Introduction to the Gainesville Tornado Disaster of 1936
On the ill-fated morning of April 6, 1936, citizens of Gainesville, Georgia, a bustling commercial and industrial town nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, were dealt an agonizing blow when a series of deadly tornadoes ripped through the heart of the city damaging infrastructure and destroying hundreds of its businesses and residences. In the wake of the great disaster more than two hundred men, women, and children were killed and an estimated 1,600 citizens were injured. Today, the Gainesville tornado disaster of 1936 stands as one of the worst weather-related disasters in the history of the state and is widely regarded as the fifth deadliest tornado episode in recorded United States history. The following sketch of the 1936 Gainesville tornado disaster provides links to other related digitized collections accessible through GALILEO including Hall County Historical Photograph Collection, New Georgia Encyclopedia and Vanishing Georgia.
The Tupelo-Gainesville Outbreak
The tornadoes that tore through Gainesville were part of a larger storm system known as the Tupelo-Gainesville Outbreak which produced approximately seventeen tornadoes that touched down in Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia, and South Carolina. On April 5, the evening before the Gainesville disaster, citizens of Tupelo, Mississippi were shaken from their slumber when an estimated eight tornadoes, registering as F-5 on the Fujita scale of tornado intensity, swept through the northern residential sections of the city killing 216 and injuring approximately 700. The following morning shortly before 9:00 A.M. eyewitness reports recalled seeing at least two tornadoes strike the southwest section of Gainesville, then move northeast through the commercial district and on to the residential neighborhoods near North Green Street. From the northeastern residential area, the tornado traveled east two miles towards the textile center of New Holland where it destroyed nearly one hundred homes as well as the Pacolet Manufacturing Company [hal064,hal065, hal116].
A City in Ruin
In the aftermath of the tornado disaster, the city of Gainesville lay in a near complete state of ruin. William M. Brice, a prominent citizen and correspondent for the Atlanta Journal and Associated Press, described Gainesville in his writings as "a city laid waste." Unlike the Tupelo tornadoes, which mainly affected the city’s residential areas, tornadoes in Gainesville attacked the business and commercial district reducing fourteen blocks to debris and trapping hundreds of citizens in the wreckage [hal059, hal079, hal080, hal097, hal108, hal227]. Minutes after the attack, numerous fires erupted throughout the Public Square and downtown area. Damage from the tornadoes immobilized the Gainesville Fire Department and forced rescuers to dynamite buildings on the Public Square as a means of controlling the rapid spread of fire.
The most tragic of these fires occurred at Cooper Pants Factory, a two-story garment factory located on the corner of West Broad and Maple Streets [hal066, hal104, hal106]. When the tornado struck, many of the 125 workers, most of who were young women and girls, rushed to seek shelter in the basement level of the factory. The sudden clamor of the employees coupled with damage sustained from the tornado caused the building to collapse and ignite into flames. Sixty of the factory’s employees died.
While the business district of Gainesville bore the brunt of the tornado attack, residential areas on the eastern side of the city also sustained serious damage from the storm [hal109, hal113, hal120, hal121, hal124, hal126, hal206]. In the days following the tornado disaster, a report issued by the American Red Cross stated that over 500 homes were destroyed and nearly 750 dwellings were damaged. As many newspapers of the time did not regularly report news concerning the African American community, it is unclear whether or not the numbers reported by the Red Cross are inclusive of the African American segment of the population in Gainesville.
With Gainesville in a complete state of wreckage and chaos, cadets from Riverside Military Academy rushed to provide relief to the decimated city. As the first organized group to arrive on the ghastly scene, an estimated 500 cadets, under the order of Colonel Sandy Beaver, worked feverishly to restore and maintain order in the city until the National Guard [hal066, hal277] arrived.
Hospitals and first aid stations were quickly established throughout the city to provide emergency care for the escalating number of injured. First Methodist Church [hal031, hal220, hal250], located downtown on the corner of Green and Academy Streets, was converted into the Red Cross headquarters and served as both an emergency clinic and mortuary for those most critically injured. An additional Red Cross headquarters was established on Athens Street for the benefit of the African American community. Other make-shift hospitals were set up at First Baptist Church [hal029, hal079, hal242], Gainesville High School, and Chicopee Mills where storm victims were stabilized and prepared for transport to Atlanta hospitals.
