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Murphysboro citizens remember 1957 tornado

Murphysboro citizens remember 1957 tornado

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Murphysboro citizens remember 1957 tornado
Longtime Murphysboro resident Cliff Swafford talks about the tornado that struck the town in 1957. He was working for the U. S. Postal Service at the time, and was also called to active duty with the Illinois National Guard to help with disaster relief and security. (CHUCK NOVARA / THE SOUTHERN VIDEO IMAGE)

MURPHYSBORO - Cliff Swafford stood in the workroom of the old post office watching the large glass windows flex in and out six inches.

Gene Crawshaw had just returned from De Soto in his family's funeral home's ambulance with the windows rolled down, enjoying the weather.

Mike Jones, then in seventh grade, stood with his awed mother, who knew all too well what lay ahead.

The three of them, along with residents throughout the city, heard a sound resembling an oncoming train on Dec. 18, 1957. Within minutes, the unseasonably warm weather turned into gusts of 175 mph winds, carrying with them death and destruction.

"The first thing out of her mouth was, 'Oh no, not again,'" Jones said about his mother, a survivor of the infamous 1925 tornado that destroyed the city.

For the next several hours, he tried to keep atop of the news, while Swafford and Crawshaw found themselves bustling about the area, helping the injured and removing the dead.

The 30-year-old Swafford served as a first lieutenant in the Illinois National Guard. He joined about 50 other military men on active duty to protect residents and transport supplies from the National Guard Armory in Carbondale to St. Andrew's Hospital and the gymnasium of St. Andrew's school, which had been converted to a shelter.

With many of the city's exits blocked by wreckage, making the trip back and forth to Carbondale proved to be a task at times, Swafford said. Luckily the hospital survived the storm's wrath, except for some uprooted trees outside, and continued to help those injured during the tornado.

Crawshaw said he "was a busy boy that day," transporting the injured to both St. Andrew's and to the hospital in Carbondale. Reports of fatalities from newspaper articles of the time claim the number of dead as ranging between 9 and 13, with four members of the Butcher family being the first and largest single-family loss.

People remember the electricity being out for several days after the storm, and Swafford's National Guard unit remained on active duty for three to four days during cleanup efforts.

The storm swept across the south part of town, basically following the path of the Big Muddy River, Swafford said. The city benefited greatly that the tornado followed that path because it avoided the center of town, he said. The 1925 tornado rolled right through the town's economic center, which really left the city in poor condition.

Mike York, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Paducah, said Jackson and Williamson counties both reported F4 tornados that day, meaning the same storm could have swept across both counties. The weather service ranks tornadoes from the low F0 to the high F5 based on wind speeds, damage and atmospheric conditions.

While the tornadoes hit Murphysboro hard, the entire Southern Illinois region experienced "quite an outbreak" of storms that December day. Randolph County reported the first tornado, an F3, at about 2:30 p.m. Sweeping across Perry County was the only F5 tornado recorded in the Paducah office's territory since records have been kept, while an F4 hit Franklin and Jefferson counties and Johnson and Saline counties were hit with F2 level storms.

York said the 1957 storms could be the worst December storms in the region's history, as the winter months tend to be the quietest.

adam.testa@thesouthern.com / 351-5031

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