Tornado

     One of the earliest recorded histories of a tornado in the area comes from the book, "History of Macoupin County, Illinois" 1971 reprint of the 1879 original. Page 24

     These were probably all the families who settled in the country prior to 1817. That year brought with it a considerable accession to the population. The first to come that year were John C. Wood and Richard Wilhelm, with their families.

     Mr. Wood was of medium height and stoutly built. He was a native of Virginia. While living on Silver creek, (about 3 plus miles east of Staunton) he won, by his gastronomic ability, the title of "Slaymush," from having, it is said, at one time, swallowed twelve quarts of mush and milk, a dish well known in pioneer days. He also was dubbed "Windy Wood", from his propensity to spin marvelous yarns. He was a rude kind of blacksmith, and also cut out mill-stones.

     One of his astonishing stories has come down to us, and proved him to have been the Munchausen of the pioneers. "One day, just as I was finishing a mill-stone, said Mr. Wood, "I saw a hurricane approaching, and could think of no means of safety except to edge up the mill-stone and lock my hands through the eye. In this situation I awaited the approach of the storm, which, as it reached me, caught up  myself and the stone, and carried us both some three miles. As the storm abated, and I began to near the ground, I managed to climb on top of the stone, and when within a few feet I jumped off, entirely uninjured."

     This weakness was a companionable one, and Mr. Wood was popular and a good citizen. He built the first horse-mill, but only ran it one or two years, when, having lost his wife, he moved to Missouri.

     Late in the afternoon of April 6, 1938, (about 121 years after Mr. Woods encounter) Bunker Hill was struck by a devastating tornado. Thankfully there was no loss of life. Many of the churches, businesses and homes were destroyed or badly damaged. Losses were estimated at nearly $250,000.

     On March 18, 1948 a storm crest formed in Texas, with warm air building up a sharp high-pressure area. As it began moving northeastward into lower pressure and colder air a squall line developed which formed tornadoes in Texas and Oklahoma.

     As it rushed across Missouri and Illinois the disturbance built up wind speeds reaching 100 miles an hour. A swirling twister formed near Alton, Illinois, struck Fosterburg, a town of 350 population, destroying about 60 buildings and causing at least 10 deaths.

     In the village of Woodburn a number of homes were destroyed and there were 4 killed.

     Bunker Hill, a town of 1,500 was struck next. Here 19 people lost their lives and over 80 per cent of the town was leveled.

     The tornado then moved on to the town of Gillespie, where damage was heavy and the death toll was 3. The twister then lifted and dissipated, leaving in its wake at least 44 known dead, 300 injured and several million dollars in property damage. Four small towns in Macoupin County, Illinois sustained 36 known deaths.

     March 19, 1948 at 6:45 a.m. a tornado ripped through the quiet town of Bunker Hill and life in this community was forever changed. The storm struck with little or no warning, the sudden appearance of a huge black cloud accompanied by a terrifying roar, in a matter of seconds it hit and everything in its path was demolished. A deluge of rain was falling at the same time. Only a few more seconds and it was over,  the twister was on its way to the northeast. Within minutes the streets began to fill with dazed citizens, and once the realization of what had happened set in, they began to search for family and neighbors among the wreckage.

     One building that was spared was Meissner School, it was here that a first aid station was set up and emergency treatment given to the injured. A morgue was set up in another room  of the school and the dead were laid there until they could be removed. The local ambulance and passenger cars began transporting the injured and dying to the area hospitals. About 9 o'clock ambulances from Alton, Carlinville, Litchfield and Gillespie began to arrive and helped to transport. Soon help came from all over the area. National Guard Units, the regular army from Scott Field, the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, American Legion and Veteran of Foreign Wars posts, Illinois State Patrol and many others.

     Early Friday morning the Illinois State Police set up road blocks and rerouted traffic to keep out sight-seers. Later in the day the Army and National Guard posted patrols all over the city to prevent looting.

     Some farmers in the community brought their tractors and bulldozers  to assist the work crews in clearing some of the main streets allowing ambulances access to the school house.

