Ninety years after Virginia’s worst tornado outbreak — a day that claimed 22 lives and shattered several rural communities — the stories are as chilling and vital as ever.
On May 2, 1929, five strong tornadoes swept through rural portions of the counties of Scott, Alleghany, Bath, Rappahannock, Loudoun, Culpeper and Fauquier.
The first and deadliest of the day’s tornadoes razed a two-story wooden schoolhouse in the Rye Cove area of Scott, 30 miles west-northwest of Bristol.
Of the nearly 155 students in or near the school building on that rainy Thursday afternoon, 12 were killed, along with one teacher. Dozens of children were maimed from the crush of debris, or from being hurled into surrounding fields. The rest were left with minor injuries and horrific memories.
Within two hours, an eerily similar storm struck 280 miles away in Rappahannock. Another tornado demolished a school in Woodville, leaving 13 students hurt and one dead. That storm killed at least two more people on its 13-mile rampage.
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In both cases, the funnels were powerful enough to blow classroom fragments dozens of miles downwind.
The day’s third tornado hit two more schools, in the Cowpasture Valley north of Clifton Forge. Luckily, it struck at 6 p.m. and there were no students inside at that hour, and no fatalities occurred in Alleghany or Bath.
The tornado outbreak then bore down on Northern Virginia, where six more people would be killed between Lagrange and Weaversville during the evening.
The tragedy that once captivated the state has fallen out of direct memory after 90 years.
Outbreaks since 1929 have spawned higher numbers of tornadoes in Virginia and costlier damage paths.
But no community has suffered more human loss than Rye Cove.
The families rooted in the rugged valleys of Scott County still pass down the somber story.
It was just like a long barrel rolling along. Trash, sticks and fodder were up in it, and it just hit the next second and down we went.
Scared? To tell the truth, I didn’t have time to be. Something like that is so quick. I can’t think of something happening like that. Oh, mercy.
— Kyle J. Pruitt, a Rye Cove survivor, to The Richmond News Leader in 1989
Today, as then, the Rye Cove area is a wide, rolling valley filled with farms, fields and homes, walled off from neighboring towns by steep ridges.
Two schools now stand in the vicinity of the one that was destroyed: Rye Cove High and Rye Cove Intermediate.
At the intermediate school, a memorial topped by the old school’s bell bears the name of victims, whose ages ranged from 6 to 24.
The current principal of Rye Cove Intermediate, Chris Stapleton, said the May 2 anniversary usually isn’t marked with any special ceremonies.
“It exists as a family event, something that affected everyone whose family is from this area,” he said.
Stapleton’s own grandfather witnessed the debris flying as the tornado hit the next valley over.
But he said the most striking part of the 1929 story is the moment when Principal A.S. Noblin, aware of the oncoming storm, herded the children inside as their midday recess drew to a close.
As the building disintegrated from the sudden wind, Noblin lost consciousness and was flung 75 feet into a nearby pond. He survived his injuries.
Residents down the valley watched the funnel form and race toward the school, but it was moving too quickly to warn those in the way.
The tornado destroyed several homes and barns along its 4-mile path through the cove, but the school was the most dire scene of destruction.
Fires from the heating stoves began to ignite the wooden wreckage, but heavy rain and the frantic work of a bucket brigade prevented the flames from overtaking those who were trapped.
But the rain also hindered the rescue.
A horse and a car were sent down to neighboring Clinchport to rally help. Reportedly, the horse made it down faster because the roads through the narrow, twisting pass were so muddy and rutted.
Children plucked from the timbers and fields were evacuated to nearby buildings before frantic parents could reach the scene, adding to the confusion and panic over missing loved ones. The tornado destroyed the school’s roll, and the few nearby telephones were cut off.
All afternoon, the muddy road into Rye Cove was crowded with aid arriving from nearby towns and farmers’ wagons ferrying victims down to Clinchport. There, a passenger train was held so that the seriously wounded could be taken to a hospital in Bristol.
“It’s so hard for children today in a world of cellphones and good roads to think about how it took hours to even get anyone up here to help,” Stapleton said.
Communities as far away as Richmond sent supplies and money.
A wooden cabin used by the Red Cross to distribute aid to Rye Cove is now located on the school’s grounds and serves as an interpretive site for today’s students.
