Eighty-five years ago today, May 1, 1933, Minden suffered perhaps the worst tragedy of our history. Our town was struck by a massive tornado, estimated by some to be as large as an F4 on the Fujita scale.
Massive damage and death occurred and recovery was long and painful.
This Echo is a repeat of an article I published on the 75th anniversary of the event in 2008. It is an excerpt from an article that I published in the Journal of the North Louisiana Historical Association in 1983, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the disaster and the other major tragedies of 1933.
There was a devastating fire in February, the failure of one of the town’s two banks in April, the tornado, a destructive rain storm in July and a political assassination in November.
Monday, May 1, 1933, dawned like most spring days in North Louisiana. The air was pleasant, but one detected a hint of the heat and humidity characteristic of a Louisiana summer already creeping into the atmosphere.
The initial shock of the bank failure in early April had passed, and Mindenites were beginning to adapt to the changes.
The most excited residents on that day were school children happily starting the last week of an abbreviated school year. The school year had been shortened by two weeks just before Christmas, 1932, because of an influenza attack and had remained closed the first two weeks of January 1933, because funding from the state had not been received.
But, the year did not seem shorter to the children because to make up for lost days, school had been held in six-day sessions since January. So, as the last week of school began, excitement centered on “free” Saturdays, summer, and the high school graduation scheduled for the following Friday, May 5.
During the day, a typical spring thunderstorm system began moving through northwest Louisiana. About 4 p.m. This line of storms drew near to Minden, approaching like most dangerous weather systems in North Louisiana, from the west.
This was not a typical storm system, however. Just northwest of Minden, the line of storms spawned a massive tornado that soon vented its fury upon Minden.
The approaching storm caused little alarm in Minden, since it had not been threatened by turbulent weather during the 1930s. No formal tornado watch or warning was issued by the National Weather Service, and the storm seemed as normal as any other spring thunderstorm.
In fact, while residents of the northeastern Minden wondered if Shreveport was “getting a rain” out of the cloud to the west, residents of Bayou Avenue on the northwestern side of town were already feeling the storm’s power.
The funnel cloud first touched down on Bayou Avenue in an area adjacent to the railroad tracks and near the railroad yard. It struck with great intensity, and caused several fatalities, including three members of one family, were registered in this area.
The tornado now moved southward and began to lift up, destroying homes on Winchester Hill, located just west of the railroad yard.
A traveling salesman eating at the Highway Cafe at the foot of Winchester Hill on the Shreveport highway heard the storm approaching. He ran to his car and immediately fled the area, driving to Shreveport. He would relay the first reports of the destructive nature of the tornado to Shreveporters and start the flow of assistance from the Shreveport area.
The storm now turned to the east and touched down on the northern side of North Broadway just beyond the headquarters building of the Louisiana and Arkansas Railroad, leaving in its wake thousands of dollars of damage in the industrial and commercial area along the railroad tracks.
Several houses on the slope of the hill leading to the downtown area were destroyed — including one house where a birthday party was being held for a ten-year-old girl. The honoree and some of the guests at this party were killed.
The funnel cloud lifted again, toppling the newly dedicated Confederate statue located in the park formed by the median between North and South Broadway on the hillside.
The only damage to the statue was a broken end to the soldier’s bayonet, the rest of Minden would not fair as well.
In addition, it was during this phase of the storm that the Minden Cemetery, on the opposite side of the hill from the L & A headquarters was devastated by the storm.
Continuing toward the east, the storm drew nearer to downtown, destroying the St. Anne’s Catholic Church on South Broadway.
At this point the killer funnel made another change in course, veering toward the south. This direction change spared downtown Minden from major destruction. However, this new course caused the most severe damage, in terms of human lives, during the storm’s devastating trip through the Webster Parish center.
The funnel cloud turned just in time to miss the antebellum home of Joe Miller. Instead, it vented its full force on the rent property known as the “Miller Quarters” located directly behind the Miller home.
More than 80 rent houses owned by Joe Miller were destroyed and their residents left homeless. That entire neighborhood of Minden’s black community had seen their world blown away.
The tornado continued to the southeast following Maiden Lane which bisected Minden’s black community, smashing houses on both sides, flattening the area like an exploded bomb.
The storm passed completely through Minden’s black community and spiraled up again at the Webster Training Institute, the black high school, on Highway 80 East.
At this point, the funnel lifted into the heavens, leaving behind a stunned Minden to assess her damage and to begin her recovery.
