Saturday, July 14, 2012

Eastern Iowa Tornadoes of 1860 Camanche - De Witt

Comanche tornado of 1860
Sunday, the 3d day of June, A. D. 1860, will long be remembered in the annals not only of Iowa, but of the Northwest, as the day of the most tremendous tornado on record, rivaling the cyclones of the Indian Ocean, the hurricanes of the West Indies and the typhoons of the China seas, in the distance that it swept, from Central Iowa, to the interior of Michigan, and surpassing most tropical storms in the force of the wind. Nothing like it had been supposed possible in Northern latitudes. A belt, varying from twenty rods to a mile in width, was swept literally with “the besom of destruction,” Not a fence, not a tree, not a house, and scarcely an animal or human being in its pathway was able to escape or withstand the fury. Death, devastation, almost annihilation, marked its track. So rapid was its approach, so unexpected its visitation, so indescribably awful its phenomena and horrible the ruin it left, that owing, possibly, to physical and physiological causes affecting the nervous system (except a few gifted with remarkably robust constitutions and well-poised intellects), those who had felt Death pass in so swift and awful a guise seemed dazed and incapable of practical thought or action. Even those who were without its range, but who witnessed its ravages, were often to appalled to render assistance until recalled to the ghastly actuality by the spectacle of carnage and the groans of the wounded that roused them to necessity of approach, and by, by hiding in cellars, root-houses and similar refuges, although buried under the debris or exposed to the open sky, yet managed to escape the fate of many who were borne away on the wings of the blast - some to be hurled mangled corpses to the ground, others to be gently and safely deposited upon the earth.


The first reported appearance of the atmospheric disturbance as a cyclone or whirlwind seems to have been in the western-central part of the State. It was in Hardin County where it first took on the appearance of a tornado, though undoubtedly the storm centers originated further west. To the meteorologist who reviews the history of this remarkable phenomenon, it is a matter of great regret that Government signal stations and weather reports had not then been established, so that science could have been advanced by observation of the barometric and electric phenomena that must have coincided with the development of such a terrific meteor. From Hardin County, it reached the Mississippi in less than four hours, having traveled at an average rate, equaling that of the swiftest express train. Of course, its rotary velocity was much greater that its rate of forward movement, which varied very greatly, as at some points it comparatively stood still, and then, upon the temporary equilibrium of forces being destroyed, it again raced forward, as if by its rest endowed with new power.

In New Providence, Hardin County, only two houses were left, about thirty being scattered in the shape of kindling-wood over miles of prairie. But few people were there hurt, the greater portion of the citizens being absent at a Quaker meeting, at New Bangor, Marshall County, twelve miles distant. During the storm, a Methodist meeting was being held in a brick schoolhouse at New Providence. The building was moved five feet, and all the doors and windows blown out, but no one injured. The inference is that the storm had at that point not as yet, so to speak, massed itself as it did further east, nor yet acquired so great a rotary movement. However, the country was completely desolated, and fully $100,000 damage done around New Providence. At a farming settlement called Pritchard's Grove, six miles further east, the tornado-was fiercer, and a number of persons were killed. Here the timber and every movable thing was swept away like dust before a broom.

A small village called Quebec, in the northern part of Marshall County, was absolutely obliterated, not a vestige of the town remaining where it stood, houses and contents being swept in fragments off upon the wide prairies. Many were seriously injured, but no lives were lost, though how any escaped alive seemed a mystery

At Fort Dodge and Webster City, the outer circles of the storm, terrific hailstones fell, six and seven inches in circumference, shattering windows and injuring stock. Through the fair, but then comparatively sparsely-settled rural regions of Tama County, the storm left a similarly-devastated swath. In Webster and in Benton Counties, great damage was done. But the fury of the storm or storms was there as nothing compared to what it was further eastward. The area of high wind was much wider west of the Cedar, where it appears to have converged as steadily toward an apex in the country between the Wapsie and the Mississippi, as if the aerial columns had been ordered by a strategist there to concentrate their forces as the German hosts thickened around the sleeping French at Sedan.

