Sixty-five years later, June 1, 1947, remains the deadliest day in Jefferson County's history.
Sixty-five years later, June 1, 1947, remains the deadliest day in Jefferson County’s history.
On that hot and humid Sunday, menacing clouds began rolling in from the west toward the old Union community just south of Pine Bluff. The distant sky began to take on an eerie, greenish hue. Rain-cooled and scented breezes accompanied increasing lightning flashes and fierce claps of thunder. Older residents knew that danger might be lurking when an odd stillness seemingly took command.
Then, at roughly 4 p.m., a mammoth tornado struck without warning and, as a survivor would later testify, “All hell broke loose.”
The twister — accompanied by an outburst of flooding rains — lifted within minutes, but not before 34 people were killed, more than 300 were injured, and an estimated 500 were left homeless when 50 houses were leveled and approximately 500 additional residences sustained minor to major damages. Also, about 500 farm buildings and other structures were demolished and livestock losses were described as “heavy.” By today’s standards, the financial toll easily topped upward of $10 million.
The tornado’s path was 20 miles long and varied in width from a few hundred yards to several miles, according to news accounts. It stretched primarily through flat lands broken only by bayous and lowlands, from nearby Watson Chapel to Atkins Lake in Jefferson County and then onward to Ladd and dissipating near Star City in Lincoln County. Union obviously received the blunt of the storm’s force.
The death toll would cap at 35, with the storm’s last victim perishing in a restoration mishap.
Pine Bluff historian James Carter Watts hadn’t been born, but his father — respected part-time photographer and full-time railroad worker Thomas Watts — was among the first to enter the tornado-ravaged community. Many of the elder Watts’ snapshots were acquired for publication at the time and several have since appeared in book and newspaper reviews of the disaster.
The younger Watts has compiled details — much gleaned from his father’s eyewitness accounts — and authored several articles on the tornado and its aftermath.
“The James West farm on Bayou Bartholomew was probably the worst hit in the storm,” said Watts. “All that remained of the farmhouse was its concrete foundation. The wind picked up a light truck and threw it 200 yards into the bayou, and moved 300-pound concrete steps across the road in front of the farm.
“All four members of the West family, including two small children, were killed.”
Newspaper reports of the time state that a search party that had waded through waist-deep waters located West’s body in the bayou near his home.
The searchers had little time to reflect on the tragedy at the West farm. Scores of storm victims were being found alive but injured under debris or walking in the storm area, some in shock.
“Ambulance drivers were forced to leave the bodies of the dead where they lay as their first consideration was for those injured,” Watts said, adding that the rain-soaked, soft ground impeded response efforts.
Mayor George Steed was in Oakland (now Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.) Park when the tornado hit. He followed the first ambulance to the scene.
“Long before I reached the area I could see where the storm had twisted trees like sprigs of grass,” said Steed.
“But the mayor’s first close-up view was of the bodies of 11 black children who had been killed when a youth center in which they had gathered was collapsed by the tornado,” Watts said.
Steed was not prepared for all that he saw, admitting later that he didn’t anticipate the strength of the tornado and how mangled many of its victims would be.
After being able to penetrate to the interior of the storm-struck area, the mayor was stunned.
“I managed to get through and found this particular section to consist of a devastated area approximately a mile in width,” he said. “At its edges, the damage materially lessened, but the center half mile had suffered extremely severe damage.”
One of West’s neighbors was found dead along a road near where West’s body was discovered. Most of the neighbor’s clothing had been torn off, and the man’s left shoulder, several of his toes and a portion of his face had been ripped away, either by winds or more likely by flying debris.
Steed departed the scene and joined with Alderman Guy Goodman to direct emergency response and relief efforts. Scores of volunteers — many representing veterans groups, civic organizations, churches and businesses — gathered at city hall to offer their assistance. The Commercial and several partnering businesses, along with First Baptist Church, quickly established relief funds.
Pine Bluff was still largely segregated, but the rescue effort was fully integrated. The city’s taxi companies donated their services, putting their cabs and drivers to work in helping to transport injured persons to Davis Hospital on Cherry Street.
One of the two cab companies had been designated for service only to whites, the other strictly to blacks. But in the immediate aftermath of the storm, it made no difference what color passengers or drivers were.
Davis Hospital, the predecessor to Jefferson Regional Medical Center, had maintained separate facilities for blacks and whites, but that arrangement was temporarily discontinued. Many injured drove themselves or received rides from neighbors or passersby to the hospital, where they were received for preliminary care and analysis and then processed for treatment according to the severity of their wounds.