News of the great disaster reached nearby Atlanta minutes after the tornadoes struck, and the city immediately began work to organize relief efforts. At the request of Atlanta’s mayor, James L. Key, available doctors and nurses gathered at Grady Hospital where squads of medical professionals were assembled and dispatched to Gainesville. The Atlanta Journal reported that the first ambulance carrying four doctors, six nurses, and hundreds of medical dressings, splints, and antiseptics left for Gainesville at 9:15A.M. Emergency medical crews were also dispatched from Athens, Lawrenceville, and other surrounding cities.
In addition to medical relief efforts, numerous state and national disaster relief agencies mobilized thousands of workers and resources to aid in the rehabilitation of an ailing Gainesville. Organizations such as the Works Progress Administration and the Salvation Army set up food depots and soup kitchens throughout the city for the benefit of both storm victims and relief forces. Many of these centers, such as the canteen station that was established in the Coca-Cola Bottling Works building on Green Street, served vegetable soup, sandwiches, coffee, and doughnuts. Other agencies such as the Federal Emergency Relief Association and Civilian Conservation Corps worked to rescue the injured, recover the dead, and clear the debris.
The Government Responds
Upon receiving news of the devastation in Gainesville, President Franklin D. Roosevelt prematurely ended his vacation off the coast of Florida and made arrangements to visit the debilitated city. Three days after the disaster on April 9, Roosevelt arrived in Gainesville and met with representatives from the American Red Cross, Civilian Conservation Corps, and Works Progress Administration in addition to several other local relief officials to discuss the status of clean-up and recovery efforts. Immediately following the meeting, the President, from the rear platform of his private train, offered his condolences to a crowd of nearly 2,000 citizens. In his speech Roosevelt expressed pride in the cooperative and determined spirit of the people of Gainesville and assured residents of the federal government’s support in rebuilding their city. In addition to the government’s distribution of $2,500,000 in immediate relief funds for communities stricken by the Tupelo-Gainesville Outbreak, the Senate unanimously passed a bill that authorized the release of rehabilitation loans totaling $50,000,000 for those affected by the recent storms in the southeast.
A Return to Normalcy
As the country struggled to overcome the hardships brought forth by the Great Depression, the city of Gainesville, which boasted a population of nearly 10,000 at the time of the tornado, struggled to regain a sense of normalcy. Due to the expeditious efforts of local and state relief agencies and the generous contributions of their fellow Georgians, residents of Gainesville were able to restore a semblance of their lives before the disaster in the days and weeks following the disaster. Beginning on Wednesday, April 8, grieving citizens of Gainesville began the painful process of burying the dead. As many local churches were either damaged, destroyed, or being used for relief activities, most funeral services were performed in the homes of family and close friends. Religious leaders from surrounding communities and towns in Georgia came to Gainesville to assist in the burial rites.
By the end of the week, most of the debris from the Public Square was removed, numerous stores in the commercial district re-opened for business and plans were advanced for rebuilding, repairing, and beautifying the city. On April 23, the Gainesville Eagle reported that the National Emergency Council had already approved eighty-six applications to rebuild or construct new buildings in the city. Ambitious rebuilding efforts, using mostly local labor and local materials, continued throughout the remainder of the year and into the fall of 1937 when work on the new Civic Center, an area spanning three blocks that included the Federal Building [hal244], Post Office, City Hall, and Hall County Courthouse, was completed.
Eager to celebrate their monumental accomplishments in overcoming the great disaster, citizens of Gainesville made plans to host an elaborate dedication ceremony [hal248] to commemorate the city’s rebirth. As a token of their appreciation to President Roosevelt for his assistance and support in Gainesville’s rehabilitation, the city chose to dedicate the ceremony to the president and erected a marble monument in his honor. On March 23, 1938, President Roosevelt addressed a crowd of over 20,000 voicing his gratitude to citizens of Gainesville and, once again, expressing his pride in the city’s triumphant spirit. Roosevelt’s speech marked the end of the city’s rehabilitation from the great tornado disaster and served as a powerful symbol of Gainesville’s return to greatness.
Leigh Ann Ripley