West of the Cedar there may have been several well-defined and distinct storm-centers. It is certain that there were at least two different tornadoes that formed about the same time in the sultry Sunday afternoon, and began a parallel eastward race from some undetermined point west of the Cedar River, probably about twelve miles apart. They proceeded eastwardly in separate and well-defined courses, until they reached the Wapsipinicon, where they united and advanced in a single column with increased amid accelerated force and rapidity. The first made its appearance about seven miles northeast from Cedar Rapids and about three miles west of the river. When first seen, it looked merely like a threatening cloud, but it soon assumed the appearance of an immense serpent, similar to that, as the Hindoo mythology chronicles, with which the air demons churned the ocean, a myth evidently derived from the appearance of water-spouts as they extended from angry sky to foaming sea. Twisting, writhing, with an undulating motion and accompanied by a dismal roaring, like that of a mighty cataract but infinitely more menacing, it traversed Cedar County, utterly wiping out every natural and artificial object in its path. At Lisbon, Linn County, it scattered broadcast the stone piers of Robinau & Prouty's warehouse and splintered that and other buildings into kindling-wood; yet, strangely enough, leaving untouched 1,500 bushels of bulk wheat in the warehouse. In a lumber-yard belonging to Chauncy Lamb, not a board remained. Loaded freight cars were blown from the track and empty ones were completely pulverized. It circled northeasterly, leaving Mechanicsvillc two miles to the south, devastating the country east of White Oak Grove, killing hundreds of sheep and cattle and a score of persons. Many persons saved their lives by clinging to the underbrush in small thickets, which bent to the storm. A Mr. Cole with his wife and child were escaping to the cellar when the house was blown from over their heads, but leaving the floor. Mr. C. seized his wife who held their child in her arms, and flinging himself flat, grasped the edge of a trap-door. Until the Storm was over, he was not aware that the floor had moved but upon taking his bearings he found they had sailed an eighth of a mile through the air, with no other injury than a fracture of the arm by which he held on.

At Louden, both tornadoes were simultaneously visible, the one that struck Lisbon being about three miles north and the other about four miles south of that village. Both had preserved their original form and appearance, though swollen in size as the aerial giants raced eastward, apparently bounding like a ricocheting cannon balls from ridge to ridge of the rolling prairie. At Wheatland, both were distinctly visible. In that section as this tornado flew high, comparatively little harm was done, except blowing down a number of houses. Arriving at the Wapsipinicon, it followed the stream without doing much harm till it united with the south one, which was first observed about seven miles southwest of Cedar Rapids, in the Rogers settlement, on the west side of the Cedar. On starting on its journey, it demolished numerous buildings, and actually tore several victims who were caught in its whirl limb from limb, only their trunks remaining. As it passed along a ridge south of Mt. Vernon and Lisbon its appearance was simply terrific. The air was loaded with fragments of wrecked buildings and branches of large trees, and darkened with dust and earth. Cloud flakes and spume were whirled from the sides of the atmospheric maelstrom, and its deafening roar as it swept over the champaign a gloomy column, with a lurid red core glowing angrily through its murky envelope, it could be compared to nothing else than the chariot of the Omnipotent as pictured by Milton in "Paradise Lost."

This tornado seems to have at this point attained its maximum of fury. Among the wrecks it left were the head of an infant and the arms and legs of a grown person brought from many miles westward. Three persons were taken up bodily and vanished forever from mortal eyes. Dwellings and barns were ground to pieces as completely as if they had been passed through a quartz-crushing machine. Poultry had their heads completely twisted from their bodies, and their feathers cleanly plucked.

About three miles southwesterly from De Witt the two tornadoes as if impelled by a mysterious affinity, united, presenting a scene that the historian shrinks from attempting to describe lest the endeavor seem like hyperbole. The monstrous amalgamation could be fitly described only by Victor Hugo. Eyewitnesses affirm that the southern tornado ceased its advance and enlarged its dimensions until it towered from the earth to a sightless distance in the heavens. For over a minute it remained stationary. The lowering clouds of the northern tornado rushed into its embrace until the latter had been fully absorbed, swelling its bulk to a portentous size. Then the huge mass, now bellying out and swaying like an inflated balloon, rose from the ground with a roar like the voice of many waters and down-pouring floods, swept over a grove, and then descending to the ground whirled onward with unparalleled swiftness and power, accompanied with a constant corruscation of dull phosphorescent lightning. Between De Witt and Camanche, twenty-eight persons were killed and fifty-one wounded. South of De Witt, it swooped upon the Parsell House, and then swept the farm of Thomas Hatfield, where no less than sixteen persons perished. Among the victims were James Foster, Henry Foster, Mrs. Sarah Foster, Matilda Foster, Catherine Henry, a Maynard child, Alexander Gregorie, wife and daughter, Sarah Hatfield, N. R. Walrod, wife and two children, Jesse Parsell, John Klindt and wife, Mrs. Meyers and three children, Isaac Smith, Hatfield Fry, David W. Millard, a Winne child, a Jones child, Robert Boyd and an unknown German. On Tuesday, the dead who were killed in that section were buried in the presence of a vast concourse at De Witt, whence the wounded and destitute also received unwearied aid and generous succor.

