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Aftermath

The Snyder, Oklahoma Tornado of 10 May 1905

Aftermath

Snyder, a town of roughly 1000 inhabitants in 1905,[17] was struck first at around 8:45 PM local time just north of the southwest corner of town. The tornado then tracked northeast, virtually wiping out every building on the west and north sides of town.  It was reported that only a few buildings were undamaged (numbers range from two or three, to as many as 20), those being mainly on the south or southeast sides of town.

Accounts of the moments immediately following the tornado present a vision so horrifying that is hard to comprehend. “The largest number of killed and injured was at Snyder.  Here the working of the storm was appalling and the damage and devastation were beyond description.”[12] It was dark, and the destruction was so complete that the surroundings were virtually unrecognizable.  Survivors who climbed out of the wreckage were dazed and totally disoriented.  A heavy rain followed the tornado, making it nearly impossible to care for the injured. A newspaper headline from nearby Mangum called it, “The Most Appalling Visitation of Nature Ever Visited Upon a Rural Population in the History of the United States,” [18] and an Ex-Union soldier said he had never seen anything like it since the battle of Shiloh. [15]

From the Associated Press:

In a few moments all was over and the shrieks and cries of the poor unfortunates filled the air.  In the darkness of night could be heard the calling of lost ones – parents seeking their children, husbands their wives, little voices calling for papa and mamma.  The tones which went out upon the night air were heartrending and pitiful in the extreme. Many of those sought were cold in death, and their voices hushed. The shrieks and groans of the dead and dying [sic], mingled with notes of the ones who had escaped seeking their loved ones, were painful to listen to. [12]

Livestock and farm animals lay dead everywhere. Chickens were found dead, “with their feathers blown out as cleanly as if they had been picked.”  The carcasses of some horses were carried over a mile. [15]

The Altus Weekly News was published a day late that week, “for the purpose of ascertaining the extent of the cyclone.” The front-page article concluded with, “Never before have we, and never again do we, wish to witness such utter destruction of life and property.  It was simply awful to realize that such things could be.” [19]  The Frederick Enterprise, published the same day, concluded with, “The pathetic pictures which were seen on all hands will never be effaced from those who beheld them, and the most sceptical [sic] could not but admit the power of the Omnipotent one, and it is hoped that the people will learn lessons of right living that they will never forget.” [15]

Snyder was in desperate need of help from neighboring communities from the first moments after the storm, but the tornado took out every phone and telegraph line into and out of the town.  In those days, there were only three ways to communicate with the outside world:  Telephone, telegraph, and tell people face to face.  With the first two options eliminated, messengers were sent on foot to the nearest town of Mountain Park, three miles north, to send news and ask for assistance.  From there the message was sent by phone to nearby Hobart (lines were still up in Mountain Park), and from Hobart, word went out to all neighboring towns and to the rest of the world.[20]  Many nearby towns immediately organized relief trains and dispatched them immediately to the stricken town.  Trains arrived from Hobart, Frederick, Chickasha, Vernon, Davidson, Eldorado, Quanah, Oklahoma City, Mangum, Altus, Lawton, and several other towns in the area. These trains, loaded with supplies, doctors, nurses, and recovery volunteers, arrived every few minutes from late that night through the following day.

The following lengthy account of the hours and days following the tornado appeared in the May 12, 1905 edition of the Snyder Signal Star.  It was printed in Frederick, most likely on the following Monday or Tuesday (May 15 or 16), as the newspaper’s printing press was “under a pile of debris and covered with slime and brick from a chimney, then three of the injured ones have been cared in the editor’s home which is in the rear of the building, and their condition precluded any effort to run the press.” [6] What follows was written by one of the first responders to the disaster, and is considered as comprehensive and accurate as any available description of the storm aftermath: 

When the spared people crept out of caves [storm cellars] or came from houses which had not been claimed by the wrath of the wind, they stood for a moment stunned and dazed.  Frantic appeals for help and pitiful moans of the dying fell upon dulled ears for an instant, and then the town awoke to the necessity of action and the work began. 

