Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Weather Beaten: The Hebron-Kouts Tornado of 1917

Numerous natural disasters have had an impact on Porter County. The tornado of May 26, 1917, however, was especially devastating given the magnitude of damage, deaths, and injuries sustained by county residents.

This particular Porter County tornado was part of a complex of tornadoes that were spawned by a low pressure system that strengthened as it was situated between Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and Sioux City, Iowa, on Friday, May 25. The system was able to draw an enormous amount of moist air from the south, which rapidly increased the atmospheric instability within the entire midsection of the United States.

The forecast issued United States Department of Agriculture's Weather Bureau called for the development of thunderstorms on May 25, with afternoon thunderstorms developing again the following day.

Tornadic activity associated with this weather system began on May 25, when a tornado struck the town of Andale, Sedgwick County, Kansas. This community was completely destroyed, resulting in 26 dead and over 60 injuries. Other tornadoes from this weather system struck the states of Alabama (12 dead), Arkansas (9 dead, 12 injured), Illinois (128 dead, 750+ injured), Indiana (75 dead, 200+ injured), Kentucky (50 dead, 47 injured), and Tennessee (6 dead, 53 injured).

As demonstrated by the casualties, Illinois was especially hard hit by the storm system. In particular, the Mattoon-Charleston tornado complex was quite destructive. Shortly before 12:00 pm on Saturday, May 26, a tornado touched down near Pleasant Hill, Pike County, Illinois, just east of the Mississippi River. By noon, the tornado, traveling nearly due east, had struck Nebo, also located in Pike County. One hour later, at about 1:00 pm, the tornado struck White Hall in Greene County, and at 1:30 it hit Modesto in Macoupin County. By 2:20 pm the tornado had lumbered its way to Owaneco in Christian County. At 2:50 pm, the tornado reached Westervelt in Shelby County, still traveling nearly due east.

The greatest damage and loss of life occurred when this tornado entered Coles County. At 3:30 pm, the northern portion of the community of Mattoon was essentially destroyed. A total 496 homes were leveled and 134 were seriously damaged; 2,500 people were left homeless. A total of 53 individuals were killed in Mattoon and 409 were injured. The tornado was not yet finished with its work. Fifteen minutes after Mattoon was hit, the town of Charleston met with destruction as 38 individuals were killed and 182 were injured. More than 220 homes were destroyed here and 265 were seriously damaged. Total insured losses in Mattoon and Charleston alone were staggering - $1,981,000 (approximately $37 million in 2016).

Approximate tracks of the May-June tornado outbreak of 1917.
Collectively, these tornadoes resulted in 360 deaths
and property
losses exceeding $10.2 million (equivalent to $191 million in 2016).
Source: Frankenfield in Monthly Weather Review, 1917, p. 292.

Study of the Mattoon-Charleston tornado soon after it wreaked its havoc suggested that it began a few miles east of the Mississippi River. It was also revealed that there were likely four to eight separate tornadoes associated with this particular tornado complex.

Together, these tornadoes covered a distance of 293 miles over a seven hours, traveling almost due east. Estimates indicate that the tornado that struck Mattoon and Charleston was of F4 intensity on the Fujita scale (207 to 260 mph winds).

The tornado complex that struck Porter County, Indiana, began at approximately 3:10 pm on Saturday, May 26, in the vicinity of Mendota, LaSalle County, Illinois - twenty minutes before Mattoon would be devastated by another tornado complex. This particular storm system slowly moved eastward across Kendall and Will Counties and then crossed over into the southern portion of Lake County, Indiana, traveling the path of the Kankakee River.

Near Shelby, Indiana, located along the Kankakee River, the tornado turned slightly northeast and headed toward Hebron in Porter County where it struck the northern portion of that community. The tornado then continued its slightly northeasterly route and caused considerable destruction at Kouts before it dissipated east of the village at 5:56 pm. 

Between Hebron and Kouts, numerous homes and farm structures were leveled. The Chicago
& Erie Railroad's coal dock and water tower located adjacent to Sandy Hook Ditch in Section 2 of Boone Township (between Boone Grove and Kouts) were also completely destroyed.

Collage of headlines concerning tornadoes in Illinois and Indiana on May 26, 1917.

