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MAY 22, 1873

By and by its tread will make the earth tremble
James Mackintosh

Warren Township, on the South Skunk River, Keokuk County, south-east Iowa, an agricultural state in the central United States. In the early afternoon of Thursday, May 22, 1873, with the temperature at 85° F., W.W. Morrow saw an ominous thunderstorm approach from the west-north-west. The storm covered the west, north and north-east and extended just past the zenith. The rest of the sky was clear. To the north and west, torrential rain was falling, preceded and accompanied by large hail. Murrow did not know about this at the time. There was not even much lightning where he was, but the advancing clouds showed a sinister whirling motion. He saw no funnel. A few minutes later, a strong wind sprang up, then an instantaneous destructive gust partly destroyed his buildings. It was followed by a shower of hail.

Andrew Surber saw clouds 'whirling like a great wheel' just before the storm reached his farm. He saw no funnel. His fences were blown down by a south-west wind; a few hailstones fell, and were followed by a heavy shower of rain.

John Malcum, at Lancaster township, had been hearing a 'roaring like steady thunder' coming from the west for 15 minutes before the storm arrived. There was no lightning. He saw a whirling mass of clouds, rotating anticlockwise.

T. Dawson, also in Lancaster township, saw a tornado. It appeared as two dark clouds, with a lighter space between them, forming a funnel-shape, extending from an overhanging mass of clouds, and not yet touching the earth. Despite this, buildings were damaged on his farm; fences were blown down over a width of 60 rods (330 yards). A cultivator weighing about 200 pounds was lifted and carried 30 feet; there was no sign of it being dragged.

A lawyer of Lancaster township, M. Williams, had been watching the approaching storm for nearly an hour as it rose from the west into a previously clear sky. When the forefront of the storm-cloud was just past the zenith, he saw the tornado. It was extending and contracting, sometimes extending a narrow point down to the earth. When the cloud touched the earth, fences were carried away in a space 60 yards wide. Sergeant James Mackintosh of the United States Signal Corps, who made a farm-by-farm survey of the damage track, said later, “We have here the first evidence of the dark cloud touching the earth in perfect funnel form. But its touch is yet only temporary; like a child learning to walk, its footsteps are yet uncertain...By and by its tread will make the earth tremble.”

In its first uncertain strength the tornado struck the Wolfden schoolhouse. It was 2.15 p.m., and the school was in session, full of children and a teacher. The schoolhouse, weighing about 30,000 pounds, with its occupants, was moved bodily 30 feet, but not overturned. The windows and roofs were badly damaged. After this effort, the tornado's gathering strength seemed to fail; it passed over but scarcely harmed the frail hamlet of Hayesville.

S.U. Alford, about a quarter of a mile south of Hayesville, saw the tornado seem to swing round in a circle. It still rose and fell, sometimes touching the ground, then rising as high as the treetops. The funnel was of a strange dark green colour. A.N. Bucher, a mile east of Hayesville, also said that the funnel was dark green. The base of the funnel bulged up and down; it looked like 'a kettle of soup boiling over'.

Sergeant Mackintosh said that the storm at this point was moving east-north-east, passing over prairie land. Now, a little to the east of A.N. Bucher, the tornado struck the thickly wooded banks of Troublesome Creek, increased in strength, “and developed the phenomena of two or more funnels or branches of a funnel.” The house of a widow Jacobs, in a wooded hollow, was completely destroyed, and a swathe torn through the forest 200 yards wide. A quarter of a mile from the main track, another swathe, about 50 yards wide, curved towards the main path, and seemed to join it.

The parent storm now passed over a farm of Samuel Brunt. Mr. Brunt had been hearing a roaring sound for a long while before the tornado appeared. When it came, he saw two distinct funnels extending from a mass of dark clouds. The southern smaller funnel swung round in a half circle and seemed to join the larger one. Where the funnels touched the ground, something like smoke arose, 'surging up like spray upon a wave-beaten rock'. Wheat was 'mown as with a scythe'.

J.R. Jacobs, in Lancaster village, also saw two distinct whirls. Sergeant Mackintosh later reported, “The evidence afforded by the ruins in the path of the storm give no support whatever to the belief that there were two distinct whirlwinds. The two dark clouds touching the ground worked together in the strictest harmony in producing such effects as would be produced by one tornado...” However, another 'streak of wind' passed through the town of Lancaster while the main whirl was 100 yards to the north, and curved in to join it. The 'streak' was only a few yards wide at first, but rapidly widened; it felled or unroofed several houses.

