I have travelled across the United States from Seattle to my boyhood home near Chicago and back twice in the last decade aboard Amtrak's named train: The Empire Builder. On the return trip in 2000, the train was shunted to a siding for a few hours while severe thunderstorms raged across Minnesota. They announced that tornado warnings were posted for the regions and this was a precaution.
The odds of a tornado hitting any particular spot in the United States are rather low, even in the Tornado Belt, so I assumed that the odds of one hitting a moving train would have been even lower, though a statistician might tell me differently. Upon further research, I was surprised to find that not only have several trains in motion encountered a tornado, but The Empire Builder itself had been a victim in 1931. This was the second time that a train on the current Burlington Northern Santa Fe right of way has been struck by a tornado near the North DakotaMinnesota border.
The first incident occurred when a tornado struck a Great Northern passenger train in northwestern Minnesota on 22 June 1919. Outside Fergus Falls, about 55 miles (88 km) southeast of Moorhead, the raging cyclone struck the Great Northern Limited moving at 30-40 mph (50-65 km/h) just behind the tender. It blew the baggage car from the tracks and caused seven of the eleven following coaches to derail. The tornado deposited the baggage car about 30 ft (9 m) from the road bed. The second incident (see photo to right) happened during May 1931 when a tornado again struck near Moorhead, derailing five coaches of the moving Empire Builder (see below for details).
The earliest reported encounter of a train and tornado occurred on 13 June 1857, at Pana, Illinois when some standing freight cars were blown from tracks. The history chronicles show a number of tornadotrain encounters in the United States in which the train was en route (that is, not sitting in a rail yard or siding track). The earliest possible impact of a tornado with a moving train occurred on 20 May 1858 near Lexington, MO when the derailment of train by a tornado killed several passengers.
Another early tornado encounter with a moving train apparently (the suspected winds may have been straight-line winds rather than a swirling tornado) occurred on 21 May 1860 about sixteen miles (25 km) south of Cincinnati, Ohio. At 2:25 pm, the Covington and Lexington Railroad train had just entered a forest when the winds struck. The winds threw down a poplar tree nearly four feet (1.2 m) in diameter under the front of the engine causing it to leap from the tracks, separating the body from the trucks, cylinders and steam chest. The tree logged beneath the baggage car flipping it to its side. The train found itself in the middle of the tempest. Terror reigned as limbs of trees fell all around and two full trees "came crashing like a thunderbolt, and filling the air with leaves and boughs." The train came to a halt within forty feet (12 m).
The passenger cars miraculously remained on the tracks, "The screams of children, the shrieks of terrified women, the pallor of stout men, was a scene to move the soul It was awful." (T.B. Butler, The Atmospheric System) Although the passengers were thrown forward, none were seriously hurt. All the train's crew received some injury. Fireman Tom Flood was buried under the wood in the tender and would have been scalded had not Frank Lockwood pulled him free. He suffered two scalded hands. Engineer Isaac Barnet held fast at the throttle and received but a cut above his eye.
The next significant event occurred four years later on 26 August 1864 in Indiana. The Indianapolis Railroad Express en route from Cincinnati to Chicago met the tornado about 5:45 pm in Dearborn County about 15 miles (24 km) from Lawrenceburg. The train consisting of an engine, a baggage car and three passenger cars was lifted from the tracks. Reportedly, the engineer saw the funnel coming. As the train reached Weitzel's Bridge, he went full throttle in hopes of clearing the bridge and gaining shelter of an embankment on the other side. The accounts state "two of the passenger cars made two complete revolutions and then landed with their wheels uppermost in a ravine" (New York Daily Tribune, 29 August 1864). Over 30 aboard were injured, several seriously.
