a community newspaper serving western Albemarle County

Secrets of the Blue Ridge: Killer Tornado—1959!

by Phil James

Mountain Plain baptist Church at Mechums River sustained extensive damage in 1959 from a tornado spawned from remnants of Hurricane Gracie.

Mountain Plain baptist Church at Mechums River sustained extensive damage in 1959 from a tornado spawned from remnants of Hurricane Gracie.

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.”

Little remained of the home of Ervin Morris Sr. near Ivy, where ten members of one family perished in a tornado in September 1959.

Little remained of the home of Ervin Morris Sr. near Ivy, where ten members of one family perished in a tornado in September 1959.

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.

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At John Clayton's farm the twister destroyed barns and returned 7,000 bales of hay to the fields to be gathered and baled a second time.

“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.

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On Clayton's hilltop farm near Mechums River, numerous barns and work sheds were lost. The main house was damaged beyond repair. Fences were blown flat to the ground, releasing livestock. And, amazingly, a water pump with twenty-odd feet of pipe still attached was sucked from a well.

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

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8 Comments

  1. An anecdote of that tornado’s devastation in Ivy is that the sheriff was saying late that night that ALL of the Morris family perished. WELK radio news reporters knocking on a neighbors’ door around 10 PM to talk to witnesses discovered one unharmed Morris youngster who had spent the night with neighbors.

    Later, reporters hunting with flashlights discovered one of the Morris children dead in a tree branch about 20′ above the ground.

  2. What beautifully written prose.

  3. Dear Mr. James,
    I live in Chesapeake, VA and was referred to your column by Margaret Merrill. I had written Margaret in regard to a former resident of Greenwood named Irene Lane. Margaret spoke with her mother, who still lives in Greenwood, to see if she remembered Irene, but she didn’t. Margaret mentioned your column to me, so I thought I would write.
    Irene Lane was born in 1910 in Clifton Forge. She eventually married Rodney Hyler and they moved to Norfolk. In 1946, Irene decided to leave her husband, as she was unhappy. At the time, her oldest child was 18 year old Mildred, who was married with an infant son. Irene also had three younger sons. Irene told Mildred that she had to leave, but that she would be back in touch with her. Mildred is now in her 80′s, and has never seen her mother since 1946. Irene never got back in contact, and Mildred has searched for several years trying to find her.
    Recently, a cousin who used to live in Albemarle county, died in July. Before her death, she told Mildred that Irene had been living somewhere either in Albemarle or Augusta county, and would visit her parents. Irene dropped her Hyler name and went back to her maiden name.
    I am a friend of Mildred and her family, who live near me in Chesapeake. I just thought I would write you in case you might have any information on any of the Lane family members. I don’t know if you would be interested in writing a column about Irene, but Mildred does have a picture of her around the time she left. If you would be interested in speaking with Mildred, please let me know. She does not own a computer, but she would be glad to speak with you by phone, if you like.
    Thank you for any interest or assistance. Sincerely, Beth

  4. One of the damaged farms near University Airport was Long Branch Farm, home of my great aunt and uncle Alice and Roy Seiler, on the Rivanna. Several walnut trees planted as World War I memorial trees blew down as well as oaks. Trees fell on the roof of the farmhouse damaging an upstairs bedroom and the kitchen below it. The farm’s original barn blew down in the storm and the tornado lifted the “johnnie house” from its location below the garden and grape vines and placed it upright on the opposite ridge. Alice Seiler who had been born on a homestead in Chase County, Kansas and moved to Virginia as a girl stood at the kitchen sink and watched the sky turn black and the twister tear through the yard. She later said the noise was tremendous, followed by unbelievable stillness. She said she knew immediately from remembering her mother’s descriptions of tornadoes on the Kansas prairie that she had just narrowly survived one. With the electric and telephone lines down, Auntie and Roy went upstairs and went to bed. Later that night their niece’s husband Hamp Pace and his brother Tip, having heard of possible damage in the vicinity, drove as far into the property as they could in the darkness with so many downed trees and overhead lines. Alice hearing their car went to an upstairs window and called out but they could not hear her. They left and continued along Route 53 and crossed the Fluvanna line. They saw that an African American church Haden’s Chapel near Cunningham also had sustained damage. The Pace brothers next stopped at their father’s home in Cunningham where they found similar destruction–downed oaks and power lines–and the 2-story porch ripped from the front of the house. They were able to enter their old homeplace through the side porch and make their way with flashlights through the house, calling and searching for their father, who was sound asleep upstairs in the back bedroom. He told them the barn had blown down, too. I’m sure they all shared a “little snort” of bourbon before the brothers headed back home to Charlottesville for a sleepless night worrying about the Seilers until dawn when they returned to find them already cleaning up the yard. Soon many neighbors from the Milton/Mount Eagle/Buckeyeland vicinities and all the relatives arrived to help clean up the downed debris at Long Branch Farm. That was the end of the “redundant,” 2-seater, johnnie house–the house had long had plumbing. Uncle Roy built a new barn, they slowly repaired the house–removing the backstairs from the kitchen, and the yard was a little less shady than before. Auntie and Roy and Granddaddy Pace were so fortunate to have escaped the kinds of tragedies that occurred in Ivy. I was nine years old; for a long time, we pretty much measured “country” time as before or after the tornado.

  5. My mom Faye Collier Houchens died in November of 2008. Her parents Gene Collier and Mabel Ruby Morris Collier. Could grandma’s family be some of these Morris members? I do not know my grandma’s family. Mabel passed away in 1981.

  6. I remember this day very well, I was driving a DrPepper truck coming into town on 29south Mac Whitten had a store not too far towards town from the crossroads. As I passed it ,up ahead a billboard went sailing across the road I pulled over and waited a while until it calmed down and then went on. Where the storm crossed the road it looked like a giant chainsaw had downed trees in a wide swath on both road sides of the road. Later that day I heard of the deaths caused by the storm. A day later Mr Clayton showed me where his garage had been and the line of oil cans, still in place along where the wall had been. It was a very scary time for many in this area. D.E. Hensley

  7. I was very interested in ms Keller’s spelling of buckeyeland, buck island, buckeye land Her spelling is quite unique coming from the many horse chestnuts in the area buckeye trees) OR the yellow flowers all along the roads in this area the modern spelling Buck island may be from the deer population. My family came here in 1917 from over near Elkton.

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  1. U.S. Tornadoes: The Month of September by the Numbers | United States Tornadoes