After Lancaster, the tornado passed down a slope towards the North Skunk River, 'smashing up the timber horribly'. Upon reaching the river, the tornado moved onto it and followed the river's course for over two miles in a south-easterly direction. It became a waterspout, in the form of an enormous vertical column rising to the clouds, now moving with a steady sureness at nearly 30 miles an hour.

Eli Walker, proprietor of the Black Hawk mills, had been hearing a roaring noise for about an hour before the tornado appeared. It seemed to be moving directly towards him. He saw no rotation in the column, though light clouds around its summit were whirling. Suddenly the funnel turned to the north-east; it had left the river. Another witness saw a smaller funnel come from the south, swing round, and join the main tornado.


The tornado in Clear Creek township; from a drawing by a witness 70 yards distant

Joseph Kohlhaus' sawmill, a quarter of a mile from the river, was directly in the path of the tornado. Mr Kohlhaus said that the roaring was terrific, like the sound of machinery vastly magnified, “a combined woo-oo-oo and whir-r-r-r”. As it drew near, the tornado seemed to change shape, from a funnel to a twisting screw, but by now it was dark as midnight, with black clouds, some whirling, hanging very low.

Kohlhaus' house stood on rising ground. It was severely damaged, and all the occupants were injured. An iron plough, weighing 200 pounds, was carried 40 yards and a sheet-iron chimney 2 miles. The tornado, now 270 yards wide, ascended a hill 200 feet high in a north-east direction and met with Rock Creek, a small stream running almost due south. The whirl instantly changed course to pass up the creek for about half a mile, destroying all the trees on its banks. The tornado left the creek along a marshy area, heading north-east. It passed between two farmhouses, stripping the ground bare of grass and wheat, which was then gouged and furrowed by flying fence posts and torn-up trees. Once more, smaller 'offshoots' or 'arms' left narrow paths of destruction, from 12 to 50 yards wide, on the tornado's south-east side before they curved in to join it. A witness very near the tornado said that it became as dark as midnight, but he could see the funnel turning and twisting like a screw. Other observers said that the tornado looked like 'a great column' or 'a big tree...five times greater at the top than at the bottom', turning 'like a wheel in a mill', anticlockwise.

At Lafayette township, R. F. Campbell said he had seen, before the tornado, several 'currents', one above the other, among the clouds. The wind at the ground was from the south-east. The lowest current was from the south-west, the next from the north-west, and the highest from the north-east. Hailstones, some 3 inches in diameter, began falling thickly fifteen minutes before the tornado. The hailstones were so cold that they instantly froze when put together. The wind became calm. The northern sky was full of black clouds, with incessant lightning, and Campbell heard a dull thundering noise from the north-west. Rain or hail fell from both sides of the tornado as it passed 70 yards away, and two incipient funnels appeared, one on each side.

In Keokuk county, the tornado had crossed a landscape of deep wooded ravines. Now a flat bare country lay before it; but, on Campbell's farm, the tornado left the ground. The roaring ceased. Mrs. Forbes, about a mile north-west of the tornado, watched the funnel until it grew too dark to see; then the clouds lightened, and she saw the tornado again near Campbell's house. Suddenly it seemed to vanish; then she saw the funnel again, “whirling at a furious rate in the clouds”. Several other observers saw whirling clouds after the tornado lifted.

Seven miles further on, at Westchester, in Washington County, G.W.. James heard a roaring overhead, and saw a cloud whirling rapidly anticlockwise. Then, an 'arm' descended from the cloud and struck a ploughed field. At Jackson's township, J.C. Brown first saw the tornado as it was tearing up his fences. He had time to observe one whirl, which looked like smoke, touching the earth, before he took shelter in a ditch. He then saw, on each side of the main funnel, two smaller ones, which soon joined it.

W.H. Burham, of Cedar township, saw an intensely black cloud 300 yards to the south of him, which rose and fell, and tore up the ground whenever it touched down. Fence-rails, each weighing about 40 pounds, were lifted into the cloud and flung from its summit.

Thomas Waters, of Jackson township, saw the tornado approaching, 'rolling on the ground like a wave'. He went to his storm cave, 8 yards south of his house, and watched it blown away. Part of the roof was blown off, then the house 'went bodily like lightning'. The house, 30 by 16 by 11 feet, and weighing at least 10 tons, was carried bodily down a slope for 24 yards before it struck the ground, turned over, and went to pieces.

’Two funnels uniting in one’: J.K. Marbourg’s drawing of the tornado

J.K. Marbourg, of Jackson township, had been watching the parent storm for a long time before the tornado arrived. Hailstones like chunks of ice, up to the size of a hen's egg, fell. Two clouds seemed to rush together from the south-west and the west, merging into a shape like an arrow, and forming the whirl. When the tornado was 120 rods (660 yards) