50th Anniversary of Clay Center Tornado

On September 25th of 1973, a damaging tornado swept through the city limits of Clay Center. Named “the most violent night for Mother Nature in Kansas history,” storms took the town by surprise. Between 6:00 pm and 2 am, the area, including nearby communities, were ravaged by Mother Nature. According to personal records, tornadoes touched down in Longford (around 7:30 pm), Oak Hill to Morganville (6-6:30 pm), and Clay Center, starting south of Blaine and moving north of the Garfield township (8:15-8:30 pm).

This image of the former U-WASH-IT car wash, along with its owners, became one of the most famous images of the 1973 tornado and its aftermath.

In all, the Concordia National Weather Service showed 24 tornadoes that formed in Clay County in a single evening. In all, eight touched the ground and traveled more than 60 miles, and destroyed virtually everything in their paths.

Records show countless barns and outbuildings, that were hit, 11,500 acres of debris and 4,800 destroyed acres of corn and milo. Another 11,000+ acres were flooded, with thousands of acres more flooded in following weeks of rain.

Within city limits, the tornado was spotted just after 8 pm, and a warning was sent out that it was headed straight for town. Traveling north on 6th St., the tornado intermittently hit the ground, demolishing whatever it hit. Businesses were lost over two blocks between McBrathney and Lincoln Ave. The hospital and additional buildings were hit, with damages to homes made along the way.

The strike was quick but massive, bystanders said. In following minutes, gas leaks and power outages were attended to. In addition, 14 nearby ambulances traveled in and five Army helicopters landed near the hospital to help with potential medical emergencies. Luckily, only 20 patients showed up to receive medical care.

The Aftermath

According to local reports, “The streets were littered with rubbish. Big pieces of roofs and walls were ripped by the wind, scattered like slivers into the streets. Hugh [sic] trees had been fractured and twisted and tossed. Limbs and branches were everywhere.”

“Electric cables were strewn like spaghetti in yards and alleys and streets. They sizzled and popped until the city shut off all electric power to the downed lines. Natural gas lines were ripped, jagged, and hissing. Cars and trucks lay bent, wrinkled, crushed, as though a giant had stepped on his toys.”

The Red Cross reported 80 destroyed homes and another 500 that were damaged. Another 80 businesses were hit downtown.

*Much of the information taken for this article was taken from a commemorative booklet published by the Clay Center Dispatch, with other local newspapers. Its title, The Indian Was Wrong, references an alleged tale to area settlers, in which a Native American predicted that a tornado would never hit Clay Center due to its location and proximity to the Republican River.

**Images were taken from the aforementioned booklet and an edition of the Dispatch from Sept. 22nd, 1998.

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