By Ken Zurski
The town of Red Bud, Illinois sits in northwest Randolph County on the far southwestern part of the state along Illinois State Route 3, a scenic byway that’s part of the Great River Road, a long designated drive that follows the banks of the Mississippi River from Minnesota south to the Gulf of Mexico. Due to practically, it seems, the River Road branches off the Mississippi banks just south of St. Louis. Then it extends eastward for about a 100 miles before looping back to join the river’s shoreline again in Chester, Illinois.
Basically, where Illinois’ protruding belly – its western border – bottoms out near the southern tip of the state, the River Road is associated with the river in name only.
Red Bud is in the middle of this inland path, about 30 miles east of the river. So comparative to the more picturesque Mississippi shore, the deviated route that passes through Red Bud is pastoral enough, but nothing special. In fact, on an official site map for the Great River Road and its attractions, among the hundreds of interesting places to visit, Red Bud is not listed as one of them.
Those who live there, however, would say otherwise.
Red Bud’s history reads like many other cities of its size and location. A rouge pioneer happens upon the land and builds a log cabin. He begins to farm and prosper and soon other settlers are coming for similar reasons. A school is built along with several businesses. In 1847, the first public lots are sold. Homes are constructed and on each landowners plot there’s a distinctive feature, a colorful tree, known as a redbud. The stout tree, with its distinctive pink and red leaves that bloom during the spring before turning green in the summer, is what the town is named after.
In 1867, Red Bud was chartered.
In 1875 it officially became a city.
Less than 20 years later, in 1892, it was nearly wiped off the map.
The date was November 17.
It was 3:30 in the morning when the distant rumbling of thunder awakened the less hardy of sleepers. Then streaks of lightening were followed by an awful rush of wind. Suddenly, timbers began cracking in succession and flew like sharpened arrows in all directions. Horses neighed in terror.
Townspeople, already frightened by the sickening sounds of rushing wind and startled animals, huddled inside their homes and watched in horror as their roofs and walls blew out. They held on for dear life as everything around them was swept up by the mighty wind.
Then in a whoosh it was gone, followed by an eerie silence.
At first light, the devastation was apparent. “Where Wednesday night stood a beautiful city, full of happy homes,” the Rolla New Missouri would later report, “there is to-day a scene of wreck and desolation. Houses, barns, fences and orchards are leveled to the earth and spread over the surrounding country. The scene is difficult to describe. The streets when lit up the first streaks of dawn presented a pitiable scene of ruin.”
The search for survivors commenced at dawn. “The streets were blocked with the debris of the storm’s wreck and for some time it was impossible to get an accurate list of the sufferers of the terrible visitation.” the paper read. One thing however was painfully clear. “The number of houses wrecked by the storm is fairly complete.”
What the searchers found, however, was surprising.
While just the loss of one person’s life constitutes a tragedy, the number of dead was far less than expected. A woman referred to in the papers as Mrs. Jacob Koch and her 11-year-old son were so badly injured, went the report, “they will likely die.” Sadly they did. But they were the only two casualties. While many were injured, and some may have later succumbed to their injuries, the mother and child were listed as the only victims of the “terrible twister.”
Most of the other residents, however, while fortunate to survive, were left homeless. Describing one structure as “handsome and solid” before the storm, the paper remarked: “[The residence] was crumbled to a shapeless mass as though it had been a toy house, with scarcely one stone standing above another over the foundation. The destruction was complete.”
Eighty-four buildings in all were destroyed leaving a town not just in utter destruction, but “utter desolation,” the papers reported.
The town’s rebirth is also a remarkable story. In the months and years that followed, the people of Red Bud banded together and rebuilt their homes and their lives. Even the beautiful redbud trees, the ones lost in the raging cyclone, were replaced.
Red Bud literally regrew.
More than 120 years later, in 2013, on the same date, November 17, during a seasonally warm Sunday morning, a tornado ripped through the town of Washington, Illinois, in the central part of the state. While sirens wailed and warned those it was coming, where it would end up and how powerful it would be could only be answered after the twister had cut a destructive path through a tightly packed neighborhood. “Utter destruction,” was a term used again to describe the widespread damage. Large lumber piles sat where mid-sized homes once stood.
The story of the Washington tornado, like Red Bud’s, is a tragic one. A man was killed in the storm and several more later died from injuries.
We know the Washington story well. In the modern day era of social media, instant messaging, and uploaded videos, almost everyone could share in some sense at least, the terror of those few horrifying minutes when the twister barreled through. And like Redbud a century-and-a-quarter ago. Washington’s spirit lives on. Despite the heartbreaking losses, residents rebuilt homes and got on with their lives.
Today, Red Bud does not commemorate the deadly tornado of 1892. It’s just too far removed. But it’s still listed in Illinois history books as one of the most damaging in the state’s history. There are others that have been more deadly, but in comparison to time, and in terms of destruction, it was devastating.
Perhaps what did not change after all these years are the twisters themselves; menacing in size and fury, unsuspecting and weirdly confusing. “Some of the freaks of the storm were marvelous,” the papers described in 1892. “Here a house was literally lifted from the ground and scarce a vestige of it left, while a neighboring residence seemed to have escaped with comparatively little injury.” That report from Red Bud, could have been also been written about Washington. In both cases, in freakish instances, a home on one side of the street was completely leveled while a structure on the other side was left unscathed.
Today, we may be better informed and better prepared when a tornado suddenly strikes, but we are still humbled, awed and shocked by its size, strength and impact. Nature, as it turns out, has no diminishing gain. Not even time can change that.
In Illinois, Red Bud and Washington didn’t pick the date, November 17, but the two are forever linked by that day, over a century apart, when a tornado came to their respective towns and changed lives forever.