Indiana is no stranger to tornadic storms, and Marion County and Indianapolis have experienced their share of violent thunderstorms and other weather disasters. On May 18, 1927, Indianapolis was hit by a storm which cut through heavily populated areas, including downtown, and devastated the near east side. The forecast for that Wednesday had predicted that “showers and thunderstorms probable.” In an age well before the advent of weather radar, the weather prediction was far more of a guess, with little guidance on where and when severe weather might strike.
Throughout the afternoon and early evening of Thursday the 18th, light rain showers passing over the city. Shortly before 8 pm, as reported by the Indianapolis News, heavy winds began to roll in from the west and southwest, accompanied by lightening on the horizon, and thunder which “rolled like pieces of heavy artillery.”
As the storm approached, lights around downtown began to flicker and then all went out. On May 19, 1927, the day after the storm, the News would describe the incoming storm: “Like the roar and hum of a fast speeding railway locomotive or a high powered airplane, the storm sounded its approach, but all too late because it did not give sufficient time to escape its wrath.”
The storm swept over the city and caused damage from West Indianapolis, through downtown, and in the east side. As the storm rolled in from the west, it hit the west side of downtown and the area along the White River and Washington Street. The 250 foot stack of the water company’s West Washington Street pumping station was brought down by the wind, severely damaging a nearby warehouse. A night watchman at the warehouse was spared only because moments before he had crossed the street to make a phone call. Only 20 feet of the stack was left standing. In the downtown core, damage was widespread, although not as structurally damaging. Numerous windows were blown out of downtown buildings, including windows of the William H. Block department store. Merchandise at several stores suffered water damage due to the blown out windows, and in some places the streets were littered with inventory and office materials which the storm had swept out of downtown stores and office buildings.
The near eastside took the brunt of the devastation, as the storm followed Washington Street eastbound, in a slight northeastern direction. The News published a map depicting the route of the tornado and the damage in its May 19, 1927 edition.
At Buchannan and Leonard Streets (behind the present day White Castle headquarters as you enter Fountain Square), a religious revival tent set up by Pilgrim Holiness Church was torn to shreds and the worshippers scattered in a panic to homes in the area. Several worshippers received varying degrees of injuries during their escape. The Indianapolis Star reported that nearly every home in the stretch along Michigan Street from the Belt Railway (roughly where Tuxedo Street is) to Kealing Street had lost its roof.
Along Washington Street found the same situation, although in some places, homes and businesses were entirely flattened. Near the intersection of Rural and Washington, the A.C. Hannon Grocery was destroyed. It’s proprietor was initially stuck inside, and reported to the Star that he couldn’t recall how he came to escape from the wreckage. On Hamilton Avenue, just north of Willard Park, nearly a square block of homes were destroyed. The panoramic below is from the Indiana Historical Society's archives, and while the location in Indianapolis is not identified, it appears it could be near Hamilton Avenue which was the center of the worst of the damage. However, it is a representative of the level of damage experienced by the eastside. A link to the full size image (which is very detailed), can be found here.
Willard Park took itself had many of its trees uprooted or blown down, and suffered the worst of the city's park system. The rail yard just south of the park also sustained serious damage to its facilities and roundhouse.
The home of Ellen Bush, the mother of Ownie Bush (the former manager of the Indianapolis Indians and the namesake of Bush Stadium) was located at 207 N. Wolcott, and was severely damaged. The Indianapolis Indian’s stadium itself on west Washington Street, the present site of the Indianapolis Zoo, also suffered damage when the storm first hit the city. The outfield fences and scoreboard were knocked down and the grandstands were damaged. Part of the damage was caused by the roof of a nearby railroad roundhouse from the Big Four railyard which was torn up and thrown into the stadium. The Indianapolis Star noted that the team had a game against Columbus on the afternoon of May 19, and that efforts were being made to ensure the game could be held.
Police patrolled the affected areas, and soldiers from Fort Ben Harrison were also deployed to counter potential looters. On Friday, May 20, the Star reported that each solider had been issued five rounds of live ammunition, and that the soldiers and police were under orders to shoot to kill looters in the tornado impacted areas. The Star further reported that the police and soldiers were patrolling under “semimilitary” orders, although there was no further explanation of what a semimilitary order might entail.
Streetcar service was disrupted throughout the city, but particularly on the eastside, where falling trees brought down the electrical streetcar wires with them, and the roadways and tracks were blocked by storm debris. Washington Street in sections was lined with felled trees and electrical poles. Telephone service was also disrupted and crews from the street car lines, power company, and Indiana Bell were dispatched to repair damage.
Mayor John Duvall toured the damaged areas on May 19, and conferred with members of the city council regarding potential relief efforts. The News reported that it was impossible for the city to allocate funds for relief purposes, aside from money for clearing of debris from streets. The City Council held a special meeting on Friday, May 20, 1927, for the purpose of considering relief measures related to the tornado damage and the post storm flooding. Appropriation Ordinance 2, 1927, would see $35,000 allocated to the street cleaning department, while $15,000 was directed to the carpentry department, to assist with the clean-up of city streets and to repair city owned property. The funds were to be allocated to the Board of Public Works for "salaries and wages." Mayor Duvall was questioned about the need for the funds, and he explained that the budgets for those departments would be soon depleted due to the work needed to address the tornado damage. The appropriation did not pass that evening, and the council again considered the ordinance on Monday, May 23, 1927, during another special meeting. At this meeting the ordinance was passed, but not before the $35,000 amount was reduced to $10,000, and the $15,000 for carpentry was reduced to $5,000.
Governor Ed Jackson also toured the eastside, and encouraged donations from the public: “I am mighty sorry for these people who suffered losses and I know that to many of them it must be a severe blow. I feel that liberal contributions should be made throughout the state to any relief measures that are taken for the benefit of those who homes were swept away.”
Injuries exceeded 150, which, considering the destruction on the eastside, was rather low. Several serious injuries were reported, as were numerous injuries from flying glass. Victims were taken to St. Vincent, Methodist, and St. Francis Hospitals, while an emergency triage center was established at Fire Station 20 on North Belville Ave. One death was attributed to the storm. Two teenage boys, Earl Wolverton and Roger Frey, had taken shelter in the lobby of the Arthur Furniture Store, 2215 E. Washington Street, when that building collapsed around them. Rescuers followed the sounds of the two knocking on debris and used a house moving jack to free them. Unfortunately, Wolverton's injuries were too severe, and he succumbed a few days later. The Red Cross also established an aid station at 2325 East Washington Street, and Tomlinson Hall was opened as a shelter, although the use was limited as those displaced from their homes found accommodations with family and friends.
Aside from the wind damage, the storm also brought very heavy rain, which flooded streets hampering the response to the damage, and swelling the White River and Fall Creek. While downtown had been better protected from flooding following the 1913 flood, areas to the north were under threat of flooding, particularly the Warfleigh neighborhood. Repairs progressed quickly and services were resumed within the week for most areas. The image below depicts a workman replacing glass globes on street lights at the intersection of Washington and Randolph Streets on May 23, 1927. Willard Park is seen to the left, and the damage to the surviving trees is readily visible. The bent pole from the now missing gas station sign is seen in the center of the image.
Indianapolis Star, May 18-22, 1927
Indianapolis News, May 18-22, 1927
Journal of the Common Council of the City of Indianapolis, Janaury -December 31, 1927
Indianapolis Baist Maps, 1916, 1927, 1929, http://ulib.iupui.edu/collections/sanbornjp2.
Indiana Historical Society Digital Images, as cited above. Image at top of post credit: Bass Photo Co Collection, Indiana Historical Society