The following is an excerpt from my book Tales of Coles County, a collection of history, folklore, and true crime from one of the most interesting counties in Illinois. Order it in paperback or Kindle today.
In late spring 1917, more than a month after the United States formally entered the First World War, the Midwestern United States was hit by the largest and longest sequence of tornadoes on record. The storms appeared for seven consecutive days and ranged over eleven states. For seven hours on May 26, a series of tornadoes tore a path through central Illinois, from the Mississippi River to the Embarras River. Coles County was hardest hit, suffering close to 100 deaths, hundreds injured, 800 families homeless, and over $2 million in damages.
On the afternoon of Saturday, May 26 around 3:15 p.m., the sky grew dark, the wind howled, and the air filled with a greenish hue. “I thought the end of the world had come,” said D.S. May of 701 DeWitt Avenue in Mattoon. The storms moved west to east, so Mattoon was hit first. A funnel cloud appeared suddenly, hardly giving those in its path time to flee. It struck a lumber yard, hurling wooden boards and planks through the air like missiles.
Reporters compared the limbless trees and flattened buildings to a scene in war-torn Europe. Invoking images of the desolate, cratered Argonne Forest in France, S.A. Tucker of the Decatur Herald said Mattoon’s swath of destruction looked like a “shell-swept plain.”
The Decatur Daily Review reported the tornado tore a path through Mattoon’s north side two miles long and four blocks wide, avoiding the business district but devastating a residential area. A series of hail storms followed into the evening, battering the survivors and hampering rescue efforts. That night, the city was plunged into darkness, save for the lanterns carried by volunteers digging through the rubble.
Newspapers reported many odd occurrences, including a dog being picked up and thrown against a woman walking several blocks away, neither of which were hurt; a piece of lumber passing above the heads of a family sitting at their dining room table; a woman and her two children standing untouched in a doorway while their entire house was carried off and smashed to bits; and a horse and cow picked up from one field and deposited unharmed in another a quarter-mile away. Houses stood intact on one side of a street but were totally demolished on the other.
The tornado leap-frogged between Mattoon and Charleston, leveling telegraph poles, barns, and farmhouses, overturning cars, and killing horses and livestock. Like its sister city, the cyclone struck Charleston’s north side, where property loss exceeded $1 million. In proportion to its size, Charleston suffered greater damage.
In terms of human life lost, however, Mattoon suffered considerably more. The tornado killed 64 and injured 467 people in Mattoon, destroyed over 496 homes and severely damaged another 168. Thirty-four died in Charleston, with over 100 injured. Four hundred-eighty-six homes were damaged or destroyed north of Monroe Street. The Coles County Fairgrounds was wrecked.
In the tornado’s aftermath, dozens of citizens were deputized and the National Guard called in to keep order, and no looting was reported. The outpouring of support from surrounding communities was rapid and overwhelming. Doctors, rescue workers, volunteers, and supplies of every variety poured in to help clean up and care for the injured and homeless.
The town of Paris, Illinois sent 10,000 sandwiches, and families in Shelbyville packed food from their dinner tables into baskets and sent them to Coles County. Local towns sent help as well. One-hundred volunteers came from Ashmore, and another forty from Oakland.
Both Mattoon and Charleston eventually rebuilt and recovered. A tornado struck Mattoon again on March 28, 1998, but the damage wasn’t anywhere as bad. Fortunately, only three people were injured and no one was killed in that storm. To this day, the tornado of 1917 remains the worst natural disaster in Coles County history.
- “Illinois Wind Killed 150.” The Chicago Sunday Tribune (Chicago) 27 May 1917.
- “200 Killed in Illinois Tornado.” Sunday Review (Decatur) 27 May 1917.
- “54 Dead in Mattoon; 38 in Charleston.” The Decatur Herald (Decatur) 28 May 1917.
- “Relief sent stricken at Mattoon, Ill.” The Rock Island Argus (Rock Island) 28 May 1917.
- “Thrilling experiences of Saturday’s big storm.” Journal Gazette (Mattoon) 28 May 1917.
- “Mattoon lays plans for rise out of wreck.” The Chicago Daily Tribune (Chicago) 29 May 1917.
- “Tornado-devastated cities require help.” The Decatur Herald (Decatur) 29 May 1917.
- “Fairgrounds are wrecked.” Journal Gazette (Mattoon) 31 May 1917.
- “8 States Storm-Swept.” The Nashville Journal (Nashville, IL) 31 May 1917.
- “Tornado devastates area” in Mattoon Sesquicentennial. Journal Gazette (Mattoon) 17 August 2005.