Herald-Whig

Historical talk Monday will focus on the 1945 tornado in Palmyra

The former Crystal Palace Ballroom building in Palmyra, Mo., is pictured after it was heavily damaged in a 1945 tornado. Josh Clayton’s talk on the tornado is the latest in a series of monthly historical presentations being given as part of Palmyra’s bicentennial celebration. | Submitted Photo
By Herald-Whig
Posted: Apr. 13, 2019 7:30 pm Updated: Apr. 13, 2019 11:16 pm

PALMYRA, Mo. -- One of the darkest days in Palmyra's history could have been a lot worse if not for an amazing confluence of circumstances.

In the late afternoon of Thursday, April 12, 1945, word arrived in Palmyra that President Franklin D. Roosevelt had died during his unprecedented fourth term in office, triggering widespread grief across the nation.

But that was only the beginning of the day's bad news.

Shortly after 10 p.m., one of the fiercest tornadoes ever seen in the region touched down in Palmyra and started grinding a trail of damage through the town.

"It came in and hit the Marion County Infirmary first," said Josh Clayton, who has researched the 1945 tornado extensively.

"Just a little corner of the roof was damaged," Clayton said. "Then the tornado went farther into town, and it blew out some of the windows at the Marion County Courthouse and damaged the clock on the tower."

The tornado then skipped across Main Street and headed for a two-story building at the intersection with Main Cross Street. The Crystal Palace Ballroom occupied the second floor of that particular structure.

"It tore the whole second story off of the building, and the first story was heavily damaged, too," Clayton said.

This is where the story gets creepy.

"The Kiwanis Club was going to have a dance that night in the Crystal Palace Ballroom, but they canceled the dance because President Roosevelt died," Clayton said. "That saved about 200 to 300 lives."

Clayton, a member of the Palmyra Heritage Seekers, plans to highlight this story when he gives a talk about the 1945 Palmyra tornado at 7 p.m. Monday at Hall's Hall in the old Ben Franklin building on Main Street. The event is free and open to the public.

Clayton's talk is the latest in a series of monthly historical presentations being given this year by members of the Heritage Seekers as part of Palmyra's bicentennial celebration.

Clayton, who has a deep interest in local history, said the 1945 tornado was one of the biggest historical events ever to occur in Palmyra.

"It doesn't pass the Palmyra Massacre, but it's close," Clayton said, referring to the 1862 Civil War tragedy in which 10 civilian prisoners with Confederate leanings were executed in retaliation for the disappearance of a Union spy.

Clayton not only conducted many hours of research on the 1945 tornado. He also collected oral histories from more than 15 Palmyra area residents with memories of that fateful day, which turned numerous homes and businesses into piles of rubble.

"I talked to one lady who actually was in bed with her two sisters, and the roof just caved in on them," he said. "She was pinned in her bed by the rafters of the roof." The woman, however, was not seriously injured.

Clayton also talked with someone who told about a close call involving a baby in a crib in one of the tornado-damaged houses.

"Bricks fell in the crib, but it didn't hurt the baby," he said.

Clayton also heard a story about two World War II veterans who were on the first floor of the building housing the Crystal Palace as the tornado struck.

"The roof caved in on them, but neither one of them was hurt," Clayton said. "They said the aftermath of it reminded them of what they went through in World War II."

The tornado didn't affect just Palmyra. Several other towns in the region received severe damage as well, including the Illinois cities of Quincy, Mendon, Plymouth and Industry.

In Quincy, the tornado touched down at 10:20 p.m. at Front and Jefferson and headed northeast from there, according to Herald-Whig news archives.

Hardest hit was the area between Third and Ninth streets from Jersey to Vermont.

The west wall of St. Peter Church -- then located at Eighth and Maine -- was destroyed. The dome on the Adams County Courthouse, at Fifth and Vermont, was knocked off. More than 20 other Quincy buildings sustained major damage. Nineteen people in all were injured, but no one was killed.

According to one Herald-Whig account, Quincy's mayor, Edward Schneidman, declared a state of emergency and requested help from Gov. Dwight Green, who activated the state militia and sent nearly 175 state police officers to Quincy. Sightseers became so thick in the downtown area the next morning that "the militia had to fix bayonets to clear people from the streets," the story said.

Clayton said his talk will focus primarily on what transpired in Palmyra that memorable day.

One favorite story he heard about the 1945 tornado involved a theatrical play performed that night by seniors at Palmyra High School. As the tornado pounded its way through town, he said, "the windows blew out, and they lost power -- and they finished the play by candlelight."