In 1896 St. Louis was listed as the 5th largest city in the United States, trailing only New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and what was then the separate city of Brooklyn. More than half a million people lived there on the banks of the Mississippi River. The morning of May 27, 1896 dawned calm and steamy and belied what was coming that afternoon. One of the greatest natural disasters to strike one of the largest US cities was awaiting residents in the afternoon. In what remains the third most deadly tornado in U.S. history struck St. Louis, on the afternoon of May 27, 1896. According to the National Centers for Environmental Education; shortly before five o’clock that Wednesday afternoon, May 27, the devastating tornado struck the city from the southwest, near the Compton Heights district. From there, the tornado made its way down the Mill Creek Valley, destroying countless homes as it headed toward the Mississippi River. Once the tornado made it to the Mississippi, it decimated the steamboats and other vessels in the harbor, breaking them to pieces and scattering them from the Missouri shore to the Illinois shore. Even the Eads Bridge, which was considered “tornado proof” as the first major bridge constructed by making use of true steel, was damaged by the powerful tornado, with nearly 300 feet of its eastern approach torn away. Much of the central portion of St. Louis was also destroyed, as were factories, saloons, hospitals, mills, railroad yards, and churches throughout the city. Across St. Louis, the tornado completely destroyed block after block of residential housing. Hundreds of miles of electric wires and thousands of telephone and telegraph poles were torn down by the fierce winds. The tornado also uprooted trees more than half a century old and hurled them a distance of several blocks. Heavy iron fences, like the one that surrounded Lafayette Park, were twisted and tangled until they were nearly unrecognizable. During the less than half an hour that the tornado was on the ground, it tracked a three-mile-wide path of destruction across St. Louis, killing 255 people, injuring 1,000, and rendering countless families homeless.
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