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Author Lee Sandlin On The History Of Tornado Chasing

Frank Blau Photography

This is the time of year when we begin to worry about severe weather. From thunderstorms to hail, high winds to tornados, we get more than our share. 

Tornados have been a source of fascination to author Lee Sandlin since he was a kid growing up in the Midwest.  He’s spent a long time studying them and their history and has determined that the tornado is largely responsible for the science of meteorology as we know it today.  It’s all recounted in his book Storm Kings: America’s First Tornado Chasers.

Benjamin Franklin: The First Tornado Chaser

“When people first started settling in the Midwest, they really had no idea what tornados were. And it was only in the 18th century that people had any serious suspicion that … there was any reality to them at all,” said Sandlin. “They knew about water spouts…but something like that forming over land was a new idea.”

Most people shied away from the frightening phenomenon, but not Benjamin Franklin. According to Sandlin, Franklin is the first documented tornado chaser.

“He and some friends of his were traveling through the Maryland countryside when a small tornado formed in a valley along the road that they were traveling, and according to his letters, everybody else in the party reared back in terror at this strange apparition, and he was so fascinated by it that he went chasing after it on horseback,” said Sandlin.

Franklin was also the first to posit the idea that tornados were made of columns of air, not water.

“The Finger of God”

In the 19th century, tornados were often seen as a manifestation of the wrath of God, and commonly described as the “finger of God.” One tornado in particular earned that moniker when it swept up a fire and cut a swath through a Wisconsin forest. Coincidentally, the tornado struck on the same day in 1871 as Chicago’s Great Fire.

“There was a huge drought over the entire Great Lakes, and a major forest fire broke out in Wisconsin. And at the heart of this fire, an extraordinary tornado appears to have formed,” said Sandlin. “A lot of the survivors had permanent damage to their eyes because even in the midst of the fire, they couldn’t look away.”

James Espy, Father of Meteorology

Due to a scarcity of eye-witness accounts from scientists, it took a while before tornados were accepted as real, and even longer before scientists came to a consensus on how they were formed.

While he doesn’t get much credit today, Sandlin cites James Espy as the father of meteorology, in part because he was the first to theorize that tornados were caused by the convergence of hot and cold air, known as convection.

“He had grasped a fundamental, essential truth about tornados and in fact about the process of meteorology generally, which is the importance of rising air currents,” said Sandlin. “He understood that the tornado was a product of convection, which he was exactly right about and the idea is still at the core of modern meteorology. But he also thought that it was impossible that tornados rotated.”

In addition to his insistence that eye-witness accounts of rotating tornados were false, Espy’s “theatrical sort of personality” added further damage to his reputation.

“He turned himself into a celebrity. And that really kind of hurt his career,” said Espy.

St. Louis Tornados

“Whenever I’m in St. Louis, one of the things people ask me is …did the Native Americans have any useful information about tornados? And the Native Americans told the white settlers to build their housing at the junction of rivers because tornados don’t cross water,” said Sandlin.

But, that advice didn’t prove to be entirely accurate. As Sandlin pointed out, St. Louis is at the confluence of the Missouri and the Mississippi and yet it gets quite a few tornados, several of which have crossed the Mississippi into Illinois.

One tornado that struck the heart of St. Louis before crossing over into East St. Louis killed 255 people in 1896. The Tri-State Tornado of 1925 also crossed the Mississippi, starting in Missouri before moving through Illinois and into Indiana.

St. Louis on the Air provides discussion about issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh.

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Don Marsh served as host of St. Louis Public Radio’s “St. Louis on the Air" from 2005 to 2019, bringing discussions of significant topics to listeners' ears at noon Monday through Friday. Don has been an active journalist for 58 years in print, radio and television. He has won 12 Regional Emmy Awards for writing, reporting, and producing. He is the recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, was inducted into the St. Louis Media Hall of Fame in 2013, and named “Media Person of the Year” by the St. Louis Press Club in 2015. He has published three books: his most recent, “Coming of Age, Liver Spots and All: A Humorous Look at the Wonders of Getting Old,” “Flash Frames: Journey of a Journeyman Journalist” and “How to be Rude (Politely).” He holds an honorary Doctor of Arts and Letters degree from the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
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