Fort Smith Tornado of 1898
At around 11:00 p.m. on January 11, 1898, a tornado formed in Oklahoma west of Fort Smith and headed toward the city. After crossing the Poteau River, it slammed into the Fort Smith National Cemetery, where it was reported that “huge trees are uprooted, the lodge demolished and the wall torn down.” Marble-sized hail pummeled buildings in the town, including hotels and boarding houses that were packed with travelers because the federal court was in session.
The tornado hit Fort Smith’s business district hard, smashing buildings and tearing off roofs before continuing into residential areas. The Arkansas Democrat reported that one man’s house was “turned completely upside down, and stands that way as evidence of the terrific power of the [storm].” The owner was killed, his head nearly severed by a wind-blown glass shard.
The tornado was on the ground for several minutes and cut a path of destruction that was 200 yards wide. It destroyed a Methodist church and a Baptist church, hurling the latter’s bell 100 feet. The new $50,000 high school was “wrecked.” An Arkansas Gazette correspondent wrote that “business blocks, handsome mansions, hotels and humble cottages were razed to the ground and scattered in shapeless masses.”
As people struggled to pull survivors from Fort Smith’s shattered buildings, the Democrat reported that “the debris of many buildings which were in the lodging house district caught fire, and those unfortunate individuals who were not at once extricated perished, being burned or smothered to death. Add to this fact many of the people in the outside districts were killed in the crash of falling residences, and it will thus be seen why the list of the dead rolled up so rapidly.”
Fort Smith’s infrastructure was devastated, with telephone and electrical lines down and gas lines ruptured. Initial reports counted more than thirty-five dead, and undertakers from Fayetteville (Washington County), Siloam Springs (Benton County) and St. Louis, Missouri, came to assist with tending to the dead. The doors of the morgue were left open so people could come and see if their loved ones were among the deceased. Company D of the Third Infantry Regiment patrolled the town, watching for looters. The Gazette reported that “two hundred were probably more or less injured and over a score seriously hurt.” The death toll eventually rose to fifty-five as badly injured people died from their wounds. The city also suffered around $1 million in damages, which would amount to around $35 million in the twenty-first-century.
With fifty-five confirmed dead from the storm, the Fort Smith tornado of 1898 was the deadliest recorded in Arkansas until March 21, 1952, when a series of twisters killed 112 people.
For additional information:
“Appalling Disaster at Fort Smith.” Arkansas Democrat, January 12, 1898, p. 1.
“Death-Dealing Wind and Flame.” Arkansas Gazette, January 13, 1898, p. 1–2.
“Forty-five Dead.” Arkansas Gazette, January 15, 1898, p. 1.
“State’s Second Deadliest Tornado Hit Fort Smith in 1898.” From the Vault (Blog of the Arkansas State Archives). http://arkansasstatearchives.blogspot.com/2019/05/states-second-deadliest-tornado-hit.html (accessed June 9, 2022).
Mark K. Christ
Central Arkansas Library System
Last Updated: 06/09/2022