In its route through the rather thinly-settled district just west of Camanche, a number of farm-houses were razed. Mr. Thomas Thornburg and others had just time to collect their families and place them in cellars, as their dwellings were swept from above them.

At Camanche, a mellow but rather sultry June Sabbath was drawing to a close. People were engaged in the usual quiet avocations of the day and hour, a rather threatening horizon attracted no great amount of attention, and even a sudden darkening of the air did not create the same apprehension that it would at any other time than about sundown. But, with magical rapidity, a murky curtain spread over the western horizon, grew and towered like a solid wall built by the Genii of the air, and approaching with a portentous appearance, that fascinated with fright all who saw it, advanced upon the doomed town as suddenly as a locomotive at full speed appears around a curve, and, in an instant, a torrent of midnight blackness, charged with missiles, bristling with electricity, so laden with water and hail stones as to be almost solid, and rumbling like ten thousand swiftly-driven chariots, embraced everything in a deafening and blinding chaos.

The fury of the tornado may be known from the fact that it lasted at Camanche only about two or three minutes, yet, during that brief period, the village, containing some twelve hundred people, was almost totally destroyed. A volume could be crowded with instances of the strange freaks and resistless power of the tornado. One very singular point was the almost entire absence of furniture from the wrecks. Here and there a chair-round or table-leg could be found, but that was about all. Trunks, clothing, beds, carpets and alt kinds of furniture, including even stoves, absolutely vanished. All remaining from the numerous buildings destroyed could have been packed into a small bedroom. The rest went into the river, or was strewn for miles over Illinois prairies. The Tiler's jewel of the Masonic Lodge was blown even to Ogle County, Ill., where it was picked up by a lady and worn as her breast-pin for some time, before its identity was discovered by the skillful eye of one of the craft. A plank, two inches thick, effectually closed the door of Walldorf's new hotel, by driving in a slanting direction through the door and floor of the building. The lower story of a store on First Street was cut away as smoothly as if sawed, and blown into the river, when the upper story settled down in its place almost uninjured. The front of a frame house in the upper part of the town was whisked away, leaving the furniture uninjured, while in Mr. Park's house the windows were blown in and the furniture crushed to kindling, and yet the house stood, only slightly injured. Partial destruction occurred only on the outer edge of the tornado. In its direct course, the destruction was absolute. One citizen said that his first realization of the power of the storm was in seeing a horse coming flying through the air at about twenty feet from the ground, followed by a cow at about the same height, and who must have been carried over three hundred feet. Mr. Butler saw his stable carried away over the tree-tops, leaving his horses on the earth floor attached to their rack. Two horses were blown from the front of Westfall's store into the middle of the river. A large raft was going down the river, endeavoring to reach shelter on the west bank as the whirlwind arrived. Of the twenty-six persons thereon, the three who only escaped said that all they knew about it was, that they found themselves in Illinois, but whether they got there by land, air or water, or what was the fate of their companions, they were unable to say. The terrific momentum of the storm was best illustrated by a shingle stuck through the sides of Waldorf's store. The shingle, a cedar one, of ordinary size and thickness, struck on the butt end, in a direction directly opposite to the general course of the cyclone, and was forced through clapboards, lath and plastering, without at all breaking. This incident also shows the rotary motion of such winds.

The chimney of Mr. Anthony's house, weighing nearly a ton, was taken off'and deposited in the garden ten feet from the building, in a perfectly upright position, without a single crack to show that it had been disturbed. Mr. Ralston, living three miles west of Camanche, saw the black column of destruction directly advancing upon the house, and sent his family to a small grove of locusts, with directions to lie on the ground and cling to the trees. While lying there, they saw the house taken and carried about twenty rods west and returned to within a few feet of its original location. It was then, as Mr. R. expressed it, "rubbed out as you would rub a snow-ball between your hands," not a fragment remained.

At DeWitt, where the course was due east, a building with a whole family in it was carried from the east to the west side of the highway, and deposited without so much as breaking the crockery.

The most incredible instance of the cyclone's power was furnished by Mr. Reed, of Bertram, Cedar County. A large rock weighing over twenty tons, about twelve feet by eight and six, was imbedded in the bank of the Cedar River, only about eighteen inches of it projecting, the rest being firmly imbedded in the clay. The impact of the wind was so enormous that it actually wrenched the rock from its bed and turned it over like a chip, end for end, till it surmounted the bank and was carried about one hundred yards. In many places, plowed soil was wholly blown away, as if washed off by a freshet; and, in several authenticated instances, the freshly-turned prairie sod was wholly swept away. Wagons were torn in pieces and wagon-tires straightened out perfectly flat.

