A boiling black cloud rolled into Goliad on May 18, 1902 rattling windows with earsplitting thunderclaps and pelting the historic town with huge hailstones. But the worst was yet to come from the killer storm.
Asked to list the deadliest tornadoes in Texas history, many might name the terrible twister that hit Waco in 1953 or maybe the Wichita Falls and Saragosa calamities of 1979 and 1987. Hardly anyone, however, would mention the tornado that caught Goliad napping on a sleepy Sunday afternoon 119 years ago.
J.W. Browne was chewing the fat with friends on the gallery of the Fannin Hotel, when the tornado announced its arrival with a deafening roar “like a heavy train running in the distance. It rapidly increased in power and sound until it sounded like a million-ton engine running away.
“Everything turned to my eyes a dark brown or red color. Limbs of trees, debris and everything filled the air. God seemed nigh.”
The funnel cloud touched down near the San Antonio River and tore apart the bridge before heading straight for town. A steel beam from the span was later found sticking out of the ground near the courthouse.
Nine decades failed to dim the memory of an appalling sight for Gertrude Todd. “We could see something in the air just tumbling,” she clearly recalled at age 105. “We said it was a horse. We knew about where it fell, so we went out there and looked. It was a lady.”
As the whirling wind swiftly strengthened, eight year old Kate Chilton and her younger brother were herded by their mother to a three-story stone structure near their wooden home. No sooner did the terrified trio reach the shelter than the violent vortex ripped off the roof.
One moment little Kate was watching furniture spin around the room, and the next she was lifted high into air for a bird’s-eye view “at the destruction going on.” Mud and water cushioned the girl’s abrupt return to earth sparing her serious injury. Her brother and mother also cheated death with the boy suffering only bumps and bruises and the woman a broken pelvis.
Scores of the Chiltons’ neighbors were not so lucky. “A space 350 yards wide and a mile long,” the Goliad Guard reported in the florid prose of the period, “was now a wide waste from whose gruesome ruins came the shrieks of the wounded and dying. The dead (were) everywhere. Dying mothers shrieked for their dead and dying babes, torn from their arms by the ruthless storm.”
The able-bodied clawed barehanded through the debris of 150 residences and buildings in a frantic search for survivors. “Many who were picked up alive, horribly mangled,” The Guard continued, “died in the arms of their rescuers or soon after reaching a place of shelter.”
Particularly hard hit were the community’s churches. The twister flattened the Methodist and Baptist houses of worship, and at least 50 bodies were pulled from the ruins of the black Methodist church. One minister was actually impaled by a flying board, which had to be cut down to size to fit him into a coffin.
Special trains from Cuero, Beeville and Victoria reached the stricken town before dark with doctors, nurses and medicine. Militiamen sent to protect property were assigned other duties because, as a San Antonio paper explained, “there was nothing left to loot.”
The next morning, Gov. Joseph D. Sayers issued an urgent appeal to the mayors of towns with populations in excess of 3,000: “Please collect and send as rapidly as possible to county judge of Goliad supplies, food and clothing for relief of cyclone sufferers.”
Later that same day, local authorities put the death toll at 94 but hastened to add many of the badly injured were not long for this world. Sadly they were right as lockjaw and blood poisoning claimed 20 more lives in the weeks that followed.
In the official roll call taken two years earlier, turn-of-the-century census takers counted 1,261 heads in Goliad. The 114 inhabitants killed and 230 hurt by Mother Nature’s temper tantrum represented a combat-like casualty rate of 27 percent.
The record for the highest number of fatalities from a Texas tornado belonged to Goliad for the next half century. Since May 1953, the small community has shared that dubious distinction with much larger Waco, where the twister that demolished downtown also crushed the life out of 114 people.
So why has practically no one heard of the Goliad tornado? Timing is partly to blame. The Galveston hurricane, the worst natural disaster in American history, preceded the comparatively trivial event by less than two years.
But the twister gave grief-stricken survivors something else to remember besides Santa Anna’s massacre of Col. Fannin and his men way back in 1836.
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