1958 Tornado victims remembered

Deanna Bonn; Butler County
A small gathering of members from the A small gathering of members from the El Dorado Rotary Club paid tribute to the 13 lives lost in the tornado on June 10, 1958.

At 5:45 p.m. on June 10, 2020, the exact moment a tornado struck south and southwest El Dorado on that same day in 1958, tornado sirens could be heard all across El Dorado as a small gathering of members from the El Dorado Rotary Club paid tribute to the 13 lives lost.

The backward, or wrong way, tornado as it was called, killed 13 people, injured more than 80 others and resulted in damages of nearly $3 million.

The annual ceremony was streamed live this year, over the Rotary club’s Facebook page as gatherings are still limited due to the Coronavirus pandemic.

The memorial, a project of the Rotary Club and spearheaded by Steve Pershall, was erected twelve years ago in 2008, during the 50th anniversary.

Thirteen pillars, some with plaques, commemorate the historic event that changed the course of the neighborhood that now houses the memorial located at Graham Park, 1600 Edgemoor.

According to John Prigmore, founder of Gravity::Works, the company that designed the memorial, “the intent was to mimic the lines of a tornado.” It has been said that the design also represents the community whose spirit was bent but not broken.

At its pinnacle, is a wind harp fitted with thirteen strings - one for each life lost that day. The wind harp was designed by artist Ross Barrable of Pagosa Springs, Colorado, and can be heard singing when wind blows through its strings.

During the ceremony Prigmore, hit a bell as Dave Stewart read the names of each victim.

William Cantrell Minnie Cantrell William Welty James Kirby Howell Phillips Elanor Phillips John Phillips Bessie Diaz Arthur Sharping John Jenkins Mary Jenkins Roberta Daniels John Daniels

According to the Climatological Data National Summary, a Tornado formed in clouds and almost immediately hit ground 7 miles west and 2 north of business portion of El Dorado. Rate of travel estimated at about 30 mph. The Funnel cloud had grey-whitish appearance instead of usual black coloring as it traveled at about 30 miles per hour.

The damage path with through a then new residential section of southwest portion of town. Hail of golf-ball size fell for a distance of 1/2 mile on either side of tornado path.

An elementary school, approximately 200 homes and many house trailers were destroyed or badly damaged. Four main electric lines were severed. Three miles of telephone lines and 97 poles were destroyed. About 441 families affected.

According to reporting by The El Dorado Times, Many residents began keeping a close watch on the sky about 4:30 p.m. when heavy clouds began building up to the north and west of town.

Shortly before 5:30 p.m. a squat, gray funnel formed northwest of El Dorado. It was a commonly-accepted belief that tornadoes track north or east, but this was not the case that day.

By the time the “wrong-way” tornado touched down near Oil Hill and moved across the American Legion Golf Course, it devastated 40 square blocks of the modest residential area in the south part of town.

Kansas Highway Patrol Trooper Bob Lemon was situated seven miles south of the city and when he spotted the funnel he drove to El Dorado as quickly as possible.

“I warned the El Dorado police by radio that the storm was coming. I don’t imagine I gave them a five-minute advance warning if I gave them that much,” he told the El Dorado Times.

From a vantage point on Highway 254 and the west edge of the American Legion Golf Course, the path of the tornado could be closely seen leading directly and past Skelly Elementary School.

A temporary morgue was set up at the 4-H Building. Eleven bodies were soon placed there and the other victims died in hospitals. El Dorado’s hospital Susan B. Allen Memorial was quickly filled to capacity. Due to the lack of lights, doctors sent the critical cases and those with bone fractures to Wichita hospitals.

According to the Climatological Data National Summary, a government bond was found 60 miles southeast of El Dorado that bore El Dorado address; eight $100 bills found intact in envelope far from owner’s home in El Dorado; a boy was found with a dozen splintered sticks protruding from his chest; a woman was sucked through window and blown 60 feet from house and beside her was found a broken record, entitled “Stormy Weather”; an automobile carried more than a block and jammed through roof where it lodged between a bed and a dresser.

The next day sight seers were asked to refrain from visiting the stricken area while clean up operations were being conducted.

Reclaiming and rebuilding Skelly Elementary School began at once. Twenty to 25 percent of the building above the ground was salvageable and Superintendent Max Bickford wanted the building ready in the fall. The school cost $250,000 to build four years prior. It would cost about as much to repair.

Along Towanda Avenue a dozen bulldozers and power shovels crunched through the remnants of 259 demolished homes. Hundreds of trucks hauled the debris away.

At dusk, two days later, they had leveled half a dozen of the 42 blocks ravaged by the twister. There were blocks left without a house worth saving. There were a dozen more with only one or two houses left standing.

Pyramids of splintered lumber and twisted metal piled up on the Skelly school yard as the bulldozers knocked down the wreckage of surrounding houses. The school yard also became the temporary junk yard for more than 85 vehicles.

At one point, more than 2,500 volunteers and crews were working in the area helping with clean up. About 750 National Guardsmen with heavy equipment were on the scene, too.

The clean-up process was done under a hot, beating sun with temperatures in the 90s.

A washing machine was set up in the front of a house on Terrace Drive and women of the neighborhood were washing clothing that had been gathered from the destroyed area.

The showers at the Forest Park swimming pool bathhouse were open to any of the people who lost homes or relief workers who wished to use them.

Many cats and dogs were homeless and a concern for the city, as well as residents searching for lost pets.

The memorial was designed to mimic the lines of a tornado and has at the top, an air harp, fitted with thirteen strings.