The main locations hit in the course of the three-state rampage were Ellington, Missouri, southern Illinois, and Princeton, Indiana.
Widely considered the most devastating and powerful tornado in American history, the Tri-State tornado ripped through Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana on March 18, 1925. In its 219-mile-long wake this tornado left four completely destroyed towns, six severely damaged ones, about 15,000 destroyed homes, and 2,000 injured.
Most significantly, 695 people were killed, a record for a single tornado. It left a legacy that is evidenced by ghost towns, lost ancestors, and stories passed from generation to generation. It all began during an afternoon thunderstorm near Ellington in southeast Missouri. From there it crossed the Mississippi River about seventy-five miles southeast of St. Louis and then followed a northeast course as it plowed through southern Illinois and southwestern Indiana.
This tornado from southeastern Missouri was indeed the deadliest tornado in U.S. history, twice as deadly as the second deadliest, the 1840 Great Natchez Tornado. The track left by the tornado was the longest ever recorded in the world. Historians would recognize it as an example of the F5 on the Saffir-Simpson Scale. It formed part of a series of tornadoes that broke out in the spring of 1925—there were tornadoes at that time in Tennessee, Kentucky, and Indiana.
In all, at least 747 were killed and 2,298 were injured during this outbreak. The Tri-State exacted its greatest toll on southern Illinois where it reached speeds of 60 mph. Although this part of its journey was over rural land, it tended to follow a string of railroads, placing several towns in its path. Thus 540 people died in southern Illinois in the following towns: Gorham, 37; Murphysboro, 234; DeSoto, 69; West Frankfort, 148. In addition, fifty-two people died on farms and small settlements within southern Illinois.
The vortex was first sighted in northwest Ellington, Missouri. It sped from there to the northeast, killing two and causing extensive damage as it passed through several smaller towns, killing eleven and injuring thirty-two in these places. The tornado crossed the Mississippi River into southern Illinois. It was there that the greatest number of deaths were registered, 613, the most ever for a tornado in a single state. Crossing the Wabash River into Indiana, the tornado struck and nearly demolished Griffin, devastated rural areas, impacted Owensville, then roared into Princeton, destroying half the town.
It traveled ten more miles to the northeast before finally dissipating three miles southwest of Petersburg. The tornado’s unusual appearance, that of a rolling fog, caught many people by surprise and preventing them sensing the danger in time. Additionally, there were downburst winds that widened the damage caused. In summary, over 15,000 homes were destroyed and damages added up to $16.5 million.