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ARTICLES The Great Cyclone of 1890: Tragedy Struck Louisville

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 Read more about “Louisville and the Civil War: A History & Guide” 

Louisville and the Civil War: A History & Guide.  This book traces the Civil War in Louisville and gives the reader a sense of how the city looked towards the Union and the Confederacy.  This includes discussion of how Louisville turned from a very pro-Union city towards supporting the Confederacy, or at least the Lost Cause.

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On March 27, 1890, the bustling city of Louisville went about the business of making iron, pig iron, jean cloth, leather and furniture.  The huge railroad industry shipped out tobacco, and fine whiskeys and beer, made in many of Louisville’s breweries.  Louisville also shipped out cement and fine agricultural products.  The local Louisville Courier-Journal published the state’s weather prediction, sent from Washington, which called for fair weather, followed in western portions of the state with rain, with easterly winds and a stationary temperature.  Louisville could have not known about the destructive storm heading their way.

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A tornado started on the boundary of Kansas, and skirted the northwest corner of Arkansas and headed east, crossing into Missouri.  By the time the tornado reached Carbondale and Marion, Illinois, the winds reached sixty miles an hour and extended fifty miles.  The storm followed the river north, but at Joppa, Missouri, the storm turned south and struck Metropolis, Illinois and cut a quarter mile path of destruction.  The storm continued north, but the storm spurred several different tornadoes, which headed east.  The tornadoes stuck Bowling Green, Pleasureville, Lexington, Frankfort, Cloverport, Morganfield, and other points in the state.  The main storm front with the massive tornado continued to follow the Ohio River and gathered velocity with Louisville directly in the tornado’s sights.

Memorial to the Great Cyclone of 1890
on Main Street in Downtown Louisville

During the day, many citizens in their homes watched as their barometers fell rapidly.  By 7 p.m. the barometer fell to 29.274.  The air grew sultry and by 8 p.m. flashes of lightning could be seen in the west.  Just before half past eight, the tornado arrived in Louisville with a roar, which sounded like a gigantic steam engine train, and gale forces winds and rain began to fall on the city.  The tornado struck the Parkland area in the western section of the city.  The tornado cut a path through the city from Maple Street and 18th Streets to Jeffersonville, Indiana.  The tornado’s path of destruction was half a mile wide and two miles long.  Thousands of people were trapped in the ruins.  With many of the houses equipped with gas lamps, fire broke out and some of the ruins caught fire, burning many of the victims to death.

After the tornado left the city, rescue crews formed as men worked side by side all through the night, removing the injured and dead from the rubble.  As the quiet of morning broke on the city, the full extent of the tornado’s devastation became apparent to the citizens.  Main Street from 7th to 12th Street lay in ruins.  On Market Street to Jefferson, from 10th Street to 13th Street; Walnut, from 13th to 15th Street; Chestnut, from 13th to 17th Street also became part of the city’s rubble.  In the morning, the headlines of the The Louisville Courier-Journal ran the headline: “Death and Disaster From the Cyclone. Horror! The Greatest Calamity That Has Occurred in Its History. The Frightful Calamity at Falls City Hall.”

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Most of the lives lost occurred at the Falls City Hall, located on Market Street, within five minutes the building collapsed with two hundred victims trapped in the rubble.  Several activities occurred when the tornado hit the building.  The Falls City Hall had a dancing class, which took place on the second floor, with sixty mothers and small girls occupying the class.  Only twelve escaped the carnage.  In another room the Roman Knights held their meeting, in which seven members were present, the Knights lost one man.  On the third floor, the Knights and Ladies of Honor held a meeting with 150 members present, but only a few escaped.  The Ancient Order of Foresters had eighteen members present in another room, with all members lost.  Many more citizens who attended their meetings in the Falls City Hall would have lost their lives if the rescue crews did not pull the injured from the flames, which consumed the building.

Of the fourteen tobacco warehouses, only three were left standing after the tornado hit.  The falling timbers of a local store on the corner of 16th Street pinned three men down and unfortunately all three men burned alive in the flames.  Even if the firemen wanted to put out the flames, the city had no water.  The Water Tower also became a victim of the tornado.  The massive standpipe, used to pump water into the reservoirs sat on the ground.  Many feared a water famine.  Next to the Louisville Hotel was Virgil Wright’s cigar shop, over which slept many of the Hotel’s laundry women.  As the storm ripped the building apart, citizens could hear their screams.  The rescue crews dug out nine female bodies.  Also next to the Louisville Hotel was a saloon.  The tornado collapsed another wall from the Louisville Hotel, which fell on the saloon, trapping several traveling salesmen, who were in the saloon when the building collapsed.

