Thursday, May 16, 2019

State’s Second Deadliest Tornado Hit Fort Smith in 1898

Photo of wreckage from the 1898 tornado in Fort Smith,
courtesy of the Arkansas State Archives.

Arkansas has a long history of natural disasters, including tornadoes. One of Arkansas’s most destructive tornadoes hit Fort Smith on Jan. 11, 1898.

The first few weeks of January in Fort Smith had been unusually warm and balmy with storms each evening. When another storm started on the evening of Jan. 11, it wasn’t initially alarming. However, around 11 o’clock, a tornado formed in Oklahoma, just west of the city, and headed east, picking up power as it went. The tornado entered Arkansas and first struck Fort Smith’s National Cemetery, leaving a 100-yard-wide path of destruction. It ripped trees from the ground – scattering them like toothpicks –and threw heavy, stone cemetery markers. The storm flattened the cemetery’s 5-foot stone wall, according to a newspaper report.

As the tornado approached the main part of town, it grew even larger and more powerful. Marble sized hail pounded the city, damaging roofs and smashing windows. By the time the tornado entered the city proper, at 11:15 p.m., the streets and sidewalks were covered with broken glass.

The first victim of the tornado was George Carter, a fireman for the city’s Grand Opera House. As he watched the approaching storm from his home on Garrison Avenue, the tornado blew in his window sending a pane of sharp glass through his torso and killing him instantly. The tornado then ripped his house apart.

Tracking eastward, the tornado ripped the roof off of Fagan Bourland’s store on Sixth Street, then proceeded to destroy Lunsford’s Blacksmith shop and a boarding house named The National House. The federal court in Fort Smith was in session that week, and hotels and boarding houses were full. Many people were asleep, but residents of the National House heard the approaching storm and escaped the building.

Other visitors were not so lucky. As the tornado crossed Sixth Street, it destroyed Mrs. Burgess’ boarding house, where 25 people were sleeping unaware of the danger. The tornado destroyed the house, killing three women and leaving other residents trapped under the rubble.

The force of wind was staggering. The bell in the steeple of the Baptist church was blown 100 feet as the tornado razed the building. The city’s high school, completed only a few months earlier and not yet insured, was gutted and destroyed. The school’s roof was blown onto Dr. W.T. Cate’s house, which destroyed the house and left Dr. Cate trapped inside.

The tornado then made its way through the most densely populated parts of the city, leaving death and massive injuries in its wake. Electric poles were snapped, and gas lines ruptured. Many of the buildings left standing in the tornado’s wake caught fire, including a block of buildings on Garrison Avenue. Will Lawson, a resident in one of those buildings, said his wife died in his arms. He was unable to get her body out of the ruins.

The tornado had knocked down telephone lines, which complicated rescue efforts by making it harder for rescue workers to communicate. To prevent igniting more fires, power to downtown Fort Smith was turned off, but that left rescuers in complete darkness as they searched for survivors. As the fire spread, the Fort Smith Fire Department rushed toward the disaster, only to be impeded by debris.
Heavy rain pelted survivors in the wake of the tornado. The injured searched for shelter amid piles of rubble and brick. Doctors created makeshift hospitals in buildings that remained standing. St. John’s and Charity Hospitals opened its doors to anyone who needed help.

Bob Hirschberg and his son worked with several other rescuers to save those trapped in the buildings near the high school. They were able to dig out 17 survivors from the wreckage.

Fort Smith Fire Department Capt. J.J. Little sent an ominous and concise message to the Birnie Brothers Funeral Home: “Come down and take care of the dead.” Some of the dead were taken to the city morgue, where the city coroner ordered the doors to the morgue be kept open for townspeople searching for lost loved ones.

As the people of Fort Smith gathered the next morning to assess the damage, it became clear hundreds of people were now homeless and more than 100 were injured. The death toll quickly rose to 50, but several more people succumbed to their injuries in the next few weeks, raising the death toll to 55. The 1898 tornado remains the second deadliest tornado on record to hit Arkansas.

The tornado also hurt the city economically. The loss of businesses meant many residents were now unemployed. Further, many of the destroyed buildings and businesses were not insured, which would make rebuilding difficult. According to newspaper reports from the time, the tornado lasted for only 4 minutes, but in that time, it did about $1 million in damage. Adjusted for inflation, that amount would equal about $30 million today.

Miraculously, residents quickly picked themselves up and rebuilt Fort Smith. Within days, the city raised thousands of dollars in pledged aid from its residents. In just two years, as the 20th century dawned, most of the scars left by the storm were gone.

For more information on the history of Fort Smith or Arkansas, visit the Arkansas State Archives at 1 Capitol Mall, Suite 215, or call 501-682-6900. Information is also available online at