
In the days following the catastrophe, 200 members of the National Guard, local Boy Scouts, different social clubs, the Red Cross and even 300 inmates from the reformatory in Jeffersonville aided the struggling town. A charitable fund was established virtually overnight and a method for distributing the contributed money was soon implemented. Donations came from all over the states. The NA Daily Ledger even made special mention that several death row inmates from Louisville contributed two dirty dollars to the cause.
As word spread of the catastrophe, gawkers began to flock to New Albany to see the damage. According to one newspaper, more than 20,000 arrived to survey the destruction of the city with a total population of only 26,000. [Another newspaper suggested 200,000 visited, a rather unlikely number]. Restaurants sold out of food while tornado “memorabilia” found many buyers.
“It was a delightful day clear and warm, and the catastrophe came such a brief time before the Sunday holiday that everybody wanted to see the awful havoc of the storm,” read the March 28, 1917, NA Daily Ledger.
Eventually, the National Guard cordoned off the area, with, at least in the beginning, an order for looters to be shot on sight. Capitalizing on public interest, the Courier-Journal commissioned a film to be made immediately following the destruction and shown in a Louisville picture house.
With time, homes and lives were rebuilt. Though, if people examine the houses in the affected areas close enough, the path of the twisters can be discerned.
“If you’ve got an eye for architecture, you can pretty much see present day where the tornado was because you’ve got your turn-of-the-century structures and then all of the sudden you’ve got these 1920s-style homes in there,” Barksdale said.
Through the decades, the populace forgot about the tragedy of that March night. But still, words of optimism and hope that were printed in the aftermath of the tornadoes ring as true today as they did almost 100 years ago.
“New Albany will recover — she will recover because she will help her worst stricken people to rebuild their homes and will smooth away their sadness and sufferings with the aid of the bountiful gifts of a kind nation. Where all is sadness and devastation, something has grown up in the heart to command humanity and beckon mankind,” an April, 1917, NA Daily Ledger article read.
“For all the disaster, we love New Albany better than ever; for all the tribulations she is sweeter and fairer than we ever thought her to be before; she is our city and we will raise her up higher than she has ever been before.”