Mattoon was responsible for the deaths of 121 people in the town of the same name and the destruction of 2,000 of its homes.
The Mattoon tornado of May 26, 1917, which caused 101 deaths, injured 638, and did $55 million in property damage, was one of two worst tornadoes the state ever experienced. The other of these tornados was the deadliest in the United States, the Tri-state tornado of 1925. The 1917 tornado was a powerful F4 and tore Mattoon apart, killing 101 persons, injuring 689, and leaving more than 2,000 homeless.
The business section of Mattoon experienced the worst amount of damage. The storm, traveling from east to west, devastated the entire northern half of the town, leaving no building standing in a section several blocks in width. The Mattoon tornado was the world’s longest-lasting tornado, lasting for over seven hours and traveling 293 miles, spreading death and destruction along its path from Missouri through Indiana and then to Illinois. It was also the thirteenth deadliest tornado in U.S. history. Charleston and Mattoon are vulnerable to many disasters, including tornadoes and, because of their locations in what has come to be known as tornado alley, they must always live with capricious weather.
At 7 A.M. on May 19, 1917, a trough of low pressure lay west of Illinois. The isobar of 29.60 inches enclosed an elongated area extending from western Lake Superior to eastern Kansas. The center of this area was at St. Paul. Southerly winds and mild temperatures were general in the Mississippi Valley as far north as Minnesota. By 7 P.M. the center of the low pressure area lay north of Lake Superior.
Thunderstorms had occurred over northern and central Illinois, and winds were west at Springfield and northwest in all of western Illinois. At Springfield the wind veered from southeast to southwest and later to west and northwest. It was evident that the tornado developed at the time of the wind shift. In the aftermath of the tornado, Mattoon and Charleston took up the task of recovering dead bodies, nursing the injured, and housing and feeding the homeless.