Unfortunately, some victims were dead on arrival while others succumbed to their injuries in the emergency room or after being admitted to the hospital. But happily, about 15 persons listed as missing during initial rescue operations were discovered to be with friends or in the hospital, and were in reasonably good physical condition.
As the tornado’s survivors literally climbed or were pulled from underneath remnants of what had been their homes, details of their brushes with death emerged.
A black family that had resided and worked on the West plantation was at first feared dead, but was found to have escaped into Pine Bluff and actually given authorities the first notification of the tornado’s rampage there.
A Mrs. Chambliss said the storm winds came “suddenly” and “just blew us away.” She said her family’s home had seemingly “exploded” as its walls snapped apart.
O.L. Gardner was sleeping, preparing to work a night shift at his job. His wife alerted him to the storm’s growing fury.
“I jumped up and found the door blocked, so I rushed my wife and child into the fireplace while the storm tore our house to pieces,” he said.
Mrs. Ben Studdard shared a dairy farm with her sons and their families. The farm, according to Watts, consisted of a couple of homes, a barn and 118 head of cattle.
“We were in the cellar, 11 of us in all, including my 11-day-old grandbaby,” Studdard said. “We haven’t any home and I don’t know how many cows are left.”
Mrs. Fred Anderson told of a swing being snapped from its chains on the front porch of her family house. Within seconds, a pine tree was uprooted by winds and fell across the porch as a nearby fence tumbled.
“That’s when we began to pray,” she said. “The house popped and cracked, so we moved to the living room. No matter where we looked, we saw trees and boards flying around. After a short time in the living room, the house rocked and moved off its foundation, but still stood.”
Mrs. Walter Price was away when the tornado raked her home and farm.
“My home is ruined, all my furniture, stock and our car,” she said. “We owned our home and didn’t owe a cent on it. This is the second time we’ve been blown out. But I am thankful to God. God was good to spare us twice.”
Others weren’t so fortunate.
Mr. and Mrs. E.V. Tidwell and their five children were apparently attempting to reach Gardner’s nearby house when the tornado caught them in an open field. The Tidwell house was found to have been untouched, but the entire family perished. The remains of one of the Tidwell children were found in a ditch half a mile away.
Mrs. O.A. Browning said she didn’t see the tornado approaching her family’s home.
“We were all in the house and the wind started blowing,” she said. “My son and I tried to hold the door shut when the house was just blown away. The children were screaming for dear life. It made splinters of the house.”
Her 4-year-old daughter, Charlotte, “was hit in the head and leg and her stomach was cut wide open.”
“I knew there wasn’t a chance for her,” Browning said. “She was gasping for air.”
Charlotte died shortly after at Davis Hospital.
Temporary shelters hastily organized at civic and community buildings were virtually vacant as the lesser injured and unhurt victims went back to or remained at their wrecked or demolished homes, Watts said, adding that American Red Cross local disaster relief chairman Richard McGill figured they wanted to be near their belongings. The Red Cross, which allocated $20,000 for emergency relief in the area, brought in tents to house them.
Utility renewal efforts in the area commenced almost immediately. Only hours after the storm, Arkansas Power and Light Company (now Entergy) lineman William Galloway was helping to restore electrical power as many lines had been pulled from their poles by the winds. Watts said the 35-year-old Galloway was holding a copper wire with a pair of industrial pliers when the tensioned core slipped loose from his grip and snapped toward him like a bullet, driving several inches into his head.
County Coroner E.D. Dupree declared Galloway as the storm’s final casualty. Afterward, Dupree reported that the city’s four mortuaries had received the bodies of 35 people, including 21 children.
Recovery was not “an automatic process,” Watts points out.
“Times were changing after World War II and some shifts in labor were taking place,” he said. “A lot more people had been employed in agriculture before and up until then, and a number of the storm’s survivors whose homes had been destroyed or heavily damaged chose to re-establish themselves elsewhere. Many others rebuilt and remained, but the people there said that the community wrestled with a sense of insecurity over the next generation or two.
“Emotional and physical scars from the tornado remained for a long, long time. In fact, I know of an area along a roadway in the community where some old housing and barn tin scattered by the tornado could still be seen wrapped around limbs of nearby trees up to about 10 or so years ago. But that’s all gone now, and the area has experienced a lot of positive changes.”