On May 4th, 1922, an unusual weather event occurred in Austin, Texas. Two different tornadoes developed within minutes of each other, initially six to seven miles apart, but with tracks that ultimately were parallel and only about three miles apart. Both tornadoes moved from north-northeast toward the south-southwest. Twelve people died and more than fifty were injured. All of the deaths and most of the injuries were caused by what was described as “the eastern storm”.
Although there were newspaper reports contemporaneous with the event and its aftermath, what follows is based on written reports prepared by three men with scientific backgrounds: Dr. Frederic Simonds, chair of the Geology Dept. at the University of Texas, Paul T. Seashore, a student in the geology department, and Fred Morris, who was the U.S. Weather Bureau’s cooperative observer for Austin at the time. Fred Morris’ report describes in some detail the events leading up to the development of the tornadoes.
The morning of May 4, 1922 dawned mostly clear and muggy in Austin. There was little, if any, breeze, very few clouds, but heat and humidity were high as the sun climbed into the sky during the morning. By midday, cumulus clouds were forming, but the surface wind remained light from the southeast, and there was no real indication of what was to come later in the afternoon. Not long after midday, towering cumulus clouds began developing, mainly north and northeast of the University of Texas campus, which then on the north side of Austin.
By 3pm, one large cloud evolved into a cumulonimbus, located north through northeast of the university campus, and that cloud was moving slowly southward. Between 3pm and 4pm, an increase in cloud cover at various altitudes was noted, as was a second cumulonimbus cloud that had formed north of the campus. Lightning increased and thunder was heard, and it had grown dark enough that artificial lighting was needed in the campus buildings. It isn’t clear which tornado developed first. Several reports suggest that the “western storm” may have developed prior to the “eastern storm”, but the timing is far from certain. What is clear is that the “western storm” attracted more attention from people in downtown Austin, and was perhaps more visible from the downtown area.
“The Eastern Storm”:
“(T)here was a visible lowering of the central portion of its base … a violent churning action about this protuberance … the whole base of the cloud seemed badly agitated … the projection was lowering and the agitation becoming more violent as it moved southward.” He also noted that “the whole storm was moving in a direction about 30 degrees west of south at an increasing rate of speed.” A tornado was forming, and the first damage occurred at the Texas State Cemetery (located at East 9th Street and Comal Street), where branches were torn from trees. The tornado initially appeared to be just “a fierce whirlwind”.
The tornado intensified as it moved south toward the Colorado River. Before reaching the river, at Sixth and Navasota, two buildings were badly damaged, and while crossing First Street and Waller Street, one of Austin’s signature tall light towers was blown down on top of a city fire station. From that point to the river, a number of buildings were badly damaged. Meanwhile, northwest of the State Capitol about five miles, the other (weaker) tornado (described as “the western storm”) had formed and was also moving toward the south-southwest, causing structural damage along the way.
“The Western Storm”:
The “western storm” developed near Fiskville (then a rural community northwest of the city of Austin, but now very much a part of the city). The tornado moved toward the south-southwest and caused significant damage at a state facility for infirm children. The tornado was reported to have lifted and touched backed to earth multiple times as it progressed toward the Colorado River. It is not clear if the tornado was intermittently lifting off the ground, or if the condensation funnel was pulsating between being more visible and less visible. The tornado reached the Deep Eddy area on the Colorado River, then located on the outskirts of the city. (Deep Eddy was a popular swimming hole in the river, and the land surrounding the area had been developed as the Deep Eddy Bathing Beach, which featured cabins, camping, and concessions.) Several cabins and other buildings were destroyed by the tornado that day. The most reliable reports state that the tornado crossed the river and disappeared into hills covered by thick cedar trees, where it presumably dissipated.
“The Eastern Storm” (continued):
Meanwhile, the eastern tornado intensified as it crossed the Colorado River, moving south-southwest up a gentle incline through the Travis Heights residential area, where many homes were damaged or destroyed. The intensifying tornado then struck at St. Edwards College, where the first fatality of the day occurred. A student at the college was killed, and several large structures were damaged or destroyed, including a dormitory and the college power plant.
After moving past St. Edwards, the tornado next encountered the Woodward Manufacturing Company, located near Penn Field, which was an abandoned World War I airfield. The manufacturing plant was severely damaged, with several buildings destroyed, and numerous workers were injured. Three people were killed in homes located near Penn Field. The tornado next moved through the St. Elmo community, still intensifying and become larger. Two people died in homes near Manchaca, The tornado began a gradual turn to the right (more toward the southwest), as it moved across rural farmland, and destroyed the Hartkoff Dairy, and the Bargsley residence near Davis Hill, Six of the twelve deaths occurred at the Bargsley residence. The tornado continued toward the west-southwest and eventually dissipated as it neared Oak Hill. The photo below shows the tornado, as seen from the University of Texas campus, prior to its dissipation.
There were several unusual factors about the Austin tornadoes of May 4, 1922 including: 1) the tornadoes were simultaneous, 2) the tornadoes both moved toward the south-southwest on parallel paths, and 3) the eastern tornado was much stronger than the western tornado. It seems that a comparison to the 1997 Central Texas Tornado Outbreak (including the F5 tornado at Jarrell) is inescapable: 1) all of the tornadoes on May 27, 1997 moved toward the south-southwest; 2) on at least two occasions, two tornadoes were occurring simultaneously; and 3) the stronger tornadoes tended to be the “eastern” ones. Unlike the 1997 event, however, there is very little meteorological data to aid in understanding what conditions porduced the event in 1922. Only one weather observation was made daily in Austin in 1922, and it was more of a climatological nature. There were no regular hourly surface observations, no upper air data, and (obviously) no radar data.
[The written reports by Morris and Seashore were published in the Monthly Weather Review (now a publication of the A.M.S. but then published by the U.S. Weather Bureau). Dr. Simonds wrote a report that was published in the University of Texas Bulletin, No. 2307, Feb. 15, 1923. These reports are available online.]
Lon Curtis Bio: Although educated as an attorney, and serving 24 years as a Texas prosecutor, Lon Curtis pursued his passion for weather as a serious avocation before realizing his dream of becoming an on-air meteorologist at KWTX-TV (Waco) in 1997. That opportunity came about, in part, because of his role in storm spotting during a tornado outbreak in May of 1997, including the tornado at Jarrell that killed 27 people. Lon is a member of the American Meteorology Society and the National Weather Association, and holds the AMS Certified Broadcast Meteorologist certification (on inactive status since his retirement from broadcasting in 2011). Lon authored a peer-reviewed research article published in the AMS journal Weather and Forecasting (2004), on mid-level dry air intrusions as a factor in tornado outbreaks associated with landfalling tropical cyclones. Since retiring, he has continued his research interest in severe convective storms, and is building a database of all tornadoes in Texas since 1880 that have caused one or more deaths. He also maintains a personal website on weather conditions and hazards affecting Central Texas.