Soon the dead and wounded were both being carried into available rooms, but later the rescue work was devoted alone to the living, and this work continued throughout the night.  “Oh for daylight” was the plaint of many burdened hearts as they sought for loved ones and the air was filled with cries welling up from hearts filled with anguish when the lifeless forms of dear ones were found.  The Pritchard building and the Peckham building were in a few minutes filled with the injured and dead.  Both living and dead were horrible in appearance.  Clothing had been torn into rags or completely from the forms.  Through the slimy black mud which covered every face it was almost impossible to recognize features.  This made the work of identification very difficult and most of the identifications were arrived at through recognition of some article found on their persons.  Soon the search for loved ones was transferred to the rooms temporarily turned into morgues and hospitals.  Oh, the agony of it all.  The uninjured searching among the dead and injured for some lost one – the pitiful inquiries made by injured ones for those that were with them when the storm struck, and their appeals for further search to be made.  Men who had not shed a tear for years cried like children – there was no effort to conceal the tears which forced themselves into the eyes of those whose desire to assist forced them to look upon the awful sights to be seen on every side.  Pen can never describe the horror of it all, so that those who have not passed through similar trials can arrive at one tenth part of the awfulness of the suffering of the injured and appearance of the dead.

Soon after the storm had lulled, the block in which the Chinese laundry was located, and which had been heaped in a pile by the wind, was found to be burning.  A strong north wind was carrying fire brands to the business houses which had been left standing, and a heroic fight was made to prevent a general conflagration.  Luckily the gutters were so full of water that water enough was secured to put the fire out. It had to be fought by inches, the crackling flames roiling and pitching as if jealous of the havoc the wind had made in so short a time.  A fire also broke out in the partially destroyed Worsham building, but quick work overcame it and the Woodard, Tennison & Hoffmaster and Wey buildings were saved from the general destruction.

DAYLIGHT CAME.

And permitted a view of the destruction wrought.  Where hundreds of dwellings had stood when the sun went down, not an upright stick remained and but an open prairie greeted the eye.  As was said before, the ruin was complete from where the storm struck the town a little north of the school house and on the west line of town through to the north east part of the town.  It mowed a path from five to seven blocks wide.  Nothing stood which was in the path of the storm, and many buildings which were not in the direct path were wrecked.  Not a building was standing which does not show some of the storm’s work.  Not a person who was in the direct path of the storm escaped serious injury or death, save those who took refuge in storm caves or cellars.  Not a horse, cow, or pig escaped – all fell victims to the greedy storm. 

The work of rescue was resumed as soon as day break, the injured being cared for first and the dead then gathered up and hauled to the morgue by wagon loads.  It was a grewsome [sic] sight, and yet men and women who would ordinarily shriek at the sight of blood and suffering, with set features stoically went about doing the best they could for those who needed help.

A hospital was established in the large room at the west side of the Hilton building, and all would be conveyed there who had not through the night been taken to some private residence.

The Tennison & Hoffmaster building was taken as a morgue and very soon the floor of the 50x80 room was crowded with the remains of men, women and children.  The sight was appalling and only the awfulness of the occasion gave men strength to properly care for the bodies.  Every stitch of clothing which had not been torn off and every part of the person exposed were simply solidly cemented with a slimy black mud.  The clothing was removed, the poor mangled remains as nearly cleaned as they could be and each body wrapped in muslin to await final burial.  The shelves and the counters were filled with these, reminding one of the stories of old Catacombs where tier above tier of bodies are to be seen.

Volunteers were called for to dig graves and make coffins, and though many responded, not much headway was made the first day toward burying the dead.

RELIEF PARTIES.

