The April 3, 1956 Tornado Outbreak

Vriesland to Trufant

  • Fatalities: 17
  • Injuries: 340
  • Path Length: 48 miles
  • Maximum Width: 400 yards
  • Rating: F5
  • Time: 6:30 to 7:30 pm

Shortly after the tornado that hit Saugatuck, Gibson, Graafschap and Holland had dissipated, another storm was bearing down on areas further east. The sky grew dark over Vriesland, a small settlement east of Zeeland, just after 6 PM.

Alan Vredeveld was in his house waiting out the storm when he noticed the wind pick up dramatically, becoming strong enough to “bend the windows in”. When the wind died down he went outside and noticed that some baskets had blown around, but there was no damage to his farm. He did not see the tornado, but noticed the “funny yellow color” of the sky. His neighbor, a Mr. De Hoopt, told him that he and his family had watched from their basement as a funnel cloud touched down in a field east of 64th Street.

Meanwhile, a couple miles to the east, the tornado began its rampage. Floyd Boss was in his barn milking cows, when he noticed that light was shining on the barn floor. He looked up to see that half the roof was gone. The debris flew off towards his house, where a beam from the roof landed in front of the picture window and another board went through a bedroom window. A half mile further south, Stanley Boss, brother of Floyd, was also milking his cows, when the winds suddenly began roaring. He dove to the floor of the barn and noticed the barn walls moving in and out over a foot as the storm passed. The power went out. Floyd Boss walked outside his barn and noticed the roof of his chicken coop hanging from the power lines. Then he saw what he thought was a fire in the woods to the north.

Many people mistook the tornado for a fire at this point, as debris, dust and water vapor was observed ascending rapidly from near the ground. With power out, Mr. Boss remained unaware that the storm that struck his farm was a tornado until the next day, when he also noticed that the tornado had left a 150-200 foot wide swath through the woods to the north, where large Beech trees were cleanly snapped off. The tornado intensified rapidly as it moved northeast towards Hudsonville.

Damage from the April 3, 1956 TornadoPeople watching it from near Hudsonville would see it grow from a narrow, pencil-like funnel to a large and menacing wedge-shaped tornado as it approached the town. It crossed M-21 near 48th street and then crossed New Holland Street, where several farm homes were demolished and the tornado would claim its first fatality. Photos taken from the ground and from the air in the following days would show the scope of the destruction here.

Damage from the April 3, 1956 TornadoThe tornado moved across the “muck”, a dark soil that consists of the silt of an old riverbed. The tornado picked this soil up and plastered everything in its path with it, including people, to the extent that many of the injured were unrecognizable even to their neighbors.

Car flung about by Tornado, 2 survived, 2 died.The tornado continued to intensify and demolished several homes when it reached the intersection of Van Buren Street and 40th Avenue. Some homes were completely swept away. It continued northeast to 36th Avenue and Port Sheldon Street and claimed eight more victims in this area. Two people died in a car while trying to flee the storm. Witnesses saw the car lifted as high as the tops of the telephone poles before it crashed back to earth. Two people in the car survived.

Photo of April 3, 1956 TornadoAnother four people died nearby on Port Sheldon Street when they were caught out in the open and struck by flying debris. The tornado would claim one last victim in the Hudsonville area near Baldwin Street and 28th Avenue. The tornado was photographed around this time from about 2 miles south. The photo shows a large tornado funnel in contact with the ground, along with the yellow sky and greenish storm clouds that were mentioned by many eyewitnesses.

Damage from April 3, 1956 TornadoThe tornado crossed Bauer Road and Cottonwood Drive before roaring across the Grand River and Fennessy Lake. Witnesses observed the funnel turn colors as it moved over the water, and a spectacular display of electrical sparks as high tension wires were ripped apart in this area. A large swath of trees along the Grand River were felled by the winds. The water and mud from Fennessy Lake was picked up and plastered against the houses nearby.

Damage from April 3, 1956 TornadoNext in the path was the business district of Standale. Fortunately, it was after hours and the approaching tornado was visible from the higher ground to the east of the river so most people were able to get to shelter. One that didn’t was 89 year-old Anna Hart of Cummings Street. She was carried about 200 feet from the second floor of her house. She was the first of four fatalities in Kent County.

Damage from April 3, 1956 TornadoThe main business section, centered on the corner of Kinney Avenue and Lake Michigan Drive was devastated. Clothing and other items from stores in this area were lifted up into the storm updraft and carried to the northeast, as far as Gladwin, 100 miles away.

Damage from April 3, 1956 TornadoThe tornado swept away homes on Kusterer Drive and Nixon Avenue before crossing Leonard Street but fortunately there were no fatalities here. The tornado was photographed again as it passed through Walker, NW Grand Rapids shortly after 7 PM.

Damage from April 3, 1956 TornadoTwo more people would be killed on Vinecroft Street, off Bristol Avenue. A father of eight was killed as his house was blown apart and a woman was killed in the Vinecroft trailer park, which was obliterated by the tornado.

Damage from April 3, 1956 TornadoThe tornado crossed 3 Mile Road and then Alpine Avenue and headed into the Comstock Park area where it would take its 17th and final victim as a woman on 4 Mile Road was killed when her house collapsed on her.

Damage from April 3, 1956 TornadoThe tornado destroyed several more homes on Childs and Leland Avenues before hitting the Lamoreaux Dairy, and some homes on North Division Avenue. The tornado path paralleled West River Drive and the Grand River, and destroyed several more homes along with the Brookhaven Trailer Park in this area, while devastating sections of Wakefield Avenue and Pine Island Drive.

From here, the tornado moved into a more rural area before brushing the western side of Rockford. The tornado continued northeast of Rockford and struck several farms, before ending just north of Trufant in Montcalm County.

As this tornado finally lifted about 7:30 PM, the final tornado of the day was touching down far to the south in Van Buren County.

Read Eyewitness accounts of the Vriesland to Trufant Tornado

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