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The
"Cyclone"

The Snyder, Oklahoma Tornado of 10 May 1905

The “Cyclone”

Setting The Clock

All accounts indicate that the first tornado began in far southwest Oklahoma around 6:45 PM Central Standard Time (CST)[3].  All accounts from Snyder agree that the tornado which hit the town arrived in there sometime between 8 PM and 9:15 PM on the evening of May 10.  We can forgive the survivors for not being more precise, as they certainly had more important concerns immediately following the disaster.  But the tornado left its own time stamp to indicate its arrival in town.  Watches were found in the debris, all stopped within a few minutes of 8:45 PM, and the large wall clock in the Eagle Drug Store in Snyder stopped “at exactly forty-three minutes past eight o’clock”[4].  So we can be reasonably sure that the tornado arrived in Snyder very close to 8:45 PM on Wednesday, May 10th.  Sunset occurred in Snyder close to 7:30 PM CST, and twilight faded to full darkness between 8 and 8:30 PM as the storm approached.  So we also can be fairly sure that the tornado struck the town after dark.  For sure, initial recovery efforts began in full darkness.

There also are varying descriptions of the duration of the storm in Snyder.  Some survivors said it lasted a few moments, some said five to ten minutes, some said perhaps fifteen minutes.  All agreed that it seemed like an eternity. Knowing what we do about the size of the tornado (damage path one-half mile wide) and its forward speed (30 to 40 MPH), the tornado probably spent less than a minute on any given spot, and traversed the town of Snyder in under three minutes.

Tracking The Storm

According to documentation by the U.S. Weather Bureau’s section director for the Oklahoma Territory (the U.S. Weather Bureau was the predecessor for today’s National Weather Service) and local newspapers, the tornado was first observed about 12 miles west and 9 miles south of Olustee. [5] [6] This initial tornado probably left an intermittent damage path as it curved to the east-southeast and east.  The tornado then intensified near the community of Carmel, located 9 miles south and 3 miles west of Olustee.  The tornado destroyed a home near Carmel and killed three members of the Hughes family.  The tornado grew to about one mile wide as it continued to move northeast, killing the entire family of Frank James and four members of the Ralston family near the community of Lock, which was approximately seven miles south of Altus.  The Altus Times reported that “every vestige of a settlement at Lock was swept away.”[7] A number of farmsteads were destroyed and livestock herds were killed near Lock.  One of the farms just east of Lock that was destroyed was described as “one of the best improved farms in the county.”[8]  The tornado continued northeast and struck the Francis School House which was “scattered over the surrounding country side for miles.  Not a stick or stone remains to mark the spot where it stood.”[8]  The Francis School House is estimated to have been about 6 miles south and 3 miles east of Altus.

Based on available accounts, the storm underwent a stage of reorganization just after passing Lock and the Francis School House, which led to the formation of a second tornado that would become the Snyder tornado.  After destroying the school house, the tornado, “then lifted, and passing eastward crossed the North Fork of the Red River at the mouth of Otter Creek. At the point of crossing the North Fork, it was joined by another tornado which had developed about two miles southeast of the Francis School House.  The combined tornadoes then moved rapidly northeastward along the course of Otter Creek…” [5] Another account, based on notes from the chief of the U. S. Signal Station in Oklahoma City, who followed the track of the storm, supports the same evolution: After destroying the Francis School House, “The cyclone then lifted and contented itself with roaring until the mouth of Otter Creek was reached.  Here another twister, which had formed some distance south of there and destroyed the Burnett home on the west side of North Fork, united with the one which had come so many miles, and they entered upon a merry waltz up Otter Creek, following up the creek until it takes a turn to the north-west, where it left the creek and began its journey straight northeast across the Prairie for Snyder.” [5]

The formation of a second tornado two miles southeast of the first is very consistent with what is known today as a “cyclic supercell.” The storm initially contained a larger storm-scale circulation (or mesocyclone), from which the first tornado formed.  The storm then underwent a cycle in which the mesocyclone center weakened and the tornado dissipated (or “lifted”), while a new mesocyclone center formed a few miles to its southeast and produced another tornado.  Knowledge of storm structure and evolution has come a very long way since 1905, and so it is not surprising that observers back then were not at all familiar with the details of what they were seeing happen before them.  Cyclic supercells are now known to be present in many tornado outbreaks, often producing a virtual family of tornadoes as each “cycle” results in additional tornadoes following along the same general path of the parent storm.  (One of the supercell thunderstorms in Oklahoma on May 3, 1999 produced 20 tornadoes over a six-hour period!)

