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 Texas : Features : Columns : "Texas Tales"

Cisco Twister

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

In Cisco’s Oakwood Cemetery, five graves bear the same last name and the same date of death – April 28, 1893.

That was the day a killer tornado struck the then prosperous Eastland County railroad town. The twister, later estimated by the National Weather Service as an F-4, roared into the city of 2,500 from the southwest at 9:40 p.m.

It was a Friday night, and Mr. and Mrs. W.W. Hickman had already put their five children to bed. The couple ran a café on the ground floor of the two-story Blake Building on Main Street and lived on the second floor. When they heard the howling wind, they started up the stairs toward their children.

But before the Hickman’s could reach them, the building collapsed. The couple somehow survived, but their five children – ranging in age from nine to three – all died.

The Hickmans were not the only ones touched by tragedy that night. At least 23 people died in the storm, though some believe as many as 30 died. Scores suffered injuries, some of them so severe that doctors initially predicted that at least 40 of their patients would die.

Texas has had more than its share of killer tornadoes, but the Cisco storm is notable in that it marked the deadliest tornado to that point in Texas history.

“The most terrific cyclone that ever visited Texas devastated Cisco,” one newspaper reported on May 6, “laying waste everything in its path, which was about three-fourths of a mile wide.” The twister stayed on the ground for five miles.

Another newspaper said “the town was almost wiped from the face of the earth.”

One survivor was W.L. Wilson, editor of the Cisco Apert. In his first account of the storm, he wrote that 40 large buildings were destroyed in the town’s business district, with only one significant structure left intact. Elsewhere, most of the houses in town were leveled or damaged. Of an estimated 400 residences, only one escaped any damage.

“Where once stood happy homes and busy, hustling marts of commerce naught remained but desolation, ruin and death,” Wilson wrote.

Tornado winds ripped a heavy metal safe from one business house and hurled it across the street and through the brick wall of another building. Near the train station, the storm derailed a 20-ton locomotive, its engineer among the dead.

Damage was estimated at a staggering $2 million in 1893 dollars. The Texas Legislature, then in session, appropriated $10,000 for the stricken community, an act the editor of one state newspaper termed “charitable but out of place as a state appropriation.”

Lightning will strike twice and so do tornadoes. A smaller tornado, spawned by a weather system that claimed 10 lives in Texas and Oklahoma on April 8, 1922, killed one person in Cisco. In 1950 and again in 1976, large killer tornadoes missed Cisco by less than 40 miles.

A Web site that posts statistical profiles of U.S. communities notes that “Cisco-area historical tornado activity is slightly above Texas state average” and 121 percent above the national average.

For years, local folklore held that all National Weather Service tornado records trace from April 28, 1893. But if that were ever the case, subsequent research has pushed the Texas tornado list further back, if not by much.

Only two Texas tornadoes are known to have caused multiple deaths prior to 1893, a May 28, 1880 storm in the Fannin County community of Savoy that killed 14 and a May 8, 1890 tornado in the Hood County town of Falls Creek that left 5 people dead.

Cisco’s claim on having survived the state’s deadliest tornado held only three years. On May 15, 1896 a tornado struck Sherman and killed 85 people.

In the 20th century, as Texas became increasingly urbanized, the pace picked up. A tornado struck Goliad in 1902, killing 114 people. Though some believe the death count may have been even higher, that number – tied in 1953 with the May 11 Waco tornado – still stands as the state’s highest tornado death toll.

Statistics mean little to those whose family histories were brutally altered by those early day Texas tornadoes, including the Hickmans. No one seems to know whatever happened to them after the storm, other than the psychological impact they must have suffered in losing all their children at one time. Wherever the couple ended up, they are not buried with their children.

© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" April 29, 2010 column

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