Remembering the Pruden tornado of 1933
Reading and hearing about the powerful hurricanes, earthquakes, and other natural disasters in recent weeks may remind Tri-State residents of a major event that touched the lives of many families in Pruden on March 14, 1933.
The Pruden tornado on that date was part of a deadly outbreak that affected the city of Nashville, the Middle Tennessee region, and finally the East Tennessee counties of Campbell, Claiborne, Hancock, Hawkins and Sullivan, plus portions of Bell County in Kentucky.
Reports following the tornado indicated that the entire outbreak produced five or more tornadoes, killed 44 people, and injured more than 460. The violent and long-lived tornado leveled at least 60 homes and damaged 275 others. It also caused at least 12 deaths and injuries to many more in the Pruden community.
About 350 coal miners were thrown out of work at Pruden.
A school house and church were reported smashed to pieces. The railway depot was overturned. The commissary was demolished. Some survivors reported that hail stones as large as hen eggs and baseballs fell as the wind had ripped through the town.
The Middlesboro Daily News’ headline on its front page the next day proclaimed: “Pruden Almost Wiped Out By Storm.” The newspaper also reported that the tornado moved on to damage buildings on the campus at Lincoln Memorial University. Both Duke Hall and LaFrentz-Poole Hall suffered heavy roof damage, and campus trees and smaller structures were littered.
In the early 1930s, communications between communities and about emergency situations were not easily accomplished. All telephone lines surrounding Pruden and the areas hit by the tornado were down. Many roads were made impassable by fallen trees.
Yet, the Associated Press was able to report that six ambulances from Middlesboro hauled injured individuals to Middlesboro throughout the night. The local Red Cross officials arranged to set up food kitchens early in the morning after the disaster, extending relief to more than 100 homeless families.
Fifty years later, Bonnie M. Page collected personal recollections of the massive tornado and published them in a book entitled Pruden (As We Remember It). As a native of Claiborne County with family ties to Pruden, her efforts led to one of the few enduring summaries of the mad March tornado and its effect upon the town and its people. Copies of the book are generally available at the public library or historical society.
William H. Baker, native of Claiborne County and former resident of Middlesboro, may be contacted at Wbaker@limestone.edu