This second tornado moved east-northeast, crossing the North Fork of the Red River near the mouth of Otter Creek.  The tornado then followed very close to Otter Creek, curving to the northeast through what is now northern Tillman County (but was still part of Kiowa County at the time).  At least five people were killed southwest of Snyder, including Ray Moss (a tenant at the McCowan ranch), three members of the Engle family, and Mrs. Jack Hunter, who was injured and later died from her injuries.  At the Engle home, “The monster again demanded human sacrifices to whet its appetite for the final feast at Snyder.”[5]  As the tornado continued northeast, it struck the city of Snyder at around 8:45 P.M.  After moving through Snyder, the tornado “kept its northeasterly movement, destroying a couple of small residences within two miles of the townsite, then lifted and caused no further damage.”[5]

One news report indicated that “the same tornado” struck Quinlan (115 miles north of Snyder!), killing three people. [10]  Yet another report describes a storm, “that developed in a cyclone and hail storm at Elk City (55 miles northwest of Snyder), two men being killed at or near that town.” [11]  These events clearly were not caused by the same thunderstorm that rolled through Snyder, but show that there were other severe thunderstorms across western Oklahoma, and that the storm that struck Snyder and surrounding areas was not the only killer storm in Oklahoma that day.

Eyewitness Accounts

“Were you ever in a cyclone?  If you have had such an experience you will believe the story of the storm without question. If you have not, you will feel inclined to say it’s all bosh.  But the following report contains nothing which the editor does not know to be true.  The truth is horrible enough without enlarging on it and no one wishes to picture it worse than it is.”

So begins the front-page article in The Snyder Signal Star, dated Friday, May 12, 1905. The headline read, “Most Terrible Storm,” and “Worse Than war – Which is Hell.”  Much of the horror depicted in these words relates to the destruction and human toll (see Aftermath), but the article also contains the following account of the storm as it approached, and eventually flattened, Snyder:

Heavy clouds had been hanging in the south-west for some time but they were high and presented no threatening appearance – people freely expressing opinions as to whether or not a rain would come.

A few minutes before 8 o’clock, a fearful roaring was heard in the south-west. The writer remarked to his family that, “but two things ever cause a roar like that – either a very heavy hail storm, or a cyclone.”  A few minutes of the fearful roaring and then came a heavy rain fall accompanied by some hail caused a second remark expressing the belief that we were then getting the outer edge of a heavy hail storm which had visited Greer county.  In a few minutes the rain ceased and was succeeded by the most terrific electrical storm the writer has ever witnessed.  Electricity ran along the telephone wires with a hissing like a sky rocket starting on its upward flight.  This lasted probably another fifteen minutes, ceasing as suddenly as it had started, then, after a moments dead lull, the hungry monster broke upon the town picking up strong and well-built buildings and tossing them about like they were bundles of straw, taking away the fragments of one man’s house and leaving in its place pieces of houses which stood blocks away.

Wednesday the 10th day of May was the day.  The hour was between 8 and 9 o’clock.  Several watches having stopped showing from 14 to 18 minutes before 9 o’clock, it is safe to say that the town was wiped out about 8:45.[9]

The same newspaper provided the following description in its release one week later:

Those who were to one side and in position to see the storm say it was like a huge smoke hanging tail down from the clouds, wiggling along as if seeking to touch and fasten onto everything in its tract. [6]

Many accounts of the sights and sounds of the storm are consistent, in that they include a loud roar that was heard a half-hour or more before the tornado struck, ominous clouds approaching from the southwest, a frightful electrical storm, and a period of calm just before the tornado arrived.  Most written accounts indicate that the storm struck without warning.  In many versions, there is no mention of a funnel cloud, and in some versions there are specific words to the effect that no funnel cloud was visible from Snyder.  It is likely that the funnel cloud either was rendered invisible by darkness, or it was obscured by rain and hail ahead of it. Or perhaps it was so large that it was not recognized for what it really was.  

