Documenting the "Monster from the Skies": Photographs Telling the Story of the 1953 Waco Tornado

"Monster From The Skies," Waco Tornado, May 1953

“It was so wide and the rain so heavy, it was impossible for anyone in the city to see the funnel approaching.” The cover of this publication demonstrates how T.E. Caldwell of Thornton, Texas, remembers how this storm on May 11, 1953 looked.

This week marks the 60th anniversary of the May 11, 1953, tornado that hit Waco, Texas, causing the deaths of 114 people. To honor those who lost their lives on this tragic day, and the great loss of a large part of Waco’s central business district, we have put on our Flickr page some unseen or seldom seen photographs of the affected areas of Waco, before and after this storm.

This group of images includes digitized 35mm, 4×5 and 8×10 photograph negatives, Kodachrome slides, stereo-slides, and printed photos, and features images captured by Waco photographers such as Hiram Blaine Sherrill, Randall W. Todd, Fred Marlar, and the Army Air Force Photography Division. We also included “before” photos, giving us a sense of what these stricken parts of Waco were like before the catastrophic storm.

Before and After: The Devastation of the 1953 Waco Tornado

The top image, taken by Fred Marlar in about 1951, contrasts with the image below taken by Jimmie Willis of the same vicinity after the 1953 tornado.

Fred Gildersleeve, a well-known Waco photographer, also documented the storm’s wreckage. In a 1977 oral history interview, Waco historian Roger Conger remarked of Gildersleeve that “…Waco was most fortunate in having him here because he rode the crest of Waco’s remarkable development during the first twenty-five or thirty years of this century.” But sadly, just a few years prior to his death in 1958, he also saw the destruction of part of the city he had made a living photographing. He likely lost friends in the tragedy. However, like his earlier work, his documentation of the aftermath of the 1953 Waco Tornado helps to record an important part of the city’s history.

Before and After the Tornado, South Side of Waco, Texas, City Square, 1953 Waco Tornado

Before (1950) and after (1953) the tornado, south side of Waco, Texas, city square, by Fred Gildersleeve

Another photographer whose work is being brought to light is Dr. Hannibal “Joe” Jaworski. He resided in the nearby Roosevelt Hotel (400 Austin Avenue) and had a medical practice on the third floor of the Amicable (ALICO) Building, on the corner of 5th and Austin. In the aftermath of the storm, he led medical care of the wounded at Waco’s Hillcrest Hospital. Jaworski previously served as a colonel in the U.S. Army Medical Corp, and so his experience earned during WWII made his contribution vital in helping those injured in this catastrophic natural disaster.

First Responders to the 1953 Waco Tornado (2)

The collapse of the Padgitt’s and RT Dennis buildings onto 5th Street, by Hannibal “Joe” Jaworski

When going to some of these hard-hit areas now, all that remains are some empty lots and historical markers. However, there is nothing like a photograph taken during this time or just before to help us realize why this event was sometimes referred to as the “Monster from the Skies.”

Check out more before and after images of the 1953 Waco tornado in our Flickr slideshow. Click the arrow to make the slideshow start, and click the crosshairs in the bottom right corner to make the slideshow full-screen.

By Geoff Hunt, Audio and Visual Curator

Discover more about the 1953 Waco tornado…

This entry was posted in Amicable Alico Building, Army Air Force Photography Division, Dr Pepper, Fred Gildersleeve, Fred Marlar, Hannibal "Joe" Jaworski, Hiram Blaine Sherrill, photographic negatives, Randall Todd, Roger Conger, tornado, Waco, Waco tornado 1953. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Documenting the "Monster from the Skies": Photographs Telling the Story of the 1953 Waco Tornado

  1. Andy says:

    The mayor of Waco on that day was Ralph Wolf, who in his first season as Baylor basketball coach, was aboard the bus which was hit by the I.& G.N. “Sunshine Special” train on January 22, 1927.

    • Amanda Norman says:

      Thank you for contributing that contextual information, Andy! That’s right, Wolf did survive the train-bus crash that killed the 10 men who became known as the Immortal Ten. He continued to coach, then went on to serve Baylor as its athletic director. He also was executive vice president of the Baylor Stadium Corporation that oversaw the construction of the Baylor football stadium in the 1950s. He was lauded for his leadership of Waco through the aftermath of the tornado.

  2. Pingback: Texas over Time: Austin Avenue, Waco | The Texas Collection

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>