The storm system continued to the east and later in the day, farm workers in Marion, La., 70 miles to the northeast were showered with papers from the Webster Training Institute, and residents of Vienna, La., found American History exams from Minden High School.
Minden was in a state of chaos, from physical destruction and from bewilderment over the nature of the storm itself. No living resident could remember experiencing a tornado in Minden.
Alberta Glass, who had resided in Minden since 1867, recalled such a storm north of the town about 1910, but said no tornado had ever touched down in the immediate vicinity of Minden.
My father’s family stood on the porch of their home watching the storm’s approach. They did not realize the danger or try to flee until after the tornado had lifted their home off its supporting blocks and set it back into place. My father remembered seeing a cow lifted by the storm carried past them – much like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz.
Stories of near-death and unique occurrences were told after the storm. The office employees of the Minden Cotton Oil and Ice Company, located near the railroad tracks, were saved by taking shelter in a drainage culvert underneath the railroad tracks.
Many citizens reported seeing cows, chickens and other animals being carried by the funnel cloud. Others described entire houses sailing by or pine needles embedded into telephone poles.
Sam Life, who narrowly missed serious injury in the fire, encountered another brush with death. He was standing in front of Parker’s Garage on the Dixie-Overland Highway (U. S. 80) when a tornadic gust of wind lifted him into the air. Life was transported by the storm over 100 yards and deposited in the yard of a Mrs. Webb, unharmed but quite naturally shaken. The year 1933 would not be forgotten by Life, who survived two incidents, either one could have been fatal.
In the storm’s wake, other citizens of Minden were not so fortunate — the tornado officially claimed 28 lives in Minden. Well over 100 other people were injured.
The devastation was so great in the black community that an approximate death total was not obtained for several days, and no precise accounting of injuries to black residents was ever made.
The severity of the storm damage in this part of Minden caused early wire service accounts carried in Tuesday morning papers, such as the New York Times, to estimate the death toll at 80.
Crews of volunteers aided by local Boy Scout troops combed the rubble for two days after the storm looking for additional bodies.
The newspapers, in the months after the storm, continued to list deaths caused by storm injuries. Because of the way deaths were handled in the black community we will probably never know the true loss of life in that storm.
Beyond the human loss, actual physical damage to property was staggering. Damage estimates placed the total loss at about $1,250,000.
There were 310 homes and businesses destroyed, 217 of these structures were in the black community.
A crew of 300 men worked for five days to just clear all the streets of debris. Their efforts were greatly hindered by a rush of “sight-seers” from nearby towns. More than 30,000 people came to view the storm damage within two days following the storm.
The congestion became such a problem that mayors and newspaper editors of nearby towns asked their citizens to please refrain from traveling to Minden, and police roadblocks were set up to stop all traffic entering Minden except the ones engaged in official business.
The first step Mindenites made toward recovery was to provide for the homeless.
George E. Myer, Director of the Red Cross Relief Project, reported 1200 people were left homeless by the storm, about 20 percent of the population of Minden. The vast majority of these were black residents.
Refugee camps for the homeless were established at the parish training school on the east side of town and in boxcars at the railroad yard on the west side of Minden.
An emergency hospital was placed in the parish armory to help care for the injured in the black community.
Dr. W. C. Sumner, parish health officer, set up an inoculation program to avoid outbreaks of disease in the refugee camps.
Other relief projects were set up with funds collected by community drives in northwest Louisiana. About $70,000 would eventually be sent to Minden to aid in recovery from the tornado.
A food committee was appointed by the Red Cross and portable kitchens were established. These kitchens fed approximately 500 people a day for several weeks after the storm.
Due to the storm and a general shortage of funds, the school year was ended without further classes. Graduation exercises were canceled and diplomas were given to the Seniors of 1933 in the principal’s office.
At the same time, the next school year, 1933-34, was also shortened to seven months, and its opening was delayed until October to allow for recovery to get under way.
I will close this article in the same way I closed my Journal article 25 years ago. “The tragedies of 1933 are forgotten or unknown to all but the older citizens of Minden. But those who were in Minden in 1933 remember. Is it possible the Confederate soldier of stone, still standing in the park remembers, too? How could anyone living in Minden forget the year 1933? It was the year the ‘north part burned, the middle went broke, and the south part blew away,’ but the town still lived.” The resilience showed by Minden’s recovery is part of the Echoes of our Past.
Minden Historian John Agan’s column appears Tuesdays in the Minden Press-Herald.Special to the Press-Herald.