Soon after the storm, S. B. Odell walked to Mountain Park and gave the alarm – but he talked so daffy as everyone who went through the storm did – that people wouldn’t believe him.  He had been followed by Edgar L. Bealle and Fred C. Sweitzer, and when they too told the story of the awful calamity the town was aroused and every man able to get here came over and assisted our people in work of rescue and such other work as was needed.  The writer, with others, was fighting the fire when a party of men came up and said, “We are here to help and others are coming.”  It was the first of the kindly feeling which soon came to us from all surrounding towns, and their promptness will always be treasured in the memory of those who met that first party.

When Sweitzer and Bealle succeeded in arousing the Mountain Park operator to the needs of the hour, the news of the calamity out-speeded the storm and all the towns within reach began making up special trains.

The train from Hobart, which arrived between 3 and 4 o’clock a.m. bringing seventy-five men and women, several doctors among them, was the first to reach here and no party of people received a more heartfelt welcome than they did.  It was not evidenced by a noisy demonstration but by silent pressure of the hand and tearful expressions of gratitude.  Following the Hobart train, special trains arrived every few minutes, and our people soon realized that the disaster had made “all people kin” – that everybody within reach of us was our friend. Soon cars loaded with needed supplies for hospital and homeless people began to arrive.

THE RELIEF COMMITTEE.

By 11 o’clock Thursday morning a mass meeting had been called together for the purpose of organization.  A general Relief Committee consisting of  E. P. Dowden, B. C. Burnett, G. J. Helena, Fred C. Sweitzer and W. M. Allison was elected and E. P. Dowden made chairman, G. J. Helena treasurer and B. C. Burnett secretary. On the ground a subscription for relief was started and considerable money subscribed by gentlemen who were present at the meeting.  Thus was the relief work put under organization.  The world was notified that supplies of all kinds were needed and request made that all remittance and shipments be addresses to G. J. Helena, Treasurer.

A quartermaster department, and under it a commissary department, were established and everything put in shape to carefully take care of everything that came in and the needs of those who are homeless.  Everything was systematized and at this writing are running smoothly and in a satisfactory manner.  The general committee have divided the work between them so that each member is in direct charge of a certain department and the needed work.

E. P. Dowden has charge of the supplies; G. J. Helena the finance; Fred C. Sweitzer the rebuilding; B. C. Burnett cleaning streets and town of debris and dead animals; and W. M. Allison of the hospital.

Hundreds of ladies have come in and offered their services as nurses to the sick.  Many have served as long as they could and then given away to others who were anxious and willing to assist.   Snyder owes these noble women a debt of gratitude which can never be amply repaid.

On Friday two heavy rain storms came, and as the roof had been partly torn from the building in which the hospital had been opened, it looked much for a time as if the sufferers would all be drowned.  But speedy work by many willing hands saved them and they were removed to another room in same building.  This room was too small and Dr. Borders, who had been installed as head surgeon, insisted on a better room.  As none could be found which had escaped injury, a roof was put back over the first room by Pete Coen and a gang of volunteers.  A partition was run, an operating room built and drug room arranged and the patients all returned to the room Sunday morning.  They are now as comfortably situated as they can be made under all the circumstances.   Doctors from other towns and scores of ladies and gentlemen have, from time to time, taken their turns as watches and nurses and the wounded are being well cared for.

CLEANING UP.

Sunday 100 men came down from Hobart (and) organized into ten companies with a captain over each.  These man will ever hold the admiration of Snyder.  Monday a party from Eldorado and some from other points returned, and good work toward clearing up debris and burning animal carcasses was accomplished.

The territorial Engineering Corps, under command of Captain King, have been valuable assistance in maintain order and clearing up.  They too will ever be dear to Snyder.

The town will be rebuilt.  The work of restoring buildings has already begun, and though it will take the town some time to fully recover its old appearance and activity, it will certainly do so. [9]

The “Snyder Curse”…?