The Hebron-Kouts tornado had traveled a total of 110 miles over a period of 2 hours and 46 minutes. Measurement of the width of the tornado's destruction was astonishing, varying from a minimum of one-half mile to three miles wide. Meteorologist J. H. Armington, in his monthly report (May 1917) for the Indiana Section of the United States Department of Agriculture's Weather Bureau, wrote that:
The storms of the 26th were exceptionally severe, and in at least two instances were tornadic in character.... The second tornado also entered the State from the west, moving in an easterly direction across the southern parts of Lake and Porter counties. This storm was most destructive in Porter County, where the property loss approximated $500,000. Several people were killed and almost one hundred injured. In addition to the destruction wrought by wind there was additional and probably greater damage over a larger area caused by torrential rains and exceptionally severe hailstorms. It is reliably reported that in some localities hailstones from 6 to 10 inches in circumference [equivalent to 1.9" to 3.2" diameter] and a half pound in weight fell thickly, breaking branches and small limbs of trees and doing much injury to fruit and crops. 
George W. Gidley, of Hebron, was the first to bring the news of the tornado in southern Porter County to Valparaiso. Gidley's garage was sucked off its foundation, but the automobile remained parked. Gidley cranked the vehicle and packed his family into it and, with great haste, rushed to Valparaiso in search of medical aid for his neighbors. Soon after Gidley arrived at the county seat, several other vehicles began arriving in the city bringing news of the disaster.

Postcard image of May 26, 1917, tornado destruction.
The wreckage visible in the background of this photograph is believed
to have been the Joseph T. Cannon home in Kouts.

Source: Collection of Steven R. Shook.

All available physicians and ambulances in Valparaiso were soon dispatched to either Kouts or Hebron to render aid. Hundreds of citizens from the county also traveled to the area of destruction to assist in rescue and clean up efforts. The Hebron town hall was converted into a makeshift hospital where physicians cared for the injured. Others injured by the effects of the tornado were rushed to the Christian Hospital in Valparaiso, which was located directly across the street from the present day Valparaiso Branch of the Porter County Library. Those injured in close vicinity of Kouts were taken to the Kouts home of Dr. Samuel Edward Dittmer.

Postcard image of home destroyed in Hebron,
Indiana, by the May 26, 1917, tornado.
Source: Collection of Steven R. Shook.

Postcard image of a street scene in Hebron,
Indiana, after the May 26, 1917, tornado.

Source: Collection of Steven R. Shook

Timber standing in the path of the tornado was reportedly "sown like chaff." Tornadic winds demolished a boxcar located on the Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Chicago & St. Louis Railway (Pan Handle Railroad) at Hebron housing twelve African Americans employed by the railroad who had sought shelter there from the storm. Ten other boxcars were also overturned and then caught fire and were destroyed.

Kouts was reported to be "wiped out" by the
tornado according to an early Associated Press bulletin.
Source: South Bend News-Times, May 27, 1917.

One column from the Valparaiso newspaper, The Vidette-Messenger, reported on the theft and vandalism taking place immediately following the disaster. The column states that "Vandalism was one of the things with which the Hebron people had not reckoned. Before Saturday night was over the parasites were busy. From homes left without protection they took valuables and escaped detection."

A large portion of the business section of Kouts was spared from the effects of the tornado, but two churches, a grain elevator, a creamery, and at least twelve residences were completely destroyed. Many other farm houses and barns near Kouts were blown away.

Postcard image of farmstead near Kouts,
Indiana, after the May 26, 1917, tornado.

Source: Collection of Steven R. Shook

Postcard image destroyed farm buildings and damaged
home near Kouts
, Indiana, after the May 26, 1917, tornado.
Source: Collection of Steven R. Shook

The following day, a Sunday, hundreds of people volunteered in Hebron and Kouts to bring about some order to the communities. Fallen trees were chopped up and cleared from the streets and county roads and debris was stacked in heaps and later hauled away or disposed of by fire. Many dead cattle were retrieved, and animals found crippled by the storm were shot.

Lineman for telegraph and telephone companies soon arrived to repair damage. The Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Chicago & St. Louis Railway (Pan Handle Railroad) also sent a special train to the area bearing officials that were on a tour of inspection of damage to railroad property.

Postcard image of uprooted tree resulting from
the May 26, 1917, Hebron-Kouts tornado.
Source: Collection of Steven R. Shook.

The May 28, 1917, edition of The Indianapolis News contained the following details concerning the path of the tornado and details of its destructive power:
According to accounts of survivors, the storm cloud seemed to strike the ground a short distance west of Hebron and swept away the buildings on several farms, after destroying the entire west side of Hebron. To all appearances the storm lifted and descended again on the opposite side of the business district, which was thus spared. After coming down again the tornado shattered the big grain elevator, unroofed the Hotel Gordon, and then swept due east to Kouts, ruining every farm building in its path of from a mile to a mile and a half wide.

