The Albertville Tornado of 1908

The Albertville Tornado of 1908


By Elton Camp


(The following is a true story, although it has been enhanced with dialogue and some imaginary details to add interest.)


            North Alabama weather might make sudden changes.  The sky darkened.  The west wind picked up.  Trees began to bend in the gusts.  An ominous yellowish cast developed in the clouds.  Scattered, heavy drops of water plopped to the earth. The metallic smell of an approaching storm filled the air.  


            The 1908 tornado that devastated the town of Albertville instilled a deep fear of storms throughout the region.  Without warning, on Friday about four p.m., it had descended from the southwest in its awesome fury.  The downtown business section and all the churches were splintered.  Only the rail depot survived its destructive power.  Over forty acres in the small town lay in ruins.  Eighteen people had been killed and more than 150 injured.  Twenty more perished throughout north Alabama on that memorable day


            “Take the injured to the agricultural school.  We’ll make that into a hospital,” commanded young medical student B.C. Scarborough.  Along with another medical intern, David Sibert, he supervised removal of desks from classrooms to make room for rows of bedsprings.   Soon the makeshift facility was crowded with fifty victims of the storm.  Screams and pleas arose from some.  The most severely injured suffered in stoic silence.  The stench of death was in the air. 


            As word of the disaster spread, doctors from nearby Guntersville rushed to the scene.  Trains from Gadsden arrived with doctors, nurses, and workers.  Medical supplies and drugs arrived from Gadsden and Fort Payne.  Alabama people believed in taking care of their own.


            Scarborough, who later practiced medicine in Albertville for many years, suggested, “The ones not hurt as bad need to go with their relatives and stay until they get well.  We’ll remain here at the school with the others.”  The two medical students tended the victims virtually around the clock. 


            “They’s some stealin’ from th’ stores!” a teenager informed the chief of police.  “Jest walkin’ ’n an’ takin’ whut they please.” 


            Captain John C. Coleman, commander of the Albertville National Guard, soon put an end to the pilfering.  “Go downtown in uniforms and stand with rifles.  Don’t shoot nobody ’less you got no choice.  Just seeing you’ll likely keep ’em at bay.” 


            The strategy worked.  Assisted by men from the Gadsden Queen City Guards, the soldiers protected the property that remained from the tornado.


            Townspeople who survived thanked a beneficent God whom, they devoutly believed, had reached down from heaven to shield them.  As they came to that conviction, they ignored the deaths of several children, including a newborn girl.  The minister of the Main Street Church also perished. Otto, the town drunk, lived on.  Such was thought to be the nature of Divine caprice.  It wasn’t to be questioned or explained.  Each survivor was convinced he’d been spared for some glorious purpose.  All of them agreed on one thing.


            “Hit sounted jest like a freight train.” Eyes were wide with excitement during description of the frightening experience.  In the absence of big trucks and planes, a train was the only analogy available.  Without fail, listeners were awed. 


            Albertville didn’t have another such tornado until 2010 when a destructive one again struck the town.  There was massive damage to residential areas and to the school complex, but thanks to modern detection and warning, nobody died. 


            Once again, people who had been in peril expressed the belief that God had directly intervened to protect them.  The role of the weather service and current communication was generally given little credit.  Indeed, if God had had a hand in the matter, why didn’t he divert the tornado from the town entirely or just dissipate it?  “Time and chance befall them all,” declares Scripture, but people have trouble making application of that principle in their own lives. 

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God did it.