Since I initially found more evidence of encounters than I had suspected, I quickly perused that historic compilation Significant Tornadoes 1680-1991 by Tom Grazulis for any mention of of train–tornado encounters. I abstracted any reference that I consider might have been a moving train encountering a tornado, or in a couple cases, tornado debris on the tracks. I did not include any entries where it was obvious railcars were hit while on a siding or in a train yard, but in many cases it was hard to tell if the train was moving or on a siding. I am not surprised at the number of such incidents in the 19th Century since many towns in the central United States sprang up along rail lines or had rail lines built through them. Railroading was the prime means of powered transportation (save river traffic) prior to the development of the automobile and truck. Almost every town had a rail line and thus a siding at minimum, and a windstorm blowing over such heavy objects must have been the focus of awe for bystanders. Perhaps more surprising is the dramatic lack of events in more recent years. Only four occurred after World War II. While rail traffic has given way to road transport, it still has a significant presence in the US. The only answers I can give for the lack of events are: 1) heavier railcars that resist tornado winds; 2) reporting of damaged railcars not as important as in the past; or 3) improved forecasts and communications keep moving trains from danger zones.
My complete encounter list is given at the bottom of this article. Most of these encounters are chronicled with a brief sentence. A few have more information given and are reported herein.
A Scientific American article dated 1 November 1890 reported a tornado-train encounter at Fargo, North Dakota. A detailed description and engraving purported to have been made from a photograph shows a train on its side with an insert of the destroyed Plymouth Chapel of Fargo. In checking this incident, I find no mention of any event at Fargo between 1885 and 1895 in Significant Tornadoes 1680-1991. It is puzzling that such an event would have been missed in Grazulis' compilation. I therefore take this event with a degree of scepticism.
THE TORNADO AT FARGO, NORTH DAKOTA Engraving of tornado hitting a train in Fargo, North Dakota Source: Scientific American, November 1890.
The story: a tornado struck the town just as a passenger train arrived. As the storm tore off the roofs of the railroad machine shop and freight house, the engineer thought it prudent to move away from the station. Before he could get up speed, the tornado hit the train, knocking three baggage cars and nine heavy sleeping coaches off the track. Only the locomotive and tender remained on the track. The train was very crowded, containing a number of ladies and children, but because the cars rolled slowly, none of the passengers nor crew was seriously injured, nor were any of the cars severely damaged. One car contained a number of officials of the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad.
Minnesota again was the location for an incident on 4 September 1941 when loaded steel coal cars weighing 50,000 lb (22,680 kg) each were overturned by a tornado near Minneapolis, though this appears to have occurred in a railyard, though a Monthly Weather Review article suggests it was a moving event. On 21 June 1955, seventeen cars of an 82-car freight were derailed at Gage, Oklahoma when a tornado crossed the right-of-way and tore up the tracks in front of the train. The most recent event occurred during the evening of 11 June 1964 in central Kansas. In this incident a 16-car Missouri Pacific freight train slowly rolling westward between Claflin and Hoisington. According to newspaper reports, eight hopper cars near the train's rear were derailed by the twister with only the caboose remaining on the tracks.
William Hardy in a note "Train Derailment by Tornadoes" in Monthly Weather Review (November 1964) presents the likelihood of such an event for the Caflin, Oklahoma incident as once in 474 years and for the northern Minnesota strikes, once in 1486 years.
One of the more remarkable non-stories came from Lincolnton, North Carolina on 25 March 1884. The engineer noticing that a tornado was following behind. Pushing the locomotive to full throttle, he was able to outrun it for two miles before the railroad tracks curved out of tornado's path.
Perhaps equally remarkable was the encounter of the Chicago and Alton passenger train (No 7) with the Great Cyclone of 1896 on the Eads Bridge across the Mississippi River, reported by Julian Curzon in his contemporary account The Great Cyclone at St Louis and East St Louis, May 27, 1896 (1896). Engineer William Swoncutt had just entered the bridge headed east when he realized the great danger his train was in. The winds at first shook the cars from side to side like a cat shaking a mouse. Halfway across, Swoncutt noticed the overhead telegraph poles snapping and large stones shaken loose from the bridge's foundation. He feared that any moment the train would be blow into the water or that the bridge would collapse beneath them. Opening the throttle to full steam, he raced to the Illinois side of the river.
About 200 feet from the shore, an upper span of the bridge blew away and tons of granite blocks hit the tracks just where Number 7's cars had been. As soon as the train made the shore, it was blown off the tracks as the tornado tossed the passenger cars like playthings. Miraculously, no one was killed, though several were severely injured. Later inspection of the site revealed the entire upper portion of the bridge had been carried away and the recently crossed tracks now lay buried beneath the debris, in places piled as much as 8 feet high.
