Did You Know…
This Week in Sapulpa History – Two Nights of Tornadoes, Back-to-Back
Rachel Whitney, Curator, Sapulpa Historical Museum
The National Weather Services defines a tornado as “a violently rotating column of air extending from the base of a thunderstorm down to the ground. Tornadoes are capable of completely destroying well-made structures, uprooting trees, and hurling objects through the air like deadly missiles. Tornadoes can occur at any time of day or night and at any time of the year.”
Oklahoma, and other Central Plains areas, know all too well about tornadoes. Many of us have witnessed these storms first hand; and some of us have witnessed multiple tornadoes in one night. This week in history, Sapulpans witnessed two cyclones within two nights in May 1960.
Wednesday, May 4, 1960 (Morning): “Scattered showers and thunderstorms and cooler weather in forecast for this area Wednesday night and Thursday…The weather bureau warned of severe thunderstorms producing tornadoes, large hail, and damaging winds.”
(Evening): A small tornado hit the southeast part of Sapulpa Wednesday evening. The damage was in the area of the 1200, 1300, and 1400 blocks of East Lincoln, McKinley, Fairview, Bryan, and Cleveland. Several homes were damaged and trees were uprooted. Only one person was injured that night.
It was reported that no one in Sapulpa had seen the funnel, but a small twister-like winds caused hefty damages. “Only one-storm connected injury was reported; this being a broken arm sustained by a Sapulpa man who slipped on his front porch as he raced into his home at the height of the storm.”
The Keeton family had planned to move to their new home in the coming weeks. However, due to the late night tornado, the move became immediate. “The A.L. Keeton family was planning to move to 201 East Murphy from their rented home at 1021 East Bryan, but expected to be moving today. Their furniture is water soaked…” He and his family went to a nearby cellar, taking refuge as the storm hit at 9:30 that evening.
Thursday, May 5, 1960 (Morning): “Tornadoes ripped across all of Oklahoma last night in a skipping fashion and tornado-like winds dipped across a part of Sapulpa, demolishing one house, damaging another, and inflicting considerable damage to other homes in its path.”
(Evening): A similar situation occurred in the direct opposite area of the previous night. Another tornado hit the northwest part of town at 6:30 that evening. “The tornado ripped through the northwest part of town, crossing the Sapulpa Golf Course and traveling up U.S. 66 to Wickham Packing Co. and then jumped back to the housing area. The path of the storm then is near the Turnpike entrance and continues northeastward, with a large number of homes on the Sand Springs Highway destroyed.”
The storm destroyed hundreds of homes, killing three people, and injuring dozens. In an unofficial estimate, 100 homes were completely destroyed, and another 100 homes had severe damages; and at least another 100 homes with minor damages.
Lee Birmingham, Lillie Wright, and George Thomas were listed as the three victims of the tornado*.
*Note: the original report named a Mr. George Thomas, however, it was discovered that the deceased was a Mrs. Ora Thomas.
The City declared this section of Sapulpa a disaster area, and condoned onlookers, sightseers from trespassing the heavily damaged area. “Organized search parties including Highway Patrol, Civil Defense Auxiliary police, National Guard” and aids from Salvation Army and the Red Cross would arrive Friday morning.
Friday, May 6, 1960 (Morning): “An ugly, death-bearing tornado leaped from the skies…The cold, gray light of dawn Friday signaled the start of a search through the mass of rubble and mud for five persons unaccounted for. As late as 1PM Friday, reports were received that a fourth fatality had been recorded here, but this is not confirmed officially.”
(Afternoon): The City Manager, Add Ellyson, reported that the storms had knocked out all the power lines at the pump station, keeping the city from either pumping water from lakes or filtering the water. By the end of the day power and water should’ve been restored to most of Sapulpa.
Another loss to the city of Sapulpa were the two buildings of Booker T. Washington High School and Mount Olive Baptist Church. “Noel Vaughn, Superintendent of Schools, said that Booker T. Washington School was a total loss, and students there would start attending classes in the new high school on Monday.” It was estimated at the time the school damages would be over one-hundred thousand in damages.
The Aftermath (May through September, 1960): The School Board, Superintendent, teachers and staff, and students had to readjust after the devastating loss of the school. The City also had to find relief, and a way to support its citizens.
(City): Still by May 8th, little to no water was restored. The restriction of the disaster area had been lifted at that point, however. The treatment plant’s large motors that ran the pumps were being dried out in hopes that they could be put back into operation.
“Gov. Howard Edmondson inspected the storm by plane and declared Sapulpa to be a disaster area. Steps are being taken to compute the loss and applications will be made to the federal government for assistance.”
A little over a week later, on May 16th, the City Manager reported that the city had applied for $70,000 in Federal Funds for repair to various facilities the city owned. The worst was the pump house at the water treatment plant; it would need to be replaced. Other damages included all electrical lines were down at the plant, 225 bags of chemicals ruined, the filter plant cracked, and other miscellaneous items.
At the city park, damages to the ballpark, the golf pro’s building, and the swinging bridges were destroyed. Over 250 trees were also down in the park. By September, the City began remodeling the old swimming pool bath house for the golf pro shop.
June 6th, 1960, the City received notice that the Federal Government had rejected the request for funds in Oklahoma from the May tornadoes. Senator Robert Kerr asked the government to reconsider the proposal again. In early August, the City received word that the Federal Government had approved $14,000 for the building of a new pump house at the water treatment plant.
“Recent storm damage to public owned property in Oklahoma has been estimated at $736, 696.29, likely reaching $900,000; with Creek County’s loss being set at $73,500, not including damage to Booker T. Washington High School.” A later report was stated that the city would rebuild Booker T. Washington with the estimated cost of $100,000.
(Booker T. Washington High School): The School Board held an emergency meeting to discuss the rebuilding of Booker T. Washington School. Noel Vaughn thought the gymnasium and ten classrooms could be salvaged.
“The new high school is all set to receive Booker T. Washington students who will be housed there beginning Monday. Noel Vaughn said about 90% of the desks have been salvaged and taken to the new high school. Many school books were destroyed and students in some classes will have to share their books. Nearly all library books at Booker T. Washington School were lost. The Home Economics room was the hardest hit at the school.”
In the meantime, all students from all grades would have school in the new high school. Since Sapulpa schools were still separate schools, Booker T. Washington School students would be the only students in the new school. Then graduation began to change the Sapulpa school system.
The following couple of weeks, both Sapulpa High School and Booker T. Washington High School had to prepare for graduation. Sapulpa High held graduation exercises in the evenings; the Baccalaureate on May 22, and the Commencement on May 23. Booker T. Washington High held graduation exercises before and after the other school’s programs; the Baccalaurate on the afternoon of May 22, and the Commencement on the evening of May 24.
Both graduations held their graduations at the new high school auditorium.
After this school year, the agreement was that once a new Booker T. Washington School building was rebuilt, students from grade one to nine would return to Booker T. Washington School. The high school students, however, would remain at the new high school.
This would begin the process of integration of all students in Sapulpa schools for the next couple of decades.
The information found on this page has been researched through Sapulpa (and area) newspapers, Sapulpa Historical Society archives, books, and photographs, Sapulpa yearbooks, city directories, and other local authors. Any other sources will be labeled and named as the research continues. Any mistakes will be noted and adjusted as needed.