On Market Street, for three squares north of 9th Street nearly every business and houses was devastated.  Homes were buried in the streets and debris in many placed was piled high thirty feet high.  Homeless men, women, and children wandered the streets viewing what was their house.  Every house from 9th to 11th Street was totally destroyed.  Most of the deaths occurred on Market Street between 7th and 12th Street, and almost every house and business did not escape destruction.  Many of the houses on the south side of Market between 8th and 12th Street also lay in ruins.  Many bodies lay crushed and mangled underneath the walls.

The second hardest street affected by the tornado after Market and Main Street was Jefferson Street.  From 9th Street to 12th Street the scene was one of complete destruction.  The sidewalks and streets were a network of wires, telegraph poles, trees and remnants of homes.  In some places, the streets were blocked with roofing shingles, which blew off and landed two blocks away.  The city placed the city under martial law and police and the Louisville Legion stood at every corner to keep back the crowds and prevent looting.  Baxter Avenue, between Green and Jefferson, and 11th and 12th Street lay in ruins.  Large oak trees, many of which were one hundred years old, were uprooted and thrown into the streets.  The tornado torn iron railings from their concrete postings around Baxter Avenue and broke them to pieces.

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The tornado tore apart St. John’s Episcopal Church at the corner of Jefferson and 11th Street and part of the church fell on the rectory.  When the church fell on the rectory, Reverend S. E. Barnwell was reading to his wife and daughter, luckily his wife and daughter escaped death, but Mr. Bardwell and his boy died underneath the rubble of the church.

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In the Parkland neighborhood, the Daily line Depot was destroyed, along with thirteen houses.  The tornado tore off the Masonic Temple’s top story.  The powerful winds also blew away the beautiful white picket fences that line the neighborhood.  The width of the tornado which cut through the Parkland neighborhood was an eighth of a mile long and little of the small neighborhood existed.

As rescue crews dug out the dead from the ruins of buildings, the bodies laid along the sidewalks.  Some of the bodies were headless, while legs and arms lay on the sidewalk, which had been picked from the buildings.  In front of the Union Depot, several mutilated bodies were found.  The southern train had just arrived into the Depot when the tornado struck the city.  The tornado claimed seventy-six lives.  The city lost $2,150,000.00 dollars worth of property.  The tornado claimed five churches, the railroad depot, three schools, thirty-two factories, and more than five hundred private dwellings.

Soldier standing guard at a demolished train station

The next day, Palm Sunday, funeral bells rang from all the steeples and almost every church held services for the dead.  There were forty-five separate funerals.  The city ran out of funeral carriages and began to use furniture vans and omnibuses as hearses.  Thousands of people worked on the ruins.  The sounds of hammer and axes echoed across the city.

As soon as the telegraph wires relayed the news of the devastation to the country, cities offered their relief, but Louisville declined the offers.  The Louisville Board of Trade gave $25,000 dollars of aid and only two days after the disaster, private citizens throughout the city contributed $125,000 dollars.  The city quickly set about rebuilding.  Three days after the devastation, Louisville restored telegraph wires, and trains arrived into the Union Station.  The new 7th Street station rose out of the rubble and all along the tornado’s path new structures replaced the ruined buildings.  Within a year, hardly any sign of the tornado’s devastation remained in the city.


"Great Louisville Cyclone of 1890 Left State?s Largest City in Ruins," Kentucky Explorer, January 1996. 54-60.

McMeekin, Isabel, Louisville: The Gateway City, New York: Julian Messner, Inc., 1947, 173.

Yater, George, Two Hundred Years of the Falls of the Ohio: The History of Louisville and Jefferson County, Louisville: The Heritage Corporation, 1979, 142.

Thomas, Samuel, Views of Louisville Since 1766, Louisville: Merrick Printing Company, Inc. 1971, reprint, 1993.

The Louisville Courier-Journal, March 27-29, 1890.

This specific article is under full copyright.  Copyright © 2008, All Rights Reserved.
Modified Thursday, April 3, 2008

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