Outside the United States, a tornado encounter in Argentina near Buenos Aires derailed a train taking 600 passengers from Rosario to Tucuman. Its cars were overturned, and 48 persons were injured, eight seriously.
Twister Meets The Empire Builder
On 27 May 1931, the Great Northern Railway's crack transcontinental passenger train The Empire Builder was heading eastbound from Seattle to Chicago. Less than an hour out of Fargo, North Dakota, disaster would strike.
Late that afternoon an area of severe thunderstorms raged through Clay County, Minnesota. Suddenly, a funnel cloud formed, first observed by farmers in northern Kurtz township about 10 miles (16 km) south of Moorhead heading on an east-northeasterly course. At approximately 4:30 PM, The Empire Builder, eight miles (12.8 km) past Moorhead near the community of Sabin, encountered the heavy weather. Engineer B.E. McKee drove the great locomotive pulling twelve cars including five Pullman cars behind it into the storm. Neither he nor fireman Klinfihn saw the funnel cloud approaching, though both observed the advancing storm.
As the train sped southeast across the Minnesota prairie at 60 mph (96 km/h), the tornado (later rated an F3) struck it nearly broadside, and its force lifted five of the 70-ton passenger coaches from the rails. It carried one car through the air and deposited it in a ditch eighty feet (24.4 m) off the track bed. The remaining passenger cars were derailed. Only the 136-ton locomotive and 94-ton tender remained on the track. Interestingly, the coupling between the tender and the mail car was found to be closed after the impact. This suggests that the mail car was lifted vertically out of the coupling, at least a few inches before being blown from the tracks. All the cars remained coupled to each other, though some couplings were badly twisted by the derailment. All but one of the cars fell on their side, the lone exception was a car caught between two coaches which could not fall over.
The Empire Builder, bound from Seattle to Chicago, was struck by a tornado, May 27, 1931. Only the 136-ton locomotive remained on the track. Courtesy, Historic NWS Collection, NOAA
McKee saw the tornado moments before it struck and thought the locomotive took the brunt of the strike. The force of the wind blew out the cab windows and tore the engineer's goggles off his face and out of the cab by a force that he described as "a suction at his body."
Fifty-seven of the 117 passengers were injured by the impact and flying glass, and one was killed when he was hurled (or perhaps jumped in fear (?) according to a Pullman spokesman) through a day coach window and crushed in the wreckage. The railroad quickly sent a rescue train from Fargo to the wreck site. After loading the passengers, this train took them back to Fargo where the injured were taken to the hospitals. Stan Cowan, a reporter with the Moorhead Daily News recalled: "this tornado actually tipped this train over on its side which was, of course, going ahead full speed."
The Empire Builder was struck by a tornado east of Moorhead, Minnesota while traveling nearly 60 miles an hour. Courtesy, Historic NWS Collection, NOAA
The tornado tore a path forty miles (66 km) long across the Minnesota countryside. A additional death was recorded apart from the Empire Builder accident; however, damage to local farms was estimated at $200,000.
1858 20 May, Lexington, MO: Several killed in derailment of train.
1860 21 May, Cincinnati OH: Tornado (?) tosses tree in front of Covington and Lexington Railroad train derailing it.
1864 26 August, Lawrenceburg IN: Tornado lifts cars from the Indianapolis Railroad Express off the tracks, 30 injured.
1866 20 March, Lafayette County, IN: Bridge destroyed by tornado leads to train derailment.
1880 18 April Cole County MO: Tornado debris causes wreck of passenger train.
1883 10 June, North Vernon IN: Sixteen railroad cars derailed as train blown from tracks.
1884 25 March, Lincolnton, NC: Train outruns a following tornado for two miles before railroad tracks curve out of tornado's path.
1884 1 April, Walker GA: Two killed as train derailed by trees lying on track.
1885 11 March, Anna TX: Five freight cars derailed, crew injured.
1885 29 April, Pleasant Hill MO: 14 cars thrown from tracks.
1886 14 April, Coon Rapids IA: Tornado struck and derails 18-car train, front cars thrown to south, end cars thrown south, middle (beer car) remains on track.