“The local families still remember it well,” said Stapleton. “It’s been kept alive through the history and oral tradition. The story is just so vivid.”
The tragedy lives on in music, as well.
Pioneering country recording artist and Scott native A.P. Carter came to help and viewed the devastation firsthand. He composed a song called “The Cyclone of Rye Cove,” which was recorded by the Carter Family and released later that year.
”A storm of considerable energy ...”
— U.S. Weather Bureau forecast from May 2, 1929
The tornadoes in Virginia were part of a larger outbreak that struck from Oklahoma to Florida to Maryland.
Severe weather wasn’t in the forecast for Virginia on May 2 — watches and warnings were still decades away — but the atmosphere was primed to send violent storms across the mountains.
The U.S. Weather Bureau map from that morning showed a particularly intense area of low pressure was spinning northeastward through the Ohio Valley, with a cold front trailing down to the Gulf Coast.
Winds blew warmer air into the Appalachians from the south and southeast. Though unmeasured, the upper levels of the troposphere must have featured stronger winds from the southwest. That overlay of shearing winds causes storms to organize and rotate.
The pattern resembled the other great outbreaks that sent violent funnels through the Appalachians, on April 3-4, 1974, and April 27-28, 2011.
Virginia is pretty well outside the tornado zone. When such windstorms visit the State, they come not only as unwelcome travelers, but as stray guests …
This sort of thing, perhaps, will not happen again in Virginia for many, many years to come.
— Times-Dispatch editorial, May 4, 1929
While advocating for more robust school construction, the coverage from 1929 reflected the prevailing view of the time that tornadoes were mainly a concern for the Great Plains.
A tragic aberration, not a wake-up call.
The earliest known account of a Virginia tornado dates to 1776, but the documentation and study of severe weather wasn’t formalized until the mid-20th century.
As a consequence of our modern vigilance — and to some extent, our increased development — we would now consider it an unusually inactive year if there were only five tornadoes spotted in the state.
During the 1920s, administrators and lawmakers were preoccupied with making schools safer from fires, replacing cramped wooden structures with modern brick and masonry.
After surveying the wreckage of Rye Cove, the state’s schools superintendent declared it was doubtful that any structure could have survived the ordeal.
A brick replacement was erected by the fall of 1930.
Rye Cove wasn’t the only high-profile school disaster of its era.
Most of the recorded tornado deaths in U.S. schools occurred between the late 1800s and mid-1900s.
The worst, according to the website of tornado historian Thomas Grazulis, was the Tri-State Tornado of March 18, 1925. Of the 695 fatalities it caused, 33 happened at a school in De Soto, Ill., along with dozens more at eight other schools along its path.
Even today, school buildings do not offer absolute protection from tornadic winds.
Eight people died at a high school in Enterprise, Ala., in 2007. The EF-5 tornado that devastated Moore, Okla., in 2013 — with winds topping 200 mph — collapsed the wall of an elementary school, which killed seven students.
In those cases, the tornadoes were on the very rare, high end of intensity.
A relatively weak tornado — the kind that spins up about 20 times each year in Virginia — will harm a person in the wrong place at the wrong time, but is survivable with the right precautions.
Short of a specially engineered tornado-safe room, the safest place to ride out a storm is a windowless interior area on the lowest floor of a structure.
Hallways and bathrooms are often designated as shelter areas in schools, but tornado plans should be adapted to each building’s unique design, according to a safety article by the federal Storm Prediction Center.
In any event, windows are to be avoided during tornadoes, along with portable classroom trailers, outbuildings, athletic fields and vehicles. Rooms with large-span roofs, such as gyms, auditoriums and cafeterias, are most vulnerable to a collapse.
In 2018, two Virginia high schools experienced small tornadoes within the same week: one outside of Charlottesville, and one in Fairfax County. In both cases, the damage to property was minor, with no injuries.
The Sept. 17 tornadoes in the Richmond area missed Chesterfield County’s Cosby High School and Bailey Bridge Middle School and Henrico County’s Freeman High School by hundreds of yards.
Now, when thunderstorms rumble across the mountains, Stapleton follows standard safety procedures and monitors a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration weather radio from the office.
His 164 students recently practiced hunkering down during the annual statewide tornado drills.
“We’re a little more sensitive to it, I guess, than other people in this part of the state.”