Arkansas has a long history of natural disasters, including tornadoes. One of Arkansas’s most destructive tornadoes hit Fort Smith on Jan. 11, 1898.
The tornado had knocked down telephone lines, which complicated rescue efforts by making it harder for rescue workers to communicate. To prevent igniting more fires, power to downtown Fort Smith was turned off, but that left rescuers in complete darkness as they searched for survivors. As the fire spread, the Fort Smith Fire Department rushed toward the disaster, only to be impeded by debris.
Heavy rain pelted survivors in the wake of the tornado. The injured searched for shelter amid piles of rubble and brick. Doctors created makeshift hospitals in buildings that remained standing. St. John’s and Charity hospitals opened their doors to anyone who needed help.
Bob Hirschberg and his son worked with several other rescuers to save those trapped in the buildings near the high school. They were able to dig out 17 survivors from the wreckage.
Fort Smith Fire Department Capt. J.J. Little sent an ominous and concise message to the Birnie Brothers Funeral Home: “Come down and take care of the dead.” Some of the dead were taken to the city morgue, where the city coroner ordered the doors to the morgue be kept open for townspeople searching for lost loved ones.
As the people of Fort Smith gathered the next morning to assess the damage, it became clear hundreds of people were now homeless and more than 100 were injured. The death toll quickly rose to 50, but several more people succumbed to their injuries in the next few weeks, raising the death toll to 55. The 1898 tornado remains the second deadliest tornado on record to hit Arkansas.
The tornado also hurt the city economically. The loss of businesses meant many residents were now unemployed. Further, many of the destroyed buildings and businesses were not insured, which would make rebuilding difficult. According to newspaper reports from the time, the tornado lasted for only 4 minutes, but in that time, it did about $1 million in damage. Adjusted for inflation, that amount would equal about $30 million today.
Miraculously, residents quickly picked themselves up and rebuilt Fort Smith. Within days, the city raised thousands of dollars in pledged aid from its residents. In just two years, as the 20th century dawned, most of the scars left by the storm were gone.
About the Arkansas State Archives
Arkansas State Archives is a division of the Department of Arkansas Heritage and is responsible for collecting and maintaining the largest collection of historical materials on Arkansas in the world. The State Archives has two branch locations at Northeast Arkansas Regional Archives in Powhatan and the Southwest Arkansas Regional Archives in Washington.