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.”