A release by the Associated Press included the following:

The denizens of the place had very little warning of the approaching storm.  A strong wind had been blowing all day followed in the early evening by a torrential rain and frightful electrical storm.  Between eight and nine o’clock, the storm came howling from the southwest.  At the first sound of the approaching tornado many ran to places of safety, while others, not realizing the danger, failed to secure shelter and were consigned to the mercies of the storm. [12]

The same article also included the following account from an interview with R. Pritchard, described as “one of the leading men in the stricken town”:

“The cyclone struck Snyder about nine o’clock.  It may have been a few minutes later. It came without warning.  To the best of my recollection there was a dead calm just prior to the blast of wind. When the ‘twister’ struck Snyder it seemed that the air was filled with flying timbers in an instant.  Buildings that would be considered substantial structures anywhere were torn asunder as if made of paper.

“It was all over in fifteen minutes, but it seemed to last for an age.  God alone knows what we have passed through since that time.” [12]

An article from Granite, OK (30 miles northwest of Snyder) includes the following:

The cloud that carried the tempest came up rather suddenly from the southwest yesterday evening.  It was not an unusually bad looking cloud and it is probable that there was no funnel shape formation, as had there been, it would have been visible from here.” [11]

From Hobart (25 miles north of Snyder):

For some time a dark cloud, accompanied by a constant blaze of lightning, had been gathering in the southwest, but its approach gave little or no concern to the majority of the people of [Snyder].  But all of a sudden and without a moment’s warning, the dreaded funnel shaped cloud was formed and… dropped to the earth like a gigantic balloon, and the work of death and destruction began. [13]

The Daily Oklahoman (Oklahoma City, 90 miles northeast of Snyder) contained the following description of the storm:

The storm formed south of Olustee, near the Texas line, and took a northeasterly course through a well-settled section.  At 8 o’clock it was observed by the people of Snyder but the usual funnel-shaped formation was lacking, and though the deep roar was plainly heard for some time before the storm broke, many were of the opinion that it was a hail storm.  Within a few minutes the sky became suddenly dark and a terrific downpour of rain began, lasting for several minutes, when it stopped almost as suddenly as it had commenced.  A few moments of ominous calm followed, and then the tornado struck, tearing buildings to pieces as though they were made of paper.[14]

Articles in the May and August 1905 issues of Monthly Weather Review (U. S. Weather Bureau) provide these descriptions of the storm from shortly after its inception near the Red River:

The first appearance of the tornado was that of a black cloud from which was pendant a long funnel, almost perpendicular, and widening out from its base.  To the people watching it from the front this funnel…seemed to zig-zag back and forth, apparently threatening all points of the compass to the eastward and leaving no point for escape.  To the people watching it from the towns to the northward it appeared to be approaching, and not until it passed to the eastward were their fears relieved.  At Olustee, O. T., the funnel shape was not noticeable until the tornado had passed to the eastward, it appearing as a broad band of water stretching from the earth to the cloud, and was at first thought to be a waterspout.  To the people in its front the base of the funnel seemed enveloped in a cloud of steam, pouring continuously in and upward.  Lightning was not specially noticeable until its junction with the second tornado at the mouth of Otter Creek, then it was continuous and blinding.

During its passage through Greer County the rain and hail occurred after the tornado passed, but it was both preceded and followed by rain in its passage through Kiowa County.

The noise of the tornado was heard over a radius of 12 miles from its path, and consisted of a grinding, crashing roar that was indescribable [sic].[5]

Most eyewitness accounts from Snyder suggest that the tornado struck without warning. However, a different picture emerges from the following article from Frederick (15 miles south of Snyder):

Ominous looking clouds were observed by our citizens Wednesday evening, gathering west of Snyder. It seemed to pass over that point about dark, when it was accompanied by intermittent flashes of lightning. It seemed the outside world knew more of the approach of the storm than did the unfortunate people right in the path of the cyclone.  Both from the north and south, Snyder was warned by telephone.

Farmers along the rural route heard the Snyder telephone give a scream, as the storm struck the building. This was the last heard from there. [15]

From Bessie, 45 miles north of Snyder:

The tornado approached in a manner that deceived most persons.  First came rain, then hail, then a lull, a succession not regarded as indicative of a tornado. [Note: This sequence of events is known today to be quite typical of many tornadic thunderstorms.] The lull was followed almost instantly by an appalling roar.  Snyder is almost entirely surrounded by isolated peaks of the Wichita.mountains.  The tornado came through a gap in the mountains southwest of town.  A man living seven miles west of Snyder, who watched the tornado pass his farm, says it glowed like a vast furnace while in the air, but darkened whenever it struck the earth.  The striking of the tornado was followed by a detonation louder than the thunder of many guns. [16]


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