One of the more interesting tales that arose from the 1905 disaster is actually a legend that began well before the tornado. Snyder was founded in 1902, within a year after the Kiowa-Comanche Reservation was opened to non-Indian settlers, and only three years before the tornado.  It is said that several Kiowa Indians warned the settlers to move their town to a nearby secluded valley. The Kiowa legend maintained that a tornado had destroyed an Indian village on the exact site of Snyder several years earlier, and that the gods eventually would destroy anyone who tried to live there.  Most of the settlers merely considered the claim to be a scare tactic.[21]

The Indian legend may have roots in a story related by local citizens, which found its way into print in the days following the 1905 tornado.  It seems there was an old resident Indian who claimed that a windstorm worse than the 1905 tornado passed over the same spot twenty years earlier.  The place also was visited by tornadoes twelve, seven, and three years earlier, all but one of which passed over the same identical ground, the other passing on the other side of the adjoining mountain range. [22]

The Kiowa legend apparently gained more advocates after the 1905 tornado, or at least there were people beginning to believe that tornadoes, for whatever reason, simply “had it in” for Snyder.  This in turn led to the following cynical commentary, which appeared in the Kiowa County Democrat on the one-year anniversary of the 1905 storm:  

Some people really believe that the erratic and justly phenomena known as the cyclone has certain beaten paths which it follows in preference to any other.  They imagine that the twister is positively unhappy unless it can get on to one of these trails.   This idea results in an injustice to certain vicinities – Snyder, for instance.  Among the first thing we heard after the cyclone there, was the report that a certain old Indian (whose age exceeded his veracity) claimed that Snyder is in a regular nest of cyclones; that cyclones made that their headquarters and always managed to visit that place regardless of expense.  All this was never thought nor heard of until after a twister struck that town.  Some Indian may have been the father of that fiction, or he may not.  Suppose he was: the “Noble red Man” is hardly so reliable and truthful as Mulhatton or Munchauson.  Whatever he says about the past or present of this country, you will generally find it just the other way.” [23]

Be that as it may, a check of weather records reveals that no less than 19 other tornadoes have passed within a few miles of Snyder since the May 10, 1905 event. Luckily, few of them have caused serious injuries or major damage within the town itself.  Notable among them were the tornadoes of April 18, 1917 (25 buildings demolished in town; fifteen injuries, and one fatality 8 miles west of Snyder, but no deaths in town), June 16, 1928 (at least seven people killed between Blair and Headrick; every building in Headrick was damaged or destroyed before it passed just to the southwest of Snyder), June 5, 1936 (moved north, killing one person several miles south of Snyder before passing a mile west of town), May 1, 1954 (began east of Crowell, Texas and moved northeast nearly 70 miles, ending just south of Snyder; one mile wide at times), and February 22, 1975 (moved from just west of Snyder to Mountain Park; a 2-year old boy was killed in a trailer).

Tales of Tragedy

As with any such catastrophe, many individual stories emerged from the Snyder tornado disaster.  They serve to drive home the true range of human emotions that affected the sufferers.  Following are but a few tales that have survived over the years:

The destruction of the Fessenden family, consisting of six members, was complete.  Miss Nina Fessenden, a daughter, was to have been married the night of the cyclone to Clarence Donovan, a railway engineer.  The wedding was postponed, because of some trivial matter, until the following morning.  Both of them were killed in the tornado. [12]

The family of Fred Crump, 17, were in the cellar of their home.  Family members said that Fred had just started down the steps, when a piece of timber struck and killed him.

Cal Williamson, said to be one of the leading citizens of the town, hurriedly picked up a woman whom he thought was his young wife.  As the tornado struck, he carried her to safety.  When the storm abated, it was discovered that the woman he saved was not his wife.  He later found his wife among the victims.

Charles Landon Hibbard, superintendent of Snyder Schools, died on his way to the storm cellar, along with his wife, mother, father, and two of his four children.  His parents, being elderly, could not move quickly enough, nor could the smaller children.  Professor Hibbard slowed his steps to match those of his family members, while his 12-year old son Lloyd was sent ahead to open the cellar door.  Unfortunately, all of the family except Lloyd, and his brother Edward, died before reaching the cellar.  

