Wednesday, March 25, 2020

The City of Bunker Hill in Southern Illinois was Leveled by the 1948 Tornado.

Bunker Hill is in Macoupin County in southern Illinois, about 20 miles south of the county's largest town, Carlinville, and 10 miles west of Interstate 55 highway. The community of about 1,800 has seen its share of high wind in the last century.

The town was spared devastation during the tornado of 1925, which killed 540 people in southern Illinois. Bunker Hill was hit in 1928, but only a few buildings lost roofs. Then in 1958, five of the town’s half-dozen churches were either demolished or damaged by a tornado that did an estimated $250,000 ($2,241,000 today) in damages.

Then came the tornado on Friday, March 19, 1948. It killed 19 people and injured 126. Almost every structure in Bunker Hill was destroyed. Only two buildings were left standing by the tornado that arrived at 6:50 pm. With so many men recently home from World War II, comparisons to bombed-flat European cities were understandable.
Local farmers brought bulldozers and tractors to Bunker Hill to assist in the cleanup.
The storm destroyed most of the center of Bunker Hill, including all five of the town’s churches. Most of the business district was reduced to rubble, while the bandstand, a town landmark, was leveled. Another central feature of the town, a statue of Abraham Lincoln dedicated in 1904, was knocked off its pedestal.

“Our house was the only one on our street that wasn’t destroyed,” said Herman Landreth, of Bunker Hill. “Two of my sisters-in-law died in that storm. My brother, Albert, and all three of his sons had broken legs, and they had to amputate my brother’s leg.” His brother’s home and grocery store were also lost.

Wayne Heal, then a senior in high school, remembers racing into town with his father from the family farm five miles away. They were worried about Heal’s grandparents. They couldn’t get past the edge of town, because of all the bricks in the streets. “An average of three feet deep,” Heal said. “We went through about three blocks of that, altogether.” The roof of his grandparents’ home was gone. So was the entire north side of the house, Heal said. But his grandmother and grandfather were fine.

That was largely a matter of luck. Nothing fell on them, and a 2-by-6 board that went through a kitchen window and embedded itself in a wall missed everyone. “It went in deep enough that it was suspended there, like you’d driven a nail,” Heal recalled. “If that had caught anybody, it would have taken their head off.”
The military, Red Cross, and Salvation Army were reportedly serving 1,000 people a day in Bunker Hill.
Outside of town, twenty-one-year-old Lester Lawson heard the approach of the storm and tried to look out for his young family. “The windows were rattling, and my wife and I were worried about our little daughter, in the next room,” recalled Lawson. “It was a bad windstorm, but we didn’t lose that much. Nothing was blown over, where we were at.” But the alarm sounded quickly. “We had one of those old phones that I called a ‘hoof-and-holler’ phone, the ones with a hand crank,” said Lawson. “It was a party line, with six or seven other people on it with you. 

“It rang ten times, which I’d never heard before,” recalled Lawson. “It meant there was an emergency. I answered, and was told that Bunker Hill had been blown apart by a tornado, and they needed all the help they could get.” Lawson, who operated a trucking business, and a friend drove into town in a two-ton truck to help out. “We got as far as the old railroad crossing at the north side of town, and the road was blocked,” he said. “So we walked up to town, about two blocks or so. “We started looking for people that needed help, and we found one person who needed a hospital,” he continued. “We made a stretcher out of two-by-fours, and carried him up to Main Street, which runs east-west out of town, where an ambulance could get to him.”
The Meissner School stands in contrast to its surroundings, one of the few buildings that survived relatively unharmed after the tornado that ripped through Bunker Hill.
Carolyn Scroggins was working as a clerk in St. Louis when she heard the news and jumped on a bus. “On the way home, the traffic was just car after car after car, going very slowly all the way to Bunker Hill,” Scroggins said. “People were going there for sightseeing. It took us nearly all day before we finally got home to Bunker Hill.” Her future husband, Glenn, had already started helping with cleanup, despite a piece of glass in his eye. “He got his clothes on, he says in about three seconds, then started uptown,” Scroggins said. “As he went uptown, there was a lady lying in the middle of the street without any clothes on, so he covered her with his raincoat.” The woman was dead, Scroggins said. But others were more fortunate.

North of town, there was this group of Amish people from the Arthur area, who set up camp. Each day, they’d come into town and bring meals and worked to help in the cleanup. They were there every day for at least a month.

On Palm Sunday, March 21, sightseers in Bunker Hill were so numerous that bumper-to-bumper traffic was reported for ten miles.
In the disaster’s wake, the townfolk began wondering about an infant girl found alive in the debris of a demolished house. Her mother, father, brother, and sister were all dead, leaving her alone in the world at just 6 months old. The family had lived in Bunker Hill for fewer than five years and wasn’t well known.

“I bet you that’s been one of the most-asked questions: Whatever happened to her?” Scroggins said. Scroggins got her answer when someone from the local library called her: "There’s a woman here who says she was a baby when the tornado hit, and she wants to see pictures." Scroggins, who was president of the Bunker Hill Historical Society, knew exactly who the librarian was talking about.

“Oh my goodness!’” Scroggins said. We ran to the museum. The woman had been taken in by an aunt and raised in southern Illinois. “She was a delightful person,” Scroggins said. “She was like a ray of sunshine.”

Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D.

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