It still stands on record as the 5th deadliest twister in American history. Shortly before 9:00 A.M. on the morning of April 6, 1936, the citizens of Gainesville, a prosperous northeast Georgia textile mill center, were dealt an agonizing blow when a series of deadly tornadoes ripped through the heart of the city.
Eyewitness reports recalled seeing at least two tornadoes strike the southwest section of Gainesville, then move northeast through the commercial district and on to the residential neighborhoods near North Green Street. From the northeastern residential area, the tornado traveled east two miles towards the textile center of New Holland where it destroyed nearly one hundred homes, as well as the Pacolet Manufacturing Company. The whole thing was over in under ten minutes.
William M. Brice, a prominent citizen and correspondent for the Atlanta Journal and Associated Press, described Gainesville in his writings as “a city laid waste.”
“We were talking about how dark it had become,” then teenager John “Rudy” Rudolph remembered many years later. “My friends and I stopped in front of a store in downtown when the owner came out and told us to take cover. I really didn’t understand what he meant. It was daytime, but the sky was as dark as night.
“We’d never seen anything like it…just before it struck there was a sound so loud that I felt in my body… When I woke up, I couldn’t move my leg. I waited for what seemed like hours for someone to come and help me…my leg was broken (from falling debris).”
Minutes after the attack, numerous fires erupted throughout the Public Square and downtown area. Damage from the tornadoes immobilized the Gainesville Fire Department and forced rescuers to dynamite buildings on the Public Square as a means of controlling the rapid spread of fire.
The most tragic of these fires occurred at Cooper Pants Factory, a two-story garment factory located on the corner of West Broad and Maple Streets. When the tornado struck, many of the 125 workers, most of who were young women and girls, rushed to seek shelter in the basement level of the factory. The sudden clamor of the employees coupled with damage sustained from the tornado caused the building to collapse and ignite into flames. Sixty of the factory’s employees died.
In the days following the tornado disaster, an army of 2000 relief workers converged to haul away the millions of tons of debris in the city’s business section. The American Red Cross reported that over 500 homes were destroyed and nearly 750 dwellings were damaged. More than two hundred men, women, and children were killed and an estimated 1,600 citizens were injured.
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt paid two visits to Gainesville, a brief one three days after the tragedy and one two years later. Of the rebuilt city he stood before in 1938, he noted “You were not content with rebuilding along the lines of the old community. You were not content with throwing yourselves on the help that could be given to you by the State and by the Federal Government.
“On the contrary, you determined in the process of rebuilding to eliminate old conditions of which you were not proud; to rebuild a better city; to replace congested areas with parks; to move human beings from slums to suburbs. For this you, the good people of Gainesville, deserve all possible praise.”