May 25, 2005 marked the 50th anniversary of the Blackwell tornado, the 11th deadliest tornado in the recorded history of Oklahoma. The following text is a brief weather summary of the events that occurred on May 25, 1955.
The day started stormy on Wednesday, May 25, 1955. Between 8:30 and 9:00 A.M., a thunderstorm produced damaging winds in Kay County where eyewitnesses estimated winds of 70-80 mph near Braman, Oklahoma. Unfortunately, this was a small taste of what the day would bring for some residents of north central Oklahoma.
These morning storms moved out of the area and weakened, but additional storms developed in the afternoon and produced a significant tornado outbreak across the Texas panhandle into Oklahoma and Kansas. The first significant tornado of the day, rated F4, developed northwest of Wellington TX and moved into western Oklahoma killing two people southwest of Cheyenne, OK. Over the next few hours, a number of tornadoes were reported over Oklahoma: near Mayfield, Kingfisher, Camargo, and Deer Creek as storms moved north-northeast across the state.
At about 6:50 pm, radar detected a new storm developing very close to Oklahoma City moving north. The storm moved north and produced the initial tornado touched down about 8 miles west of Marland around 9:00 pm. It caused some light damage as it moved almost due north into Kay County. The tornado passed to the east and northeast of Tonkawa and destroyed a few homes while the storm also produced baseball-sized hail in Tonkawa.
The tornado continued north and moved through the east side of Blackwell causing complete destruction in much of the east side of town. Nineteen people were killed in Blackwell as well as one person to the northeast of Blackwell. The tornado passed east of Braman, then turned to the north-northwest and dissipated to the southeast of South Haven, Kansas as shown in tornado track map for north central Oklahoma and south central Kansas. As this storm passed to the east of Braman, another tornado developed about 4 miles north of Peckham that moved into Kansas and eventually killed 80 people in and near Udall, KS. Both the Blackwell tornado and Udall, KS tornado were rated F5, although the Udall tornado produced minimal damage in Oklahoma.
The tornado struck Blackwell at 9:27 pm and destroyed the east side of town. Approximately 80 blocks in town were damaged or destroyed. The Blackwell Journal-Tribune newspaper conducted a building-by-building survey across the east side of town listing approximately 85 homes and buildings as "damaged, but occupied", about 70 homes and buildings as having "extensive damage, but repairable", and about 190 homes and buildings as "completely destroyed." The information from this extensive building-by-building survey was smoothed and used to create the damage intensity map of the tornado as it moved through Blackwell.
The width of “complete destruction” was likely much more extensive at the southern limits of the city as there would be little to block the force of the wind. Almost everything between "D" Street and "F" Street was completely destroyed, and over half of the fatalities in the city of Blackwell were within a block of "E" Street. Two of Blackwell's major industries (the Hazel Atlas Glass plant and the Acme Foundry) were destroyed and another was extensively damaged. The Riverside Osteopathic Hospital on East College Street suffered extensive damage and “doctors there labored for hours under candle light and flashlight and didn’t quit until they were certain that all patients were in position to be moved to another hospital,” according to the Blackwell Journal-Tribune. A large number of police officers were already in the area that evening attending a meeting of the Northern Oklahoma Southern Kansas Peace Officers Association that evening.
To make matters worse, heavy rain that continued after the tornado hampered rescue work that evening and caused the Chickaskia River to flow out of its banks into some low sections of towns the following day. And four other tornadoes were reported in Kay and Grant Counties on the evening of May 27, just two days after the Blackwell disaster. Fortunately, this time these weak tornadoes stayed to the north of Blackwell and caused no injuries. When the warnings were sounded about this storm, “it was not necessary to tell people twice to get to a cellar” according to the newspaper account.
One eyewitness in Blackwell had an interesting visual observation of the tornado. Floyd Montgomery lived nine blocks west of the main path of the tornado and submitted his account to Weatherwise magazine in June 1956. Mr. Montgomery describes as he looked to the east from the door of his storm cellar as the tornado moved through Blackwell. He described a “fire up near the top of the funnel looked like a child’s Fourth of July pin wheel. The light was so intense I had to look away.” He describes the light as the “same color as an electric arc welder but much brighter, and it seemed to be turning to the right like a beacon lamp on a light house.”