Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Tornadoes Now and Then

I live right in the middle of the path of Murfreesboro's most recent tornado. Seeing the destruction every day forces me to think about what it all means and my mind is making connections in an effort to make sense of it all. A couple of weeks ago we had an E-F1 tornado that damaged the Jackson Heights shopping area and the Murfreesboro Boys and Girls Club (and the Goo Goo car wash). The one on Friday did an amazing amount of damage through where I grew up and where I live now, and was just upgraded to an E-F4.

Behind my apartment complex is the greenway along the Stones River. This used to be scenic and now it is a wreck. It is impossible to get to the greenway because it is buried under debris and much of the battlefield is closed.

What is surprising is how little loss of life there was and how the tornado often seemed to choose to go through unpopulated areas. There is still extensive damage, but it could have easily been a lot worse. One of the open areas was our local NPS division, the Stones River National Battlefield. They have a lot of trees down and the landscape was fairly traumatized, but no one was hurt there. Most of the territory covered by the tornado was technically all battlefield during the Civil War. And that got me to thinking about the trauma that both people and the landscape have suffered in this space over the years.

Contraband slaves repairing the railroad after the Battle of Stones River, 1863 (from the Library of Congress Civil War photograph collection)

Aside from the devastation of war (the major battle and then the guerrilla warfare throughout the Civil War), this is not the first tornado to pass through this side of Rutherford County. In 1913 there were two tornadoes that ripped through the county. The one that gets the most attention (commonly just referred to as the Cyclone of 1913) is the one that flattened a corner of the courthouse square on March 21, 1913. Anyone from Murfreesboro has seen some of the tornado pictures that both highlight the devastation, but also show the spectator involvement. There were special trains from Nashville that took voyeurs to see the wreckage of Murfreesboro's downtown business district. Downtown quickly rebuilt and businesses remained strong.

1913 Murfreesboro Tornado
(from the Albert Gore Research Center)

While that tornado did significant damage to a portion of the downtown businesses, the only injury was a man who was working in one of the stables just off the square (he broke his leg when a beam fell on him). Lesser known is that the tornado did damage to what was then known as the "County Farm" or the "County Workhouse" out on County Farm Rd. It served as a debtors prison, but was also the county insane asylum. There are oblique references in newspapers of the time referring to the effort to gather up all of the inmates/patients after the storm blew apart the building and let them loose on the countryside.

But a week earlier, there was a tornado that came through the Blackman community. Blackman is an unincorporated crossroads community to the west of Murfreesboro and it is where I grew up (I did my MA thesis on the history of Blackman and two other crossroads communities). On March 13, 1913, a tornado came down Beesley Rd. and destroyed the Beesley Primitive Baptist Church and travelled Northeast to destroy the Blackman Academy (the community's one-room school). School was in session and when the tornado hit the building, Ada Beesley and her five students were blown out into a nearby field...aside from some scrapes and bruises, all were okay.

Beesley Primitive Baptist Church in 2003
(courtesy of my MA thesis)

The church congregation immediately rebuilt and that structure still stands today. The church and historic cemetery are on the National Register of historic places. Blackman Academy was not rebuilt, but the site remains a community gathering place. Currently on that site is the Blackman Community Club, which is a New Deal structure (I believe that it is a WPA construction). It is currently not listed on the NR, but it retains most of its historic fabric and is certainly eligible.

Blackman Community Club in 2003
(also from my thesis)

The 2009 tornado traveled in a similar direction and started in the Blackman community moving northeasterly, but about a mile or so east of its 1913 predecessor. There were a lot fewer homes on this land a century ago, and despite all of the sprawling housing developments on top of historic farms, it is still amazing to me that so few people were injured or killed. We'll be in recovery mode for quite some time to come, but there is a lot of industriousness to get things back into shape. Unlike 1913, police are asking for spectators to go elsewhere. There are quite a few pictures from spectators and residents, though, that are reminiscent of the crowds milling about the square in 1913. And like the people who pulled together and immediately rebuilt Beesley Primitive Baptist Church, many of the roofs in the Blackman area are already repaired. I hear chainsaws at work all day long and there is a constant stream of trucks coming in and out of Thompson Lane with loads of debris. The continual police presence prevents looting and the city of Murfreesboro (and all the utilities) have been working overtime to get the infrastructure back into place.

So, despite marked changes to the landscape, the instinct to pull together and work towards recovery is much the same in Rutherford County as it was a century ago after a similar disaster.

From the front door of my apartment you can see the roof repair in progress.

This is my debris pile at my back door, mostly pieces of pallets from the trucking facility down the road.

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