May 28, 2024

Historic Highlights: 1974 Super Tornado Outbreak began in Illinois

Twelve of 148 tornadoes in outbreak were in Illinois; event was 50 years ago this month

The so-called “Super Outbreak” of tornadoes over April 3-4, 1974, remains one of the worst tornado events in American history. Few remember that it began in Illinois.

Fifty years ago this month, the outbreak produced 148 tornadoes that ripped across 13 states and the Canadian province of Ontario, costing 319 lives and leaving over 5,400 injuries. At one point, 16 tornadoes were on the ground at the same time.

The most significant was the twister that leveled much of the town of Xenia, in southwestern Ohio, where 32 people lost their lives. The Xenia tornado remains one of the worst in U.S. history and has been the subject of multiple news stories and documentaries. It was one of seven F-5 tornadoes in the outbreak, which also killed 77 in Alabama.

A tornado funnel moves through the southeast Pine Crest Garden section of Xenia, Ohio, on April 3, 1974. The deadly tornado killed 32 people, injured hundreds and leveled half the city of 25,000. Nearby Wilberforce was also hit hard. As the Watergate scandal unfolded in Washington, President Richard Nixon made an unannounced visit to Xenia to tour the damage. Xenia's was the deadliest and most powerful tornado of the 1974 Super Outbreak.

The 1974 event actually started in Illinois, where 12 of the 148 tornadoes were confirmed. Four of them were F-3 twisters, though fewer lives were lost than in other states.

It all began in Morris in Grundy County, southwest of Chicago, where a small F-0 tornado was reported around 1:10 p.m. April 3. The twister was only on the ground for a mere one-tenth of a mile. The Morris area, though, was rocked by half-inch hail and a deluge of 1.5 inches of rain in just 30 minutes.

The worst tornado of the day, though, was in Macon County, where an F-3 twister touched down around 2:30 p.m. north of the Sangamon River. The storm crossed old U.S. Route 36 a mile west of Wyckles Corner, damaging many homes in the area.

It then rolled across the Macon County Fairgrounds, leaving a 71-year-old caretaker dead. The Decatur Herald reported that the twister “literally disintegrated” the man’s mobile home. His wife was critically injured. The tornado eventually crossed Interstate 72 4 miles north of Decatur, actually lifting a section of concrete that was part of a bridge under construction. The twister finally dissipated near Oreana.

The tornado was on the ground for a total of 20.9 miles. In all, 52 homes were destroyed, while 110 others suffered major damage. Many of the affected homes were located on Adams, Shadow and Butler drives. Twenty-six people were injured, with over $3 million in damage.

Another F-3 tornado touched down near Tolono in Champaign County at 3:48, killing one inside a mobile home.

Seven minutes after the Tolono storm, another F-3 set down 4 miles south of Sidney, in Champaign County. The storm then ripped through the Hunter Lake Conservation Area, obliterating the park headquarters and several homes in the area. Three tractor-trailers were blown off nearby Interstate 74 east of Ogden.

Earlier that afternoon, at 2:08 p.m., an F-1 tornado reached the ground 2 miles southeast of Lincoln and traveled at 70 miles per hour into southwestern McLean County, hitting the village of McLean at 2:16 p.m. The town suffered $600,000 in damage.

Minutes later, at 2:30 p.m., an F-3 twister touched down 3 miles south of Colfax, in McLean County, and headed northeast, causing serious damage near the village of Anchor. That storm was revealed to contain multiple vortices within the tornado.

Homes and businesses are demolished after tornadoes hit Xenia, Ohio, late Wednesday, April 4, 1974. The deadly tornado killed 32 people, injured hundreds and leveled half the city of 25,000. Nearby Wilberforce was also hit hard. As the Watergate scandal unfolded in Washington, President Richard Nixon made an unannounced visit to Xenia to tour the damage. Xenia's was the deadliest and most powerful tornado of the 1974 Super Outbreak.

Another destructive tornado hammered the village of Bismarck, in Vermilion County. There, an F-2 twister originated around 4:25 p.m. near the north fork of the Vermilion River and ripped across the west side of town, severely damaging homes and the local high school. Twelve people were injured.

The final twister of the day touched down around 4:30 p.m. near Mattoon, staying on the ground for 14.8 miles. Measured as an F-1, the tornado caused minor damage.

Other tornadoes on April 3 were reported near Carlock in McLean County, Farmer City and Hammond in Piatt County, and Owaneco in Christian County.

The 1974 outbreak held the record as the worst in U.S. history until the event of April 25-28, 2011, when 360 tornadoes were reported across 21 states and southern Canada.

An estimated 324 people died in the 2011 outbreak, including 53 from an F-5 twister that ravaged Tuscaloosa, Alabama, on April 27. But the 1974 event is still considered the most violent, as 30 of its tornadoes were at least F-4 strength.

The deadliest single twister, however, remains the so-called “Tri-State Tornado” of March 18, 1925, which ravaged southeastern Missouri, southern Illinois and southwestern Indiana. A total of 695 deaths were reported, including 613 in Illinois, the most ever for a state by a single tornado in U.S. history.

Researchers today, however, debate whether the Tri-State Tornado was a single tornado or a series of storms.

• Tom Emery is a freelance writer and historical researcher from Carlinville, Illinois. He may be reached at 217-710-8392 or ilcivilwar@yahoo.com.