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March 24, 2010

Author faces the storm

Keven McQueen examines Louisville tornado of 1890

Saturday of this week will be the anniversary of Louisville’s most violent natural disaster. On March 27, 1890, one of many tornados spat out by the 25th-deadliest storm in U.S. history tore up a staggeringly large portion of downtown, leaving a fatality total that soared toward the triple digits.

Keven McQueen, an Eastern Kentucky University professor who’s written numerous books about “strange and obscure” topics in regional history, has turned his attention to the events of that day — and its aftermath — in “The Great Louisville Tornado of 1890.” The book’s release is being heralded with a reading/signing at Carmichael’s on the exact 120th anniversary of the storm.

Readers already acquainted with McQueen will not be surprised that his thorough hand at research and interest in how history regards people from all walks of life make this book a rich lode of fascinating findings that sometimes challenges the official record of the disaster. The History Press paperback includes rare photos that capture the level of destruction and complement McQueen’s accounts of the horrific events at Falls City Hall and Union Depot.

The actions and reactions of those who faced the twister were often brave and protective — but they could also be anxious and misguided, and who would be surprised at that? Panic seems to have caused many deaths — but so did the construction and safety standards of the day. There’s many a poignant tale in this short volume from an accomplished pen. The author exchanged e-mails with LEO to provide further illumination.

LEO: How were you first inspired to write about the tornado?

Keven McQueen: I have been fascinated by tornados since I was 6 years old, when a killer tornado passed within 300 yards of my family’s house in Richmond. I have long had an urge to write something on the topic — perhaps to help me deal with my own fears. (It didn’t help a bit, by the way.) While doing general research on tornados, I realized that one of the deadliest natural disasters in American history was the tornado that struck Louisville on March 27, 1890 — and yet few people today seem to have heard of it, not even Kentuckians.

LEO: What surprised you most about the way that the city of Louisville and its populace in 1890 dealt with this tragedy?

KM: For one thing, in the era before television, radio, cell phones and the Internet, most people in Louisville had no idea on the morning of March 28 that an enormous twister had destroyed a large section of the city the night before. It was also surprising how quickly citizens cleaned up the destruction; within a month or so there was little evidence that the disaster had ever occurred. This can be best appreciated when you see photographs that reveal the extent of the damage.

Probably most surprising … Louisville refused to accept help from the federal government. The merchants, the wealthy, the churches, the charitable societies and the common citizens joined forces and, as a result, the city cleaned up its own damage, fixed its own economy, re-housed its own homeless and took care of its own charity cases.

Author Keven McQueen
Saturday, March 27
Carmichael’s Bookstore
2720 Frankfort Ave. • 896-6950
Free; 4 p.m.