Disaster Strikes: The Beecher Tornado, 1953

Published September 21, 2018 in Warp & Woof


Disaster Strikes: The Beecher Tornado, 1953

We Move to Flint in Its Wake

The Flint Series, Chapter 2
William Sundwick
F5 tornadoes are rare in Michigan. The most destructive category of storm on the Fujita Scale hit Flint in 1953, one of the ten worst on record in the U.S. There was no warning systemin those days. On June 8, at about 8:30 P.M., the killer storm descended on a densely populated community on the north edge of town, Beecher Township. It was part of a violent freak weather pattern that had been ravaging a big swath of Michigan and Northwest Ohio, extending even into New England. But nowhere that summer was there as destructive a storm as in Flint. There were 116 fatalities, over 800 injured; 340 homes were flattened. Fatalities and property damage from a single tornado would be exceeded only in 2011, in Joplin, Missouri.
The whole city was placed in a state of emergency. The storm was a character-builder, much as the 1936-37 Sit Down Strikes were in this UAW town. People remember it. Survivors tell their children and grandchildren about it. Flint received an “All American City Award” for its disaster response.

The storm’s path extended along Coldwater Road, from Clio Road in the West to Dort Highway in the East – nearly the full length of that major Northside thoroughfare. Beecher High School was in its path, its gym destroyed. And, in addition to nearly 500 homes, the brand new, not yet operational, Ternstedt GM Plant was also in the path. Miraculously, the new plant, built to replace the original Detroit Ternstedt Division plant, destroyed by fire, was not heavily damaged and its opening delayed by only a few weeks. A. W. Sundwick moved his family (wife and one six-year-old boy) from Dearborn, and began work in Ternstedt’s process engineering department, as planned, by July.
Our house was not in the storm’s path. We were about to move into our new construction “ranch type” house in the developing Ballenger Highway neighborhood, perhaps four miles further south,  and west.
It would be years before the Beecher community could rebuild. But fortunately for the rest of Flint, rapid growth was widespread. Postwar prosperity for General Motors meant prosperity for Flint. To the historic original Buick, Fisher Body, Chevrolet, and AC Spark Plug facilities, which collectively employed tens of thousands of mostly unskilled hourly workers, now were added more Fisher Body and Chevrolet plants on the west side of town. And, on Coldwater Road, the Ternstedt plant.
Ternstedt had split from Fisher Body in 1948, as strategic GM product planning focused more on chrome hardware. Electroplating that chrome was the name of the game at Ternstedt. The Electroplaters’ Society quarterly journals on our living room end table were serious professional reading for my father, who became head of process engineering in Flint, and an engineering consultant for the Division (there were other Ternstedt plants in Ohio, New Jersey, and Syracuse). He would sometimes travel to the other plants – typically flying from Flint’s Bishop Airport. My mother kept reminding me that Dad had a very “responsible” position, and that’s why he was often gone.
She said that’s why he often showed signs of stress in his dealings both with her and me. The rest of the family blamed his 1956 heart attack on that stress (although we later learned that he had a congenital heart valve defect which just caught up with him at age 49). He survived that first heart attack, and a second one ten years later. But the first one flat-lined his career, the second one forced him into medical disability retirement, and Mom and Dad left Flint for sunny Florida – never to return to Flint, me neither.

Many in Flint did not fare as well as us. Still, thanks to the Sit Down Strikes in the thirties, the UAW had been recognized and thousands of workers, most with families to support, were generally able to sustain a secure middle-class existence through the fifties, sixties and seventies. But, each in our own ways, we all dealt with the stress of something ominous hanging over the city, something beyond our control, with no real warning system in place — much like that ugly green-yellow-black cloud that moved over Beecher Township in June,1953.

One thought on “Disaster Strikes: The Beecher Tornado, 1953

  1. From a cousin who still lives in Flint area: \”Information about the Beecher tornado brought back many memories about that night, especially the color of the sky. The next day I went to Haskell [Community Center, Civic Park neighborhood] to help pack television boxes full of bologna sandwiches for volunteers working on the cleanup. I was only 12 years old. Guess you could say that the whole community pitched in to help😢\”

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