Confronting the Modern Era
March 18, 1925, Sumner County, TSLA Image # 32731 Centerville after April 29, 1909 tornado TSLA, Image ID: 8520 House in Centerville after April 29, 1909 tornado. TSLA, Image ID: 8517

Tornado Alley

As people who have lived in Tennessee know, spring brings the threat of violent weather—thunderstorms, hail, high winds, and tornadoes. Weather researchers have identified western Tennessee, along with northern Mississippi and northern Alabama as areas which endure a high frequency of long path (25 miles or longer), F3 to F5 tornadoes.

Chester County in West Tennessee was ranked number three in the most dangerous counties in the U.S. for frequency of experiencing long path F3 to F5 tornadoes as measured from 1880 to 2003. It experienced two of the deadliest tornadoes to ever hit the state: at least one F-4 (winds from 207 to 260 mph) that hit in April 29, 1909, taking 112 lives and injuring 301 people, and another F-4 (along with weaker ones) that hit on May 27, 1917, killing 109 people and injuring 726 people.

1909 Tornadoes

The 1909 tornadoes moved north from Mississippi into Whitehaven in Shelby County. They later pushed into Decatur, Henderson, Chester, Hardeman, and Fayette counties, taking lives and destroying property. One of the tornadoes “wiped Pittsburg Landing off the map,” while causing $50,000 in damage at Shiloh Battlefield. Twenty-four people died in the two counties of McNairy and Hardin. One man in Bolivar died after he fled to his brother’s house—the tornado later left his house untouched.

A group of the 1909 tornadoes then moved into Middle Tennessee at F-3 (winds from 158 to 206 mph) strength. In Charlotte, the roof was blown off the courthouse, ten houses destroyed with another 30 damaged. Seventeen people died in Hickman, Maury, and Williamson counties, but the greatest loss occurred in Giles County where 31 people died and 70 people were injured during an F-4 tornado. The local newspaper, The Citizen, reported that four families who lived in a valley between Bunker Hill and Bryson lost most of their members. The McGrew family lost seven of ten members; the Guffey family of seven all died; the Pope husband and wife died; and the Smith family lost three members.

The 1917 Tornadoes

The 1917 tornadoes began in Arkansas and moved into the western Tennessee counties of Lauderdale, Gibson, Dyer, and Weakley counties as an F-4 storm. Eighteen people died and 175 people were injured in these counties. Other F-4 storms touched down in Lake, Gibson, Carroll, Chester, Henderson, Decatur, McNairy, Henry, and Benton counties causing further loss of life and destruction. From Chester County, the F-4 storm moved into Perry County in Middle Tennessee causing five deaths and 67 injuries.

A separate storm front was going through Middle Tennessee on the same day. The first touchdown was in Stewart County where six people died in two homes near Trezevant. An F-2 storm (113 to 157 mph winds) moved through Davidson and Wilson counties. When the day was over, there had been 91 deaths and 551 injuries.

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