The 1936 Gainesville Tornado: Disaster and Recovery
By Leigh Ann Ripley and P. Toby Graham
Photograph of citizens viewing the damage and destruction caused by a tornado; Gainesville, Hall County, Georgia, April 6, 1936.
On the ill-fated morning of April 6, 1936, citizens of Gainesville, Georgia, a bustling commercial and industrial town nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, were dealt an agonizing blow when a series of deadly tornadoes ripped through the heart of the city damaging infrastructure and destroying hundreds of its businesses and residences. In the wake of the great disaster more than two hundred men, women, and children were killed and an estimated 1,600 citizens were injured. Today, the Gainesville tornado disaster of 1936 stands as one of the worst weather-related disasters in the history of the state and is widely regarded as the fifth deadliest tornado episode in recorded United States history.
A new web site entitled The 1936 Gainesville Tornado: Disaster and Recovery provides a vivid portrayal of the disaster’s aftermath through moving and still images presented using interactive maps of downtown Gainesville. The site includes an historical essay recounting the tornado outbreak and the massive recovery effort that culminated in the 1938 dedication of the new city hall and county courthouse by President Franklin Roosevelt.
The centerpiece of the site is a film taken shortly after the outbreak. The thirty-three minute film, probably shot for insurance purposes, focuses on the devastation of the commercial and governmental center of Gainesville, but also includes footage of damage to nearby residential areas.
View of the Gallant-Belk Building remains
Using an interactive navigation map, visitors to the site may view selections of the tornado film that relate to specific locations in downtown Gainesville. Examples include the area surrounding the Cooper Pants Factory, which collapsed and burned as a result of the tornado, killing sixty of the mostly young woman and girls who worked there. A map depicts the public square, where rescuers dynamited buildings to control the rapid spread of fire.
Project participant Ed Johnson, a former photograph interpreter for the U.S. Navy, painstakingly matched each scene of the film to its appropriate location on the maps using old photographs, insurance maps, and historical accounts.
In addition to the film, the site includes still images from the Vanishing Georgia photograph collection and the Hall County Library System Historical Photograph Collection. Upcoming enhancements will include an online exhibit to provide additional information about the tornado event itself as well as coverage of the extensive recovery effort afterwards.
The original Gainesville tornado film has been donated to the University of Georgia Libraries where it is being carefully preserved for the benefit of future generations as a part of the Walter J. Brown Media Archives and Peabody Awards Collection.
The 1936 Gainesville Tornado: Disaster and Recovery is a project of the Digital Library of Georgia in association with the Hall County Library System and the Walter J. Brown Media Archives and Peabody Awards Collection as part of the Georgia HomePLACE initiative. The project is supported with federal LSTA (Library Services and Technology Act) funds administered by the Institute of Museum and Library Services through the Georgia Public Library Service.