Three children were killed in the Crook family, all under the age of three years. The youngest, three months old, was blown from its mother’s arms, thrown against a brick wall, and killed. [24]

An upright piano was found in a field eight miles from town, sitting in a field in the same position as it was when picked up by the cyclone.  Pictures and papers from the wrecked homes in Snyder were found in Caddo County on the other side of Saddle Mountain, 55 to 60 miles away. [6]There were several reports that there was more debris littering the streets of Mountain View, 30 miles to the north northeast, than there was left in Snyder.

The Death Toll

Immediately after the storm, some news reports suggested the death toll in Snyder would reach as high as 400.  These reports turned out to be either gross overestimates or outright exaggerations.  The reported number of victims was soon revised downward, and eventually the numbers converged toward a range somewhere between 90 and 130.

The facts, as well as can be determined, are as follows:  1] Published lists contain partial or complete names of 86 known victims from Snyder and surrounding areas in Kiowa County. 2] Other lists and accounts provide names of at least nine others that died in Greer County as a result of the first of the two tornadoes.  3] Many of the known victims were laid to rest in Fairlawn Cemetery, outside of Snyder, but some were laid to rest elsewhere in Oklahoma and Kansas. 4] An unknown number of unidentified victims were buried in a mass grave at Fairlawn Cemetery. 5] A stone marker, placed in Fairlawn Cemetery in the 1990s near the alleged site of the mass grave, reads, “in memory of the thirty-four unknown men, women and children who perished in the cyclone of May 10, 1905.” 6] According to the Oklahoma Historical Society, two of Oklahoma’s most distinguished historians placed the count at “about 120 dead.” [25]  7]  Fires in the wake of the tornado burned parts of the wreckage in the business area of town.  “Whether or not any of the bodies of dead or wounded were cremated is not known, but the general belief is that some were in the fire-swept ruins.” [9]  8] Local residents in Snyder said that a passenger train stopped in town that evening, and dropped off an unknown number of passengers before pulling out shortly before the tornado struck.  Many of these passengers may have been from out of town, and thus would have been relative unknowns to most of the citizens of Snyder.  Passengers that were still at or near the railroad depot when the tornado struck most likely were either killed or injured.

The exact number of people killed by the Snyder tornado will never be known with absolute certainty.  We can only arrive at a reasonable estimate, based on the information available.  Beginning with facts 1] and 2], above, we know of at least 95 victims.  Fact 3] means we can not refine the count based in the graves in Fairlawn Cemetery.  Fact 5] likely derives directly from fact 6] and fact 1], and assumes a total of 120, of which 86 are known.  It is considered unlikely that any bodies were completely incinerated by post-tornado fires (Fact 7]), but this possibility can not be ruled out completely.  Fact 8] would most likely affect only the relative number of unknown or unidentified victims, and not the total.

If we accept the historical estimate of 120 deaths from the entire event, and account for the nine known victims in Greer County, we would arrive at a reasonably reliable estimate of 111 deaths from the Snyder tornado.  This is roughly ten to 12 percent of the entire population of the town at the time, one of the highest such ratios of any tornado in history.  The high death toll is attributed partly to the fact that the storm struck after regular business hours, when most of the inhabitants were at home.  Although the business section received major damage, the worst of it was in the residential sections on the west and north sides of town.

Snyder Today

More than one hundred years later, Snyder is by all accounts a rather typical and peaceful Oklahoma town, and shows no scars from the events of a century ago.  Thanks to the tornado, and to other calamities,[26] nearly the entire town has been rebuilt and all of the structures have been erected after 1905.  Only two buildings still stand in town that were not taken by the tornado or by other events over the last hundred years.  One of the buildings, which housed the Snyder Hotel on the top floor and a dry goods store on the first floor, can be seen in a photo[27] taken within days after the 1905 tornado had damaged it, and also in a photo taken in April 2005. The population, according to the 2000 census, is 1,509.  The nickname for the local school is “the Cyclones.”


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