At Albany, on the opposite side of the river, people were preparing to attend the Sunday services, and some had actually started from their homes. Looking from its elevated site toward the west they saw the storm-demon approaching, in his pavilion of darkness, and in guise that paralyzed the stoutest heart. Futile attempts were being made to secure doors and windows when the aerial hammer smote the then thriving town, killing five persons and wounding scores more or less severely. The town was almost as thoroughly demolished as Camanche, though, either owing to the heavier missiles being dropped in the river, or a larger proportion of the people having time to escape to cellars, the loss of life was happily much lessened. Only about twenty dwellings were left upon their foundations, and but one available place of business. A bell was swept from the belfry and found quite a distance away, uninjured except from a nick in the rim.

In Albany, the total damage to houses, barns, etc., was reliably estimated at $73,715; to personal property, etc., $18,000; total, $93,715. In Garden Plains, Portland, Union Grove and Tampico, considerable damage was done, but very few fatalities resulted. About seven hundred people were rendered homeless in Albany.

Some of the tornado's effects were as singular and capricious as on the other side of the river. Upon the roofs of several houses, the shingles were stripped off in fanciful shapes, leaving upon others a single covered spot. Others were entirely un-shingled. One small frame building was lifted from its foundation and carried about a square, around another building which was torn to pieces and let down uninjured, within six feet of it. On each side of the path of the storm-fiend, the evidence of his power was visible in the shape of fragments of buildings, lumber, goods, splintered furniture, valuable papers, books, etc.

The Clinton Herald, of June 9, gives a graphic description of how the doleful news was received at that point, as the messenger galloped onward, under circumstances as worthy of the poet's commemoration as "The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere," and as dramatic as the headlong race of the courier announcing the bursting dam at Ousely Reservoir, to the people in the path of the torrent, which Charles Reade so vividly describes in "Put Yourself in His Place.”

"The storm was over at Clinton. There had not been much wind, and the torrents of rain which had deluged our streets, converting them into canals, had ceased falling. The air was soft and balmy; a few stars were glimmering through the fleeting clouds, and occasionally the full radiance of the moon would illumine river and town and the farther shore, and then, gliding behind a cloud, leave all again to the mournfulness of doubtful starlight. Far away in Illinois, the storm still raged, the violently -flashing lightning adding a weird beauty to the scene. We sat, looking from an open window and listening to the mournful call of a whip-poor-Will. Upon the Island, when a man on horseback came dashing furiously up the street, and, scarcely drawing bridle, cried out in an excited voice, 'Camanche is destroyed by a tornado, and half the inhabitants are buried in the ruins! Send down all your doctors and materials to dress the wounded!' Without waiting to be questioned, he dashed on, repeating his request wherever he saw a group of people. In an instant our town was all excitement. The courier's manner was evidence of his sincerity. All were eager to render any assistance in their power.

Superintendent Milo Smith was at once sent for, and immediately dispatched all the hand-cars at hand, and gave orders for a train to at once be prepared to carry to the spot all who desired to go. The steamboat Queen City at Lyons was at once placed at the disposal of our charitable neighbors. Meanwhile, every vehicle was put in service, and soon a hundred willing hearts and hands were speeding along as an advance force. By this time, the storm had fully passed away, the moon shone bright and unclouded, and, as we dashed over the sandy road, now washed hard and firm, and could notice no signs of destruction on the way, we almost hoped we had been the victims of some heartless joke. We were, however, soon confirmed in our apprehensions. As we approached a house in the suburbs of the village, a woman rushed out and hailed us: 'Are you the doctors?' We found here three little children, who had been brought with broken limbs from the village. After assuring the distressed family that the doctors were following, we pushed forward, with our worst fears confirmed.

"God save us from ever seeing again such a sight as that village presented. To describe it would be impossible. No conception could be formed of the scene except by seeing it, and once seeing it would haunt the memory forever. Although almost as familiar there as in Clinton's streets a particular quarter of the town could not be recognized.

"It was with great difficulty that we picked our way over fragments of buildings, fences and loose materials of all kinds to the few shattered fragments of houses that still remained upon First Street. Here were chiefly gathered together the dead that were found and the wounded who still lived. Parents were weeping for their children and children for their parents. Here a husband bent sobbing over his dying wife, and here a mother, with frantic joy, pressed to her bosom the child she thought was lost and found to be alive. Many seemed blessed with a calmness from on high; many were beside themselves, and many were bewildered and overcome with stupor. Here we could not stay, we could be of no service, so we rushed on as a relief to join the eager souls who were toiling like giants, removing the rubbish in search of other victims. Hereafter, in lonely hours, in the still watches of the night, and in feverish dreams will come to many minds the vivid recollection of that sorrowful scene. The ruins strewed around, the hideous distortions of the dead, the mangled bodies of the living, the multitudes of eager, grimy workmen, the peaceful summer night and the clear moonlight overhead, form a grouping never to be erased from the minds of any who were present."

