Remembering the 1959 St. Louis tornado that killed 21 and injured hundreds more
ST. LOUIS, Mo. (KMOV) - A three bedroom house sat at the intersection of Delmar and Whittier, roughly one mile east of the Cathedral Basilica, and one mile west of the Fox Theatre. In the early morning hours of February 10, 1959, it was about to become ground zero.
A Severe Thunderstorm Warning had been issued for the St. Louis area. A Tornado Warning seemed a stretch in the middle of the winter. But at 2 a.m. in Crescent, just east of Eureka near the Meramec River, the month did not matter. The markings of a tornado began. Through Sherman and then Warson Woods it reached F2 levels before traveling along Manchester Road to Rock Hill and then Brentwood. The first signs of damage were at the intersection of Manchester and Woodlawn. Next in the line of the path were Maplewood and Forest Park.
By the time the tornado crossed the county line into the city, 10 people were dead, and another 170 were injured. As it approached the Central West End, the F3 was becoming an F4. Behind it, the roof was torn off the St. Louis Arena. Traveling northeast with 75mph winds, the Vandeventer neighborhood was on deck. And there sat the three bedroom house at Whittier and Delmar, snuggled just north between the Basilica and the Fox.
It wasn’t just the time of year, or the middle of the night that would eventually cause so much death and destruction. The St. Louis area had warning sirens, but after much debate, decided against using them for severe weather. Instead they relied on residents getting their information from television and radio, even though most airwaves were silent in the middle of the night. Sirens? They were reserved in case the Russians were sending ballistic missiles toward American shores.
It would be another eight years before the St. Louis area used sirens as weather warnings. Just in time for the 1967 F4 tornado that killed three and injured 216. But in 1959, with another F4 tornado on the ground cutting a path 200 yards wide, and without sirens to wake up its residents, the St. Louis area would not be as fortunate.
Through the city it roared. From Franz Park to Hi Pointe to Clayton-Tamm. From St. Louis Place to Hyde Park to the Near North Riverfront. The city death toll was 11, one more than the county. The injured totaled 175, five more than the county. In all, 21 dead, 345 injured. Some 2,000 buildings and homes were damaged. Damage estimates soared over 50 million dollars. Today, 50 million would equal a half billion.
And the tornado didn’t stop at the river. Brooklyn and Venice were next. Then Granite City and Edwardsville. History would show the 1959 tornado to be our third worst storm on record, behind the 1896 cyclone that killed 255 and injured more than a thousand, and the 1927 tornado that claimed nearly 80 lives and injured more than 500.
And that brings us back to Delmar and Whittier.
The exact address was 4202 Delmar. Today, it sits as an empty corner lot. But in the early morning hours in 1959, eight people were asleep inside the large three story brick home. In the seconds that it took the tornado to pass through, all eight were killed. All that was left of the large home was a pile of bricks.
They never had a chance.
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