The Ruskin Heights Tornado: Sixty Years Since

Michael Wells

May 20, 2017, marks the 60th anniversary of the Ruskin Heights Tornado. Interestingly, the event has also been called the Kansas-Missouri Tornado, the Ottawa-Kansas City Tornado, and was part of one of 57 twisters that struck in the central United States from Colorado to Missouri and from Oklahoma to Nebraska during a three day span that month.

The Ruskin Heights neighborhood of southeastern Kansas City is where the F5 storm wrought its most significant damage and the name has stuck.

Map showing the tornado's path, 1957
Map showing the tornado's path, 1957

The storm had its beginnings near the town of Williamsburg, Kansas, a little after 6:00 p.m. on the evening of the 20th. There was no National Weather Service warning system to warn of oncoming storms in 1957 and the use of radar to track them was relatively new at the time. Relying instead upon local forecast centers sending word via teletype, residents standing in its path during its early stages had very little warning of the storm's approach. The tornado narrowly missed Ottawa, but tragically claimed its first human victims when it veered toward an elderly couple's home located just outside of the town.

The storm proceeded upon its destructive path toward the Kansas City area, striking Martin City at about 7:30. By the time it had finished its work nearly every building and residence in the town was either demolished or severely damaged.

Image of home after the storm had passed, 1957
Image of home after the storm had passed, 1957

The tornado continued, passing to the north of Grandview before slamming into Hickman Mills and Ruskin Heights at about 7:50. The shopping center and high school at the intersection of 111th Street and Blue Ridge Boulevard were significantly damaged, but the tornado went on to decimate the residential areas to the east. Many of the homes lying in its path had been constructed without basements or cellars, but many residents sought refuge from neighbors with access to subterranean shelter, one report indicating that over fifty people crammed themselves into a single basement, literally piling themselves atop one another to escape the fury going on outside.

Aerial View of the tornado's path through Ruskin Heights, 1957
Aerial View of the tornado's path through Ruskin Heights, 1957

By the time the tornado left the ground somewhere near Knobtown, it had been on the ground for over an hour and a half and had cut a continuous 71-mile path that was between 175 and 700 yards wide at points. Sadly, 44 individuals across Kansas and Missouri lost their lives that night. Another 531 were injured by the storm.

On May 18, 1958, a memorial to the community's loss and struggle to rebuild was dedicated at the neighborhood's entrance. Its plaque reads:

In perpetual memory to those residents of Ruskin Heights who, having lost even the most precious of life's blessings in the tragedy that struck this community May 20, 1957, found the will and spiritual strength to here build anew. This memorial is dedicated to those who lost their lives that night and in so doing, perpetuate that which they helped to build.
Dedication of the Ruskin Heights Tornado Memorial, May 18, 1957
Dedication of the Ruskin Heights Tornado Memorial, May 18, 1958

About the Author

Michael Wells is a Special Collections Librarian in the Missouri Valley Special Collections.

Comments

I'll never forget this

I'll never forget this horrible day...my father took us right into it's path...we barely escaped certain death..my whole family..seven of us...we were spared..unlike so many who tragically died that day..

I am a survivor. The path of

I am a survivor. The path of that tornado changed who I am. I remember it vividly. I need only to look down at my legs to see evidence of the tremendous destruction possible and to remember family lost. The good that has arisen goes beyond weather forecasting. Two new orthopedic surgical techniques have been developed to repair damage to my legs. The impact will be far reaching. A high school student once asked if I could change being in the tornado, would I? My answer, no.

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