The 1925 Tri-State Tornado: Hoosiers Caught Unaware, Unprepared

*Out of respect for those lost to Indiana tornadoes past and present, we are not including pictures of the resulting destruction. Many Hoosiers–too many–know what that looks like already. 

By Mary Giorgio

On the afternoon of March 18, 1925, the town of Griffin, Ind., was all but destroyed by a devastating F5 tornado. The twister was part of a larger outbreak known as the Tri-State Tornado. It began in Missouri, continued into southern Illinois, and finally crossed the Wabash River into Indiana.

The tornado struck the town of Griffin at around 4 PM. Winds from the storm reached as much as 300 mph. Townspeople were caught completely unawares. There were no weather forecasts in those days, and no one knew what was headed their way.

Many townspeople later recounted feeling ill at ease as the clouds darkened, expecting a big storm with rain and flooding. No one expected the massive twister. In fact, many of the town’s residents had never heard of a tornado.

The massive tornado cloud was so wide (approximately 1 mile) that it didn’t even have the telltale funnel shape. Buildings were completely leveled, others were pulled from their foundations and deposited nearby.

After it exited Griffin, the storm headed towards the town of Princeton. Somewhere between 25% and 50% of Princeton was also destroyed. The storm finally dissipated outside of Petersburg.

The twister completely destroyed Griffin. The town lost approximately 150 homes and businesses. A whopping 85 farms between Griffin and nearby Princeton were also destroyed. About 70 residents of Griffin were killed and another 200 injured.

On the heels of the tornado came a heavy rainstorm. The nearby Wabash River flooded. The flood waters effectively cut Griffin off from the rest of Indiana. For days, the town was only accessible by boat or train.

Griffin’s losses from the tornado and subsequent flood totaled around $2 million (~$30 million in 2018 dollars). In the wake of the storm, martial law was declared in Griffin. Soldiers from the Indiana National Guard were called to keep order, and the American Red Cross set up tents for the homeless and injured townspeople.

Multiple towns in Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana were completely destroyed. The tornado was on the ground for an unheard of 3.5 hours. During that time, the tornado traveled at an average speed of 62 mph, reaching a record-breaking 73 mph at one point.

As a result of the infamous Tri-State Tornado, there was an increased interest in America for tornado awareness. Localities in tornado-prone areas began to recruit spotters to warn neighbors of impending danger. It would be almost 25 years before systematic tornado prediction program would be introduced in the United States.

One of the deadliest tornadoes in American history, the Tri-State Tornado continues to fascinate weather researchers for its unparalleled intensity and longevity. The town of Griffin was slowly rebuilt, but those who experienced the deadly storm would never forget that fateful day.