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Cool Things - Tornado Souvenirs

Topeka tornado. Photograph courtesy of Topeka Capital-Journal

The most destructive tornado in Kansas history smashed through Topeka on June 8, 1966. The city's residents saved these souvenirs of the storm.

The storm cut a swath of ruin through the capital city, destroying hundreds of homes, causing millions of dollars in damage, and killing 16 residents. It remains one of the costliest tornadoes on record.

Although most Kansans are accustomed to their state's severe storms, it's not uncommon for them to save storm relics representing the damage and emotional turmoil suffered by their communities. These relics sometimes end up in museum collections. Because tornadoes are among the most destructive natural forces on earth, storm souvenirs are typically only fragments of something destroyed by a funnel.

Tornado Alley

Although tornadoes occur all over the world, the majority strike within the United States. Here, the area of the highest frequency is known as Tornado Alley--the states of Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Texas. Every spring the jet stream drops south from Canada onto the Great Plains, bringing with it cold, dry air that collides with warm, moist air coming up from the Gulf of Mexico. The result is great climatic instability.

Stained glass window fragment from the wreckage of Washburn University chapel

These were the weather conditions on the morning of June 8, 1966, when the National Weather Service issued a tornado watch to put citizens on alert. Although today's sophisticated weather radar detects tornadic conditions, in 1966 storm spotters were the main source of information. These volunteers were disbursed around the threatened area to watch and wait during periods of high risk. If they saw a tornado, they called in a report to the National Weather Service. Topeka was one of a handful of cities with an organized storm spotters group. Indeed, it was a storm spotter who radioed that a tornado was on the ground southwest of Topeka on the afternoon of June 8.

The funnel destroyed several structures outside town before it began a diagonal course across Topeka. At times the destruction was six blocks wide. Directly in the tornado's path was Washburn University, a stately, tree-lined campus with buildings dating from the 19th century. The storm completely destroyed at least five structures and damaged every other building on campus before moving on towards downtown Topeka. It stripped sheathing off the state capitol's dome but left the statehouse standing. The quiet neighborhoods northeast of the capitol grounds were not so lucky. Hundreds of people were left homeless in the storm's wake.

Omer Snell made this cedar table from trees destroyed by the Topeka tornado

Less than half an hour after it formed, the tornado crossed the Kansas River and dissipated. It left behind a 20-mile path of destruction so severe that the Topeka mayor cried as he observed the stricken city from a helicopter. The totals were staggering--over $100 million in damage, more than 500 citizens injured, and some 800 homes destroyed plus countless more damaged. The clean-up alone would take months.

But the toll could have been much worse. Only 16 people died as a result of the Topeka tornado. This was remarkable given the widespread destruction the storm wreaked in a city of 127,000. Undoubtedly many more citizens would have died without the advanced warning given by the National Weather Service—more than 15 minutes for some residents. Credit was given to the established warning procedures and well-organized network of storm spotters. The Topeka tornado influenced storm preparedness across the U.S. as a number of communities attempted to copy the city's program. Today's Doppler radar has greatly increased the forewarning that meteorologists give their audience, but storm spotters are still considered an important part of civil preparedness in the Midwest.

The relics from the 1966 storm pictured here are in the collections of the Kansas Museum of History.

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Entry: Cool Things - Tornado Souvenirs

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: June 2006

Date Modified: December 2014

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.