Secrets of the Blue Ridge: Killer Tornado—1959!
by Phil James
Leana Simms was at work preparing supper for W. E. Lindsay’s household near the village of Ivy when she became witness to one of Albemarle County’s most horrific natural disasters. When a dark swirling cloud descended into her neighborhood, her thoughts quickly turned to the well-being of her neighbors. A year later she could still clearly replay the awful scene in her mind.
“I went down there,” Mrs. Simms told a Charlottesville Daily Progress reporter, “and I found death and destruction.”
During the afternoon of Wednesday, September 30, 1959, at least seven tornados spun devastation across central Virginia in a span of about three hours. In the twisters’ paths, 12 souls, adults and children, had their final breath snatched away. The indiscriminate winds left many others homeless and hurting. Houses and barns, cars and trucks, personal belongings—the things of life—were strewn about, as one harrowed survivor recalled, “like a piece of tissue paper.”
Hurricane Gracie had meandered erratically in the Atlantic for five days before coming ashore south of Charleston, South Carolina. Its lethal combination of wind, rain and flooding claimed ten lives in that state. As it progressed through the Carolinas into southwest Virginia, it became noted as well for the beneficial rains which the accompanying thunderstorms produced.
Few took particular note when, around 2:25 p.m., telephone and electrical service were lost to much of western Albemarle County. After all, there were thunderstorms in the area, and such a temporary inconvenience was not unheard-of. There was no way of knowing at the time that the outage was the result of tornado #1 that had downed trees, power and phone lines northwest of Ivy Depot before vanishing over open ground.
Around 4:15 p.m. several witnesses detected in the cloudy, rainy skies a “black funnel” forming south of Charlottesville. Crossing Rt. 29, tornado #2, a killer by nature, began its destructive traverse by overturning a car. Passing over Ragged Mountain, it veered northwest, “plowed a furrow 200 feet wide over a sharp ridge” and dropped down into a small valley on Lindsay’s farm near Ivy.
“I had watched it come in,” said Leana Simms, “but I didn’t know what it was. It was inky black above and snow white below, like a black cloud swirling around. It sounded like a lot of airplanes. Then I couldn’t look to see what was going on—part of the roof blew off… I thought of all those people down there in those houses, and I thought maybe I should go to see about them.”
Nearby, Raymond Bruce with his wife and son were already scrambling for their lives.
“I heard a roaring up the back orchard,” Bruce later told a reporter. “It sounded like a train. I saw Ervin Morris running into his house, and then the roof started coming off my house. The roof went up about 50 yards.”
The 14-member Morris family lived a hundred yards away from the Bruces in a two-story duplex. Twelve members of the family were already home and preparing for supper when the deadly winds took direct aim at their dwelling. It would be over two hours before the outside world began to piece together the events that unfolded.
As the twister lifted the roof from the Bruce home, the family ran to the kitchen. At that moment the chimney collapsed, killing Lilly Bruce while only slightly injuring her husband and son.
An instant later the tornado’s full fury swept away the Morris dwelling, scattering its occupants and their belongings hundreds of yards about the surrounding hillsides.
Leana Simms crawled over and through splintered trees to make her way to the storm’s ground-zero. She paused to wrap Mrs. Bruce’s lifeless body in a blanket and, further along, did the same for Mrs. Morris and two of her children.
“I could hear children crying,” Simms vividly recalled. With help she was able to extract a little girl pinned under part of a bed tangled in the debris. When rescue personnel finally made their way over flooded, tree-strewn roads, it took them most of the night to locate the other victims. The last one found, a young child, was located with the aid of the next morning’s light. The vicious onslaught had taken ten family members; only two miraculously survived. Two of the family’s other children were unharmed as they had waited out the after-school deluge at a neighbor’s house.
Short minutes later the Mechums River community lay in the storm’s path. Twisting and turning, the storm’s forces collapsed the front wall of Mountain Plain Baptist Church, carrying away part of the roof and laying bare the sanctuary to its rains.
Racing back down the hill, the fury spun across Mechums River’s steel C&O railroad trestle, simultaneously blasting away at Rt. 250 below with an arsenal of projectiles. Staunton residents Glenn Womble and his wife Josephine unwittingly drove directly into the center of the storm. They sought refuge alongside the embankment under the railroad bridge. Approaching from the west, the driver of a heavy truck, which had been tipping side-to-side in the winds, stopped and also sought some degree of cover against the embankment.
“All around us timbers, tin, signs, trees, paper, gravel [and] sand were flying,” Mrs. Womble told a Staunton Leader reporter. “We thought our car would be lifted any moment and thrown into the river … pieces of wood and rock smashed our windshield … we felt that the bridge was being destroyed and falling upon us … we expected to be crushed to death any second … wind lifted the truck right up and it was thrown [a full 50 yards] in front of our car.”
The tornado then retraced its path back up Old Three Notch’d Road and laid great waste to the farm of John W. Clayton. The roof was lifted from his main house, which was damaged beyond repair—all while Mrs. Martha Clayton remained at her work desk. (Several days later O.B. Enswiler of Lacey Springs, Virginia, personally returned to the thankful Clayton family a water-stained paid-up bank note. He had found it in his yard—50 miles northwest across the Blue Ridge Mountains—deposited there by the winds that had plucked it from atop Mrs. Clayton’s desk.)
The twelfth fatality in Central Virginia occurred just north of the Albemarle-Greene County line near Dyke. Blue Ridge School was hard-hit by possibly the same killer storm that had just devastated Ivy and Mechums River. Students at the boarding school were spared injury, but school maintenance worker Robert Morris was critically hurt when an equipment shed collapsed on him. He died later from his storm-inflicted injuries.
Between 4:45 and 5:30 p.m. at least five other tornados touched down in Albemarle County. In the Hickory Hill area south of Charlottesville, a miraculous outcome resulted when another home containing 12 persons was totally demolished by tornado #3, injuring only one. Yards away, a tractor trailer and two autos were tossed from busy Rt. 29. Trees and outbuildings were destroyed by twin tornados in Stoney Point. Around 5:25 yet another twister damaged homes near the University Airport east of Monticello Mountain. The last known tornado in Albemarle that day inflicted heavy damage on several homes and trees in the Farmington neighborhood.
Following the cessation of the storms, local roads began to fill with sightseers rubber-necking for a glimpse of nature’s devastation. More importantly, though, were the hundreds of benevolent hands that converged where their help was severely needed. For weeks and months they returned until the clean-up and repairs were complete.
Three days later 500 people attended the emotion-filled mass funeral for the Morris family of Ivy. Buried side-by-side at Hebron Baptist Church at Avon in Nelson County were: “Ervin Morris Sr., and his wife Frances; their children, Ruby and James; Mrs. Ervin Morris Jr., and her two children, Peggy and Michael; George Morris, brother of Ervin Sr., and Wilmer Morris, nephew of Ervin Sr.”
We are especially reminded of the temporal worth of things and the eternal value of human relationships during tragedies such as these. The selfless motives of neighbors like Leana Simms and other nameless volunteers serve as examples of the grace we might all hope to emulate should we suddenly be called upon.
[All accompanying images photographed by and courtesy of Les Gibson, Crozet, Virginia.]
Phil James invites contact from those who would share recollections and old photographs of life along the Blue Ridge Mountains of Albemarle County, Virginia. You may respond to him through his website www.SecretsoftheBlueRidge.com or at P.O. Box 88, White Hall, VA 22987. Secrets of the Blue Ridge © 2003-2009 Phil James