Retro Charlotte

1968: A Tornado on Knightswood Drive

Pile of rubble is left where R.E. Williamson’s Rea Rd. barn once stood.
Pile of rubble is left where R.E. Williamson’s Rea Rd. barn once stood. The Charlotte News

On a summer afternoon in 1968 a tornado swept through south Charlotte, doing most of its damage in the Olde Providence area. News reporter (and later associate editor at the Observer) Tom Bradbury reported:

“It was nothing for a minute, then I heard it coming. It sounded like a freight train,” Mrs. Charles Branney said. Having lived before in Decatur, Ill., where tornadoes are common, she knew the sound. “God, let’s get to the bathroom,” she yelled to her two small daughters, and pushed them to the floor in the windowless room. “It just seemed like the safest place to me,” she recalled, because there were no windows, and I didn’t want to be near a window.”

Outside it became darker and darker, and she “could hear everything bumping and crashing,” she said.

The swing-down stops to the attic blew open as the storm passed, and attic insulation filled the house, she said. It also took the posts from the front of the house, leaving only one of the bases.

The clock stopped at 4:20 p.m.

It was over as quickly as it started, and surprised residents - most of whom hadn’t even heard the tornado warnings being broadcast - went outside to find a neighborhood that looked as though a giant scythe had slashed through the tree tops, dipping down here and there to overturn something on the ground.

Power lines - de-energized almost immediately by quick-acting Duke Power crews - dangled from poles. Huge trees lay sprawled on the ground, either uprooted or snapped and twisted apart several feet from the ground. Shingles were ripped from rooftops and, in a few instances, bare framing showed through. The ground was incredibly littered with everything from a trailer tire to mangled lawn furniture to overturned swing and slide sets to bits and pieces of metal and wood from somewhere, and a hula hoop. But, strangely, no one was injured and the trees always seemed to fall just short of the houses.

Out behind the home of Mr. and Mrs. H.E. Williamson on Rea Rd., what had been there, wasn’t. The barn was gone. Just gone. An electronics workshop was only a pile of parts. What was once a garage had simply disappeared, leaving no sign at all that it had ever existed. A car and pickup truck had been sitting side-by-side in the garage. The car was still there, only slightly damaged. The truck was 30 feet away without a windshield. And for 100 feet across the field, the tornado left a trail of litter.

Diagonally across Rea Rd. from the Williamson home, Bill Waldrip was sawing through the oak tree that had crashed across his driveway, just missing his car. A camping trailer that had been in his backyard was in two places. The frame and wheels were about 100 feet down the street. The top was wrapped around the upper part of a tree more than 100 yards away.

Up and down Rea Rd., the Duke Power trucks were lined up, trying to restore service. Trucks from several tree-care services were parked.

Over on Knightswood Dr., the family of D.K. Freeman, whose home was hardest hit, tried to get covering where the roof had been to keep out the rain that kept falling in drenching bursts. Inside, water coming through had obviously weakened the den roof, and the floors were covered with insulation. “It just kind of messed things up,” daughter Button said.