Thirty buildings in Kouts were wholly or partially wrecked, including several churches, a big elevator, and a creamery.

All along the path of the storm frame buildings were tossed about and some carried into the air. Hundreds of cattle and thousands of chickens were killed. Wires were blown down and there was no direct communication with the devastated district. The tornado left the roads in almost impassable condition for autos and other vehicles.
Postcard image of the demolished Kouts Creamery
resulting from the May 26, 1917, tornado.
Source: Collection of Steven R. Shook.

Below is an enumeration of individuals killed as a result of the Hebron-Kouts tornado:
  • C. J. Bessecker, New York City, cook for railroad crew, African American, died of as a result of injuries sustained from tornado at Hebron. Burial location unknown.
  • Fairy P. "Julia" Lane, age 15, Kouts, instantly killed when struck by a falling tree. Death certificate indicates that Julia was interred in a cemetery at Morocco, Newton County, Indiana.
  • Leslie Maurice Kenney, age 13, Hebron, beheaded by a flying timber, son of Robert S. and Christine J. Kenney. Buried in Hebron Cemetery.
  • Ephriam Burrell "Burly" Pratt, age 54, Hebron, crushed beneath the debris of the Gridley Elevator, died at 11:00 pm on Tuesday, May 29, 1917, due to injuries sustained by tornado. The elevator was located at the northeast corner of present day Madison Street and McAlpin Street. Buried in Hebron Cemetery.
  • Daniel Benton Resh, Kouts, age 70, killed when home was completely destroyed by tornado, recovered underneath debris, interred at Independence Cemetery in Pennsylvania.

Individuals seriously injured by the Hebron-Kouts tornado included:

Other individuals that were injured as a result of the Hebron-Kouts tornado included:

Coincidentally, the Porter County chapter of the American Red Cross was founded on April 26, 1917, exactly one month prior to the tornado striking the southern portion of the county. The United States had officially entered the Great War on April 6, thus leading to the creation of hundreds of Red Cross chapters throughout the country. The Porter County chapter of the Red Cross was soon to find a purpose closer to home. More than $2,000 was raised by the organization through local efforts, and another $4,500 was appropriated to the Porter County chapter by the national headquarters. The $6,500 was used as a contingency relief fund and assisted forty Porter County families directly impacted by the Hebron-Kouts tornado.

Postcard image of Christian Hospital in Valparaiso where many of the
injured from the tornado were taken for medical care. This hospital
was located on East Jefferson Street between Franklin Street and Michigan
Avenue (across the street from the Valparaiso Branch of the Porter County
Public Library)
. Today the site is a parking lot for a law firm and Chase Bank.
Source: Collection of Steven R. Shook.

Postcard image of the Hebron town hall, which was turned into a
makeshift hospital to treat individuals injured by the May 26, 1917,
tornado. This structure seen here was located on the south side of
Sigler Street, east of Main Street, where the present day Hebron
Police Department is now located.
Source: Collection of Steven R. Shook.

Eighteen years later, on Tuesday, May 28, 1935, another tornado struck the Hebron-Kouts area, following nearly the identical path as the 1917 twister. The 1935 tornado resulted in no death or injuries, however, though it did "unroof buildings, uprooted trees, broke window panes and large plate glass windows, leveled telephone poles, tore away awnings and fences from their fastenings, overturned small outbuildings and wreaked havoc in general."

Postcard view of the Hollandsworth farm, destroyed
by the Hebron-Kouts tornado on May 26, 1917.
Source: Collection of Steven R. Shook.

The St. Mary's Catholic Church in Kouts, which had been completely destroyed by the 1917 tornado, survived the 1935 tornado though churchyard trees were uprooted and windows were broken.

Postcard image of St. Mary's Catholic Church in Kouts, Indiana,
prior to its destruction by the May 26, 1917, tornado.
Source: Collection of Steven R. Shook.

Postcard image of St. Mary's Catholic Church in Kouts, Indiana,
after being flattened by the
May 26, 1917, tornado.
Source: Collection of Steven R. Shook.

Source Material

American Red Cross. 1917. The Work of the American Red Cross: Report by the War Council of Appropriations and Activities from Outbreak of War to November 1, 1917. Washington, D.C.: American Red Cross. 144 p. [see pp. 63-64]

Carey, J. P. 1917. The Central Illinois Tornado of May 26, 1917. Geographical Review 4(2):122-130.

