Tornado Strikes Stones River National Battlefield Park

By Gerald D. Swick
6/1/2009 • America's Civil War, Civil War

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On Good Friday, April 10, 2009, a tornado dropped from the clouds near Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Believed to have begun as an EF3, it grew to a half-mile wide EF4 during its 23.5-mile rampage. Nearly 300 homes sustained major damage and two people were killed; a separate EF1 tornado struck Murfreesboro at the same time, south of the larger storm.

The EF4 ripped through the small community of Blackman before rampaging through neighborhoods in Murfreesboro. Between the two communiites, it tore a path directly through the Stones River National Battlefield Park. Amazingly, nothing of historical significance, such as authentic cannon or Hazen’s Brigade Monument, were damaged, although fallen trees still block some trails over a month later and will present a fire danger unless they are removed.

Park Ranger Jim Lewis watched the funnel cloud come in from the south. It entered the park’s western edge and took aim at the visitor center in the northern part of the park. Fortunately, the roaring storm turned east, chewing up fences and uprooting trees instead of hitting the visitors center where staff, visitors, and  passerby from the Old Nashville Highway that runs alongside the park had taken shelter.

Assessing the damage, Lewis and Park Ranger Keith Schumann reported a split-rail fence that had been built less than five years ago was torn apart, a reproduction limber pole was snapped and a falling tree knocked a hole in the stone wall around the Stones River National Cemetery. Trees and limbs fell onto headstones but didn’t damage them. The Hazen Brigade Monument, called the oldest existing Civil War monument in the nation, also escaped damage. But trees lay everywhere, blocking the highway and the road that loops through the park. Within 48 hours, nearly 70 park service employees from other national parks, including Natchez Trace and Mammoth Cave, were on site, clearing the roads.

Daniel Neuenschwander, a firefighter from Natchez Trace Parkway who was among those working on the cleanup said, "We found everything back in there (the woods on the park’s western side): jewelry boxes, tools, a baby crib, a refrigerator. We even found love letters written by two high school sweethearts in the 1990s. The road was shut down; we had to cut a way through."

"We were closed for the better part of three weeks," Lewis said, "and there will be some future closings while we clear it out. At times it’ll look like a logging operation in the park, but if we don’t get it cleaned up, in another year we’ll have a dead tree load and then one cigarette could cause more damage than the tornado did.

"This park will never look the same again as it did that Friday morning (before the storm), not in my child’s lifetime. The cleanup work will continue for years."

The park is open to visitors and plans to continue its usual summer programs, but cleanup work will cause some interruptions and closings.

Anyone wishing to make donations to help defray cleanup costs can contact Stones River National Battlefield, 3501 Old Nashville Highway, Murfreesboro, TN 37129-3094 or The Friends of Stones River National Battlefield, P. O. Box 4092, Murfreesboro, TN 37129.

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