On the evening of March 24, 1913, the world lost contact with Omaha, Nebraska. A regional storm sparked a tornado without warning. Omaha residents were unprepared: people thought Omaha was, “tornado proof on account of its barricade of surrounding hills.” Strong winds downed telephone and telegraph poles fell across streets and onto houses. The tornado tore houses apart during its four minutes on the ground. One after the other, houses burst into flames as stoves turned over. Reports slowly came out about the tornado that hit Omaha.
Contacted by Omaha Mayor James Dahlman at 12:30 a.m., John H. Morehead, Nebraska Governor from 1913-1917, left for Omaha from Lincoln, Nebraska, arriving at 3:45 a.m. Known as a progressive democrat who grew up on a farm, he was hands on. Activating five companies of the National Guard, he hoped that Omaha officials exaggerated damage reports. At sunrise, damage became visible. Morehead, along with others, brought relief to the city.
Upon arrival, Dalman briefed Morehead on the storm. Sunday, March 23, 1913, began as a cold, cloudy day. Around 5:30 pm, a tornado struck Ralston. At 5:45 p.m., dark funnel clouds touched down around 55th and Center Street, sweeping through Westlawn Cemetery. It went Northeast to 24th and Lake and then, to Carter Lake. It passed out of Omaha into Iowa by crossing the Missouri River. The path was 500 feet or ¼ mile wide, and seven miles long. After the rain, it began to snow after midnight. The total damage was $5 million, with only $500,000 covered by insurance.
Governor Morehead left the Paxton Hotel, where the he was staying, to examine the devastated areas in an automobile motorcade around 6:00 a.m. on March 24, 1913. Dahlman, Henry Dunn, chief of police, and Dan Butler, city commissioner accompanied him along with newspaper representatives. As the cars went down Fortieth Street, soldiers had to clear the roadway of debris. In many places, it was easier to walk. He saw houses off foundations and others ripped apart.
The governor walked down Twenty-Fourth Street, stepping over telephone and telegraph poles. He went to North Omaha near 24th and Lake where the most destruction took place at the Diamond Movie Theater and Idelwild Pool Hall. In both places, people took refuge from the rain and hail deluge to wait out the storm. At the Diamond, many people escaped from the movie after hearing the tornado while others huddled beneath the seats built below the street surface. During the storm, falling bricks filled the room, making it even with the street. Rescuers took five bodies out of the theatre.
The greatest loss of life was at the Idlewild located across the street from the Diamond. Thirteen people died under brick and timber in the basement when the roof collapsed, the walls blew out, and the basement filled with water. Many were playing pool; others took refuge from the rain. Abner Thomas, Idlewild’s first chef, died with a pair of dice in his hands. Recovery teams pulled only one survivor from the wreckage. The undertaker took the dead to Obee Mortuary’s undertaking parlor at 2518 Lake Street.
Diamond Theater, 2410 Lake Street, DCHS Postcard Collection
Many became homeless. The governor went into wrecked houses to console the grieving. Death and destruction lay in his path. He said that, “It was a pitiful sight to see people wandering around apparently dazed, while dead bodies and crippled people were being taken from the ruins.” He inspected the wreckage and brought solace to people because they knew he would get them government aid to recover. Morehead called for emergency relief appropriation of $25,000 by the state legislature. Relief stations opened across the area to help tornado victims. The relief committee housed and fed 100 refugees at the auditorium on March 27, 1913.
People were “dry-eyed-too shocked to give utterance to their grief.” Many funeral homes closed their doors to everyone except the dead’s relatives as many stood on sidewalks in front of morgues looking for missing kinsfolks. Bereaved people talked to undertakers about the dead, pleading, “Can we see the dead ones.” Telegraph messages received at the Omaha office of the telegraph companies from relatives outside of Omaha were impossible to deliver messages by carrier.
One of the few standing buildings in the area was the Telephone Exchange where 25 telephone operators remained on duty and the place became a temporary hospital.The windows shattered, and many operators had cuts on their hands and faces. People took refuge from the storm, and the injured came for treatment. People placed the dead in caskets adjacent to the building.
“I can’t stand anymore; let’s go back to the hotel,” said the Governor. “I have seen more destruction this morning than I believed possible.” At the Paxton Hotel, he said, “This is enough like my conception of hell to suit me!” He soon went back to Lincoln to push for aid. The Legislature authorized $100,000 along with $40,000 contributed nationally. Within a day, Omaha stoically began to clean up debris and rebuild homes in between funerals. Within 100 days, people rebuilt or repaired destroyed homes. One year later, no signs that a tornado occurred, but scars remained.
Nebraska Governor John H. Morehead surveyed Omaha’s tornado damage, and pushed relief aid through the legislature. On his trip to Omaha, He saw damaged houses and damaged people. The people of Omaha came together in sheer determination to rebuild what looked to be the unbuildable. Officials updated death and property loss numbers as the weeks trudged on. The tornado wiped away only the vestiges of the city, but not the city itself. This shows the unshakable spirit of Nebraskans.
Governor John H. Morehead, Library of Congress.
Tornado of 1913 Taught Us a Lesson, (2003, March 22), Retrieved from Omaha World Herald, pg. 1b
A Promising Candidate, (1912, January 4), Retrieved from Red Cloud Chief, pg. 5
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James McKee, (1996, June 11), 1913 Tornado in Omaha was Nation’s Worst, Retrieved from Lincoln Journal Star, pg. 20
Starting to Rebuild the Diamond Theatre, (1913, April 15), Retrieved from Omaha World-Herald, pg. 1
Ten Bodies Are Removed from the North side Idlewild Pool Hall, (1913, March 25), Retrieved from Omaha Daily Bee, pg. 3
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