1887 June 16, Grand Forks, ND. Tornado blew a cars of a train, but not the engine, from the St. Paul, Minneapolis, and Manitoba Railroad's north-south line about 5 miles north-northwest of Grand Forks. No deaths were reported, but there were a number of injuries.
1889 25 July, New Prague MN: Tornado derails five wheat-laden railcars.
1890 27 March, Sebree, KY: Trees blown across tracks causes train wreck that kills three.
1893 6 May, Fair Plain TX: Southbound train derailed as eastbound tornado blows caboose and 17 cars from rails; three injured, one killed in caboose.
1896 27 May, East St Louis MO: Cars of the Chicago and Alton passenger train overturned at east end of Eads Bridge.
1901 25 March, Buena Vista GA: Engine, tender, two coaches and three freight cars derailed; eight seriously injured.
1909 14 May, Barton County KS: Tornado strikes a Santa Fe work train, killing three and injuring 16.
1912 25 April, North Loup NE: Tornado derails two coaches of passenger train. Engineer slows when obvious he could not avoid the twister, some passengers injured by broken glass.
1912 15 June, Merwin, MO: Kansas City Southern Railroad work train derailed injuring 25.
1913 24 March, West Frankfort IL: Ten railcars completely destroyed as 21 of 41-car train derailed.
1913 3 April, Audrain County, MO: Freight derailed.
1916 5 June, Oaklawn Park AR: A damaged home is thrown in front of moving train.
1917 26 May, just south of Monee IL: A tornado blew several cars and the caboose off the Illinois Central tracks
1918 14 April, Baird TX: Freight train derailed attempting to outrun the funnel, five cars off tracks.
1918 21 May, Dayton, IA: Box car picked up from speeding train and thrown into ditch.
1919 9 April, Canaan TX: Funnel hits freight and detrails 27 cars throwing two 60 ft, one killed.
1919. 22 June, Fergus Falls MN: Tornado picks up seven heavy coach cars of a Great Northern Limited passenger train and throws them from the tracks.
1920 8 June, Everdell, MN: Train destroyed and tossed in ditch; lamp in mail car ignites fire that engulfs train, one passenger killed, 50 injured.
1925 11 June, Alexander IA: A train arrives in town just as tornado strikes and is overturned.
1931 27 May, Moorhead MN: Tornado broadsides the Great Northern Railway's transcontinental passenger train The Empire Builder heading eastbound from Seattle to Chicago. 57 injured, and one killed
1933 22 May, Leipzig, ND: Tornado lifts freight into air and sets it back on tracks.
1934 4 May, Coffeyville KS: Train overturned.
1938 10 June, Garnettt KS: Four box cars blown from a freight.
1945 12 February, Sucharnoochee River AL: Tornado encounters 41-car train on trestle, 39 cars derailed, a conductor and fireman killed, many others injured.
1947 9 April, White Deer TX: Tornado derails 19 cars and three cabooses from 61-car, eastbound freight; two injured.
1960 16 April Jessup IA: Forty railcars derailed.
1964 11 June, Caflin KS: A 16-car Missouri Pacific freight train slowly rolling struck by tornado, eight hopper cars near the train's rear were derailed with only the caboose remaining on the tracks.
1971 5 May, Rothville MO: Tornado hits Santa Fe freight, rocking engine to near tipping and derailing 67 cars.
1974 3April , Xenia, OH: As the F5 tornado passes over the center of town, it lifts and overturns 7 of the 47 railroad cars of a a moving Penn Central freight are lifted and blown over.
1990 24 May, Rice County KS: Tornado derails 87 of 103 cars of DenverRio Grande train.
List complied from information in Significant Tornadoes 1680-1991 by Tom Grazulis, 1993. Thanks to Vince Godon, Meteorologist, NWS Grand Forks, North Dakota for info on 1887 incident, and Leonard DeBerry of Jamestown, OH for the info on the Xenia tornado.
Written by Keith C. Heidorn, PhD, THE WEATHER DOCTOR,
March 1, 2006, updated June 4, 2009 and June 1, 2010 Photographs of The Empire Builder event courtesy Historic NWS Collection, NOAA, US Dept of Commerce.
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