Silence Before the Storm: Remembering the Night of the Clarksville Tornado in 1999 | REMARK


Contributed memory of January 21 and 22, 1999 by Chris Sherron of Clarksville:

The machine rumbles and crackles as the last bit of clean oil escapes through the pipe into the fryer at the Catfish House. After securely placing the handle on the filter machine, I roll it up and head to the back door to look outside before checking out the dining room. A strange, warm breeze touches my face as it pushes against the metal door. “It doesn’t look like January,” I think to myself as I head to the front of the house to send the remaining servers home for the evening. We’re all advising each other to stay safe while I lock the doors and head home myself.

Downtown Clarksville after the January 22, 1999 tornado. (Contributed)

If there’s one thing you can count on in Tennessee, it’s that you can’t trust the weather forecast. Everyone says things might get fuzzy tonight, but if I had a penny every time these rumors went around, well, I’d have a lot of pennies. You can have snow on the ground one day, and in 24 hours it’s sunny and it’s 80 degrees. If the meteorologist predicts snow, not a single flake falls to the ground, but we get 6 inches if the forecast is clear. Go figure. I’m not nervous about thunderstorms, and normally I sleep like a baby during a good rain, so go for it. The rest will do me good before a busy Friday at the restaurant.

The wind picks up as my head hits the pillow and several flashes of light shoot across the sky through my bedroom window before sinking into a deep sleep. My last thoughts were that I had seen this a hundred times, and there would be nothing to worry about tonight. Snuggled under my blankets, I am unaware of Mother Nature’s plan for my little community. His intentions will forever change the face of our downtown and steal over 100 years of history while I dream.

Eerie echoes of sirens sound in the howling winds swirling through the streets, around brick buildings and across Clarksville ridges. The trees begin to bend as the creaks of wood surround the hillsides leading to the bottom of the river. The muddy water of the mighty Cumberland rises and falls as it crashes against its shores, leaving only debris behind to seize it again to sacrifice to the current. Red lights swing violently through the empty streets of Riverside, signaling that more is in store for the early morning. Garbage waltzes around the barren parking lots up and down Madison Street, shooting into the atmosphere before descending, never touching the ground. A silence interrupts the show; the bushes are static and the river only rests for a blink of an eye as the whistling wind relaxes. He is here in silence.

Serenity soon reveals the ghostly murmur of a locomotive approaching and descending from space in all directions. The last train to Clarksville stretches as wide as nine football fields and hurtles toward its mark at 200 miles an hour. The previous performance was a delicate ballet compared to the impending terror predestined to take hundreds of passengers on their final pilgrimage. Rooftops soar into the sky as if an angry invisible giant had nothing better to do before sunrise. Brick buildings crumble as easily as a wayward 5-year-old could knock over a stack of Lincoln Logs. Objects tear the ground, piercing, mutilating and disintegrating dreams and achievements. The roar of the ghost engine rattles the darkness itself, leaving behind mounds of trash in place of magnificent architecture.

Rubble falls from the broken walls of the church closing the curtain on the final act of devastation in the twilight. The steam engine spirit dissipates, but not without proof of its descent over five blocks. Like many others in our small town, I soon woke up to the news of chaos and devastation. I would hear how an F-3 hit downtown, and the aftermath looks like photos straight out of the bombings of WWII. “We were lucky the tornado hit at 4:15 a.m.,” would be the popular notion. People were saying, “If that thing had hit later today, hundreds of people could have died. This stillness before annihilation was something more significant than Mother Nature. Not a single soul boarded the train on January 22, 1999, and it had nothing to do with chance. Miracles emerge from silence, and God does His best before we’ve even seen the storm.

Madison Street United Methodist Church after the January 22, 1999 tornado. (Contributed)

Clarksville native Chris Sherron writes and produces a podcast for his website,

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