All night the work continued. The next day - free special trains ran every two hours loaded with persons to assist and attend the wounded, care for the dead and feed and clothe the survivors. From the country all about teams poured in a continua] stream, for those same purposes. Early in the day a mass meeting of the citizens of the county was held, and a committee, consisting of N. B. Baker, Milo Smith, A. R. Cotton, Benjamin Lake and Horace Anthony, was appointed for general purposes. Sub-committees were appointed for special objects, and some degree of order sprang from the chaos which had previously reigned.

By night, it was ascertained that the following were among the dead: G. C. Westphal, wife and child, Hannah Curran, Mary Greenleaf, A. Hoeft, Elizabeth Rathbone, D. Waggoner, D. Stolenburg. Mrs. Amelia Davis and son, Philip Peper, Margaret and Mary Fass, Eli Millions, George Burnham and wife, Mrs. J. Stolenburg, Theo. Arpe, H. MKendrick, L. D. Bigelow, Jacob Meyle, Augustus Meyle and a Meyle child, Mary Knapp, a child of G. W. Chase, child of W. White, a Smith child and a German girl known as Liza.

Many others afterward died of their wounds, and many more bear on their bodies scars, and, in their minds, equally indelible memories of that awful evening.

The funeral services over the Camanche dead on the Tuesday following were most solemn and impressive. Over two thousand sympathising friends and neighbors were present, and frequent outbursts of grief amid the deep hush that pervaded the assemblage attested the profound grief of the stalwart men as well as tender-hearted women. The twenty-five coffins were ranged in front of M. Dunning's bank, where the services were conducted by Revs. Freer, Edminston and Youngs, of Camanche; Hebard and Brindell; of Clinton; Kynett and White, of Lyons, and Gleason, of Low Moor. The immense concourse then, forming in procession, moved to the old burial-grounds, where the bodies were committed to the long row of graves prepared for them, there to slumber till awakened by a more pervading and awful trumpet-blast than even that of the fatal storm in which they perished, that of the Archangel.

Wherever flew the news of the awful disaster, generous-hearted men and women anticipated the appeals of stricken humanity and contributed most liberally to the relief of the bereaved, afflicted and destitute sufferers. Not only did Clinton and Lyons vie with each other in measures of relief, but from all over the country, from the great marts of Chicago and New York to remote hamlets, came contributions. At Clinton, on Monday evening, was called a meeting to co-operate with the general meeting Camanche. Messrs. W. H. Lunt, Simeon Baldwin, Lucius Howard, C. H. Toll and G. F. Lovejoy were appointed a committee on subscriptions, and $350 were raised on the spot. The Clinton and Lyons ladies, inspired with the same spirit that afterward developed during the war the great sanitary fairs, devoted themselves to preparing food for the destitute, supplies for the wounded and clothing for the naked. (Many victims actually had their clothing completely stripped from their persons.) These noble women, whose works were sanctified with the very spirit of Dorcas, made hundreds of new garments, besides following their Savior's injunction to divide their own raiment with the unclothed. The reception-rooms of the Iowa Central presented the appearance of the work-rooms of a large ready-made clothing establishment. Chicago ladies also contributed from their wardrobes. Dubuque, Davenport, Le Claire, Keokuk, Rock Island, Moline, Savannah, Mt. Carmel and notably Wheatland sent generous contributions. Meetings were held and liberal collections taken on steamers and railway trains. The Masonic bodies nobly obeyed the charitable precepts of the craft, and the German portion of the community came energetically forward to the aid of their kinsmen. The large-hearted Rev. Robert Collyer was the fitting bearer of the munificent Chicago relief fund, and, as he moved among the sufferers, his cheerful presence brought scarcely less encouragement and comfort than his gifts. Pre-eminent among the local good Samaritans was Milo Smith, both as an individual and as Superintendent of the Railway, and the aforementioned committee, of whom N. B. Baker, as chairman, displayed the same capacity and energy that subsequently distinguished him as Adjutant General. They were ably aided by the distributing committee - Messrs. C. H. Toll, 0. A. Anthony, Horace Anthony and T. W. J. Long. The irretrievable disaster was not without a certain compensation in knitting together the different portions of the community, and also illustrating some of the most shining and benevolent qualities of human nature.

Take from - The History of Clinton County, Iowa by Lucius P. Allen


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