At the start of my career as an attorney, my bride and I lived in Mattoon, Illinois for just under three years. Charleston was the country seat of Coles County, and I spent a lot of time over there in court. Only twelve miles separate the two towns.
Beginning on May 25, 1917 an eight day sequence of killer tornadoes struck the mid section of the country, wreaking havoc and death in Kansas, Nebraska, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Arkansas, Kentucky and Alabama, leaving 383 people dead.
The tornado that struck Mattoon and Charleston began in Missouri and tracked a 293 mile course across Illinois, traveling at 40 mph, with the whirling winds that made up the tornado attaining 400 mph. The skies darkened over Mattoon and Charleston around 2:00 PM on May 26, 1917 with air sultry and oppressive. At 3:00 PM a black nimbus cloud appeared and produced frequent lightning. A greenish-black cumulo-nimbus cloud appeared from the West around 3: 45 pm. The tornado struck soon thereafter. A contemporary account described what happened:
The greatest destruction was wrought in Coles County, where the tornado
struck the districts occupied by workingmen ‘s homes in the cities of Mattoon
and Charleston, the former with a population of 12,000 and the latter with
6,000. The tornado passed through this county between 3 and 4 p. m., a
time of day in which tornadoes are generally most disastrous. In Mattoon,
at 3 :30 p. m._, sixty people were killed, and ^yq hundred homes demolished
and others seriously damaged. Traveling at about 45 miles per hour the
storm struck Charleston, 11 miles east of Mattoon, at 3:45. Here, thirty-
five persons were killed, over four hundred houses and fifteen industrial
establishments partially or wholly wrecked, the two railway stations de-
molished, and all telegraph and telephone connections destroyed.
In addition to the deaths, some 583 people were injured. Estimates of property damage exceeded 55 million dollars.
The 14th most deadly tornado in US history, the killer tornado was long remembered and was still talked about in the eighties of the last century.