Frankenfield, H. C. 1917. The Tornadoes and Windstorms of May 25-June 6, 1917. Monthly Weather Review 45(6):291-298.

Armington, J. H. 1917. U. S. Department of Agriculture, Weather Bureau, Indiana Section. Climatological Data 22(5):35.

Root, Clarence J. 1917. U. S. Department of Agriculture, Weather Bureau, Illinois Section. Climatological Data 21(5):35 and 40.

Newspapers (listed by date of publication)
South Bend News-Times, South Bend, St. Joseph County, Indiana; May 27, 1917; Volume 34, Number 147, Page 1, Column 6. Column titled "Kouts Wiped Out."

The Chicago Daily Tribune, Chicago, Cook County, Indiana; May 28, 1917; Volume 76, Number 127, Page 2, Column 3. Column titled "Five are Dead in Indiana Towns; $2,000,000 Loss."

The Daily Pantagraph, Bloomington, McLean County, Illinois; May 28, 1917; Volume 71, Number 127, Page 1, Columns 3-4. Column titled "Seven Killed in Indiana. Hebron and Kouts are Badly Damaged by Wind and Scores of Farm Building are Demolished."

The Fort Wayne News, Fort Wayne, Allen County, Indiana; May 28, 1917; Volume 43, Page 1, Column 7 and Page 14, Column 5. Column titled "Storms Take Toll in Life. Many Persons Killed and Injured in Big Blows of Saturday."

The Indianapolis News, Indianapolis, Marion County, Indiana; May 28, 1917; Volume 48, Number 148, Page 1, Column 4 and Page 3, Column 4. Column titled "Hebron and Kouts Hit By Tornado."

The Indianapolis News, Indianapolis, Marion County, Indiana; May 28, 1917; Volume 48, Number 148, Page 18, Column 6. Column titled "In Northern Indiana."

The Indianapolis Star, Indianapolis, Marion County, Indiana; May 28, 1917; Volume 14, Number 357, Page 1, Column 7 and Page 10, Column 5. Column titled "Tail of Tornado Damages Northern Indiana; 7 Killed."

Logansport Pharos-Reporter, Logansport, Cass County, Indiana; May 28, 1917; Volume 42, Number 167, Page 1, Columns 1-2. Column titled "Death Total May Research 300 in Tornadoes. Heavy Property Damage Done."

South Bend News-Times, South Bend, Marion County, Indiana; May 28, 1917; Volume 34, Number 148, Page 3, Column 4. Column titled "Hebron and Kouts Hit By Tornado; Five Known Dead."

The Fort Wayne News. Fort Wayne, Allen County, Indiana; May 29, 1917; Volume 43, Page 2, Column 3. Column titled "Hoosier Cyclone Victims."

Logansport Pharos-Reporter, Logansport, Cass County, Indiana; May 30, 1917; Volume 42, Number 169, Page 5, Column 4. Column titled "Children of Pennsy Man Hurt in Cyclone."

The Argos Reflector, Argos, Marshall County, Indiana; May 31, 1917; Volume 36, Number 45, Page 1, Column 1-2. Column titled "Hebron and Kouts Hit by Tornado."

Cook County Herald, Arlington Heights, Cook County, Illinois; June 1, 1917; Volume 45, Number 34, Page 6, Columns 3-4. Column titled "255 Die When Tornadoes Hit Eight States."

The Vidette-Messenger, Valparaiso, Porter County, Indiana; May 26, 1932; Volume 5, Page 1, Column 1. Column titled "South County Section Hard Hit by Blast. Four Lives Were Lost and Many Seriously Injured, While Property Damage was Heavy Over Area."

The Vidette-Messenger, Valparaiso, Porter County, Indiana; May 29, 1935; Volume 8, Page 1, Column 8 and Page 2, Column 6. Column titled "Kouts Damaged by Tornado. Trees Felled, Many Windows are Shattered."

The Times, Munster, Lake County, Indiana; November 14, 2014; Column titled "George Wilcox Diary Entry No. 3" by John Hodson.

© 2016 Steven R. Shook. All Rights Reserved.


  1. Great article! I recently spent a little time with my uncle in Valparaiso. He showed me a photo of his grandparents, Lawrence and Kate (Marquart) Casbon, along with their 3 sons Leslie, Lynett, and Loring - the boys all seated on one horse. Their house was in the background. My uncle told me they lived near Hebron, and the house was destroyed in a tornado after they had moved out. I wonder if it was the same tornado? I'll have to look in some old directories and census reports to figure out where they were living at the time.

  2. Nice Job Steve. Great historical information.