100 Years Ago Sunday: Anniversary of the Last of the Legendary Codell, Kansas, May 20 Tornadoes

"Weatherwise" Magazine, June, 1977
Sunday is the 100th anniversary of one of the most unusual events in the history of meteorology: The third of the May 20th Codell, Kansas, tornadoes. They are so unusual most all basic meteorology textbooks mention them and many popular publications have written about them, including Readers' Digest and many others.

Think about it: A tiny Kansas town of 150 hit by tornadoes on May 20, 1916; May 20, 1917; and May 20, 1918!

Codell, in north central Kansas, north of Hays, was a bustling town along the Union Pacific Railroad early in the 20th Century. It had all of the trappings of a prosperous small town in America at the time of the first tornado: passenger railroad service, bank, hardware store, hotel, churches, grocery store, lumber yard and even an opera house.
I learned all this when I visited the town and interviewed the late Howard Hockett, a survivor of the tornadoes, for a 1977 article in Weatherwise magazine.

He told me, and historical records confirm, the first two tornadoes missed the heart of the city. Here is the list, with the Fujita F-Scale intensity rankings. The survivors told me they called them "cyclones" at the time.
  • F-2 1916, no injuries
  • F-3 In 1917, tornado just west of the town, no injuries
  • F-4 tornado in 1918, ten killed, the center of town was hit
Below, courtesy of Weatherwise, is a map of the path of the three tornadoes. The dot was the center of the town.
A number of buildings were not rebuilt after the 1918 storm. 
Remains of Codell's Methodist church as they appeared when I visited in 1977.
It was one of the buildings not rebuilt after the 1918 tornado.
According to Hockett, the legends the town emptied out immediately after the last tornado or that people after the 1918 tornado spent every May 20 in the basement are false. Howard did say, "But, we were sure aware of what day it was!"

The erosion in the town's population and its prosperity started after the 1918 tornado, but, according to Hockett, the Great Depression and the difficulties for the town's bank are what really caused the decline. Today, about 50 still live there. A great article about current residents of Codell is here

I was pleased to learn a memorial is being erected and will be dedicated Sunday. Mrs. Ellen Hockett, 106, and also a survivor, is expected to attend. 
Codell memorial under construction at Ft. Hays State University
I'd like to close this article with best wishes for the dedication ceremony Sunday and by wishing Codell a tornado-free future


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