“A Peculiar Moaning Sound”

How did people describe the sound of a tornado before the advent of trains?

The funnel of a tornadic thunderstorm almost touches the ground near South Haven, in Kansas May 19, 2013.

A tornado in Kansas on Sunday

Photo by Gene Blevins/Reuters

Many survivors of the recent Oklahoma tornado compared the sound of the twister to that of a train. Before the advent of railroads, how did people describe the sound of a tornado?

Roaring, rumbling, buzzing, or hissing. Tornado survivors have compared the sound of the storm to a waterfall, stampeding bulls, or a massive swarm of bees, according to tornado historian Tom Grazulis. A review of 19th-century news reports suggests that, even decades after the advent of train travel, the most common adjective was “roar.” Hoosiers heard a “roaring, crashing sound” during an 1890 tornado. Nine years later, residents of Iowa’s Soldier River Valley claimed they could hear the roar from 20 miles distant. Other survivors described the sound of a tornado as more of a “rumble,” with some even comparing it to the noise made by an earthquake. (Many tornado-prone regions are also seismically active.)

It was common to liken the sound of a tornado to that of a freight train by the end of the 19th century, but the comparison didn’t become de rigueur until well into the 20th. Today, survivors rely almost exclusively on the locomotive metaphor, even though train travel is in decline. (Up-to-date commentators occasionally liken the storm’s noise to that of a jet engine, suggesting the resemblance has more to do with combustion than the sound of steel-on-steel.) The railroad cliché is so ingrained that even adventurous commentators now feel obligated to include some kind of train reference. A survivor of Monday’s twister said, “It was like a freight train came out of a lion’s mouth.”

The narrowing of our twister vocabulary is unfortunate, at least from an aesthetic point of view, because old-timey tornado stories were delightful. The Pentwater News of Michigan described an 1881 Minnesota tornado thusly: “It was a hades of darkness and lurid lightning flashes—a babel of confusion of sounds. The tornado roared with terrible fury for the space of fifteen minutes.” In 1885, the Daily True American reported that, just before a tornado ripped through Philadelphia, construction workers heard “a peculiar moaning sound seeming to come from toward New Jersey.”

Some experts simply don’t hear the resemblance between trains and twisters. Noted storm chaser Howard Bluestein has never heard a train-like sound in his years of tornado observation, although he once heard what he described as a “low roar.” Bluestein thinks that the train sound is perhaps only detectable to those extremely close to the twister, but storm chaser David Hoadley said the only time that he ever heard the fabled train noise, he couldn’t even see the twister. In addition, some tornadoes don’t roar or rumble at all but emit a whining or whirring sound.

Several experts have attempted, mostly in vain, to scientifically define the sound of a tornado. During the 1960s and ’70s, physicists recorded a series of twisters and looked for a sound signature that would have indicated a tornado was on the way, but the audible sound waves were too variable to make useful generalizations. Experts made slightly more progress in examining frequencies below the range of human hearing, but even those signatures are of limited value.

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Explainer thanks reader Larrie D. Ferreiro for asking the question.

Read more of Slate’s coverage of the Oklahoma tornado.