     An emergency food line was set up by the Bahn's Grocery Store, which had most of their grocery stock intact. The Post office set up in the lobby of the First National Bank Building. By afternoon food stations were set up by the Red Cross, Salvation Army and the Lebanon Legion post, they served sandwiches and hot coffee, very welcomed by the weary workers. By evening these food stations were able to serve hot food.

     All of Bunker Hill's five churches were completely destroyed, and the entire building district with the exception of the Bank and Bahn's Grocery store were wiped out.  The Bandstand in the middle of the intersection of Warren and Washington was collapsed and the statue of Abraham Lincoln at the other intersection was toppled from its pedestal.

     Evening found residents going back to their demolished homes to search for valuables and clothing. The storm had cut electrical power and telephone service to the town. The Red Cross set up their tents in front of Meissner School, providing shelter for those who were left without a home.

     There were 126 people injured and 19 deaths.

                                              List of Deceased 1948 Tornado


Allen, Jacqueline Jean
Gregory, J.C.
Gurley, Marvin
Hales, Elizabeth
Kay, Georgette
Kay, Jacky
Kehr, Charles
Landreth, Georgia Mae
Landreth, Rachel
Langacher, Mrs. Chris
Osburn, Juanita
Pollock, Isabel
Ridgley, Rose
Tipton, William
Vroman, Carolyn Sue
Vroman, Danny
Vroman, James
Vroman, Norma
Weimers, Jane

     The Allied Clubs Council called a mass meeting of all Bunker Hill residents and businessmen to be held Friday night, March 26th, at 7:30 on Washington Street in the business district, for the purpose of formulating plans for the reconstruction of the town. This meeting was attended by State officials and other agency heads interested in helping to rebuild Bunker Hill.

     Governor Green, of Illinois and Governor Jester, of Texas, toured the area Monday afternoon and the governor issued a statement that "the state administration would render every assistance in its power to restore this stricken area."

     Senator Brooks and Representative Simpson announced from Washington, Tuesday that federal aid was assured by the bureau of community facilities in the federal works agency. They also stated that there was the possibility that special legislation might be introduced into Congress to help the stricken communities rebuild.

     The Red Cross provided shelter, food and clothing. They aided in building and repairing homes and buildings, supplied furniture, medical care, farming and occupational equipment to those who needed it. Red Cross aid went as high as $110,389.00 or higher.

     The Salvation Army distributed clothing and served approximately 1,500 hot meals each day.

     Shell Oil Co. donated 4,000 gallons of gas, diesel fuel and motor oil. The Standard Oil Co. donated 1,000 gallons of gas and diesel fuel.

     Students from Blackburn College in Carlinville came into town every day for one month to help in the clean up and rebuilding. One hundred sixty coal miners from Coalton, closed shop for a day and came to help. Miners from neighboring town also came to assist.

     Members of surrounding American Legion Posts stopped sightseers as they passed through Bunker Hill on April 4th and collected $2,463 in donations. A week earlier $618.00 was collected in this same way.  The American Legion Chapters from Benld and East Alton had benefit dances and netted $578.50. The new Bunker Hill Legion home of Partridge Post 578 was destroyed in the tornado. The Altamont Community held a "Battle for Bunker Hill" campaign and raised $846.41 in relief funds.

     Property damage was figured at between four and five million dollars. It is believed that only half of the loss was covered by insurance.

     On March 28th Easter Sunday, at 11:00 a.m. some 500 residents and volunteer workers stopped their work and gathered on the site of the flattened bandstand.

     Using a bulldozer for a pulpit, two ministers Rev. Burke pastor of the First Congregational Church and Rev.Johnson minister of the Baptist Church conducted the community service. Three soloists sang hymns accompanied by a portable organ loaned by the Salvation Army. After the service the participants went back to their work.

     The tornado of 1948 was the worst disaster to ever strike Bunker Hill.

     Material for this article was copied and or obtained from the following sources:
Bunker Hill Gazette News
Alton Telegraph
St. Louis Post Dispatch
St. Louis Globe Democrat
Decatur Herald
Post card collection donated to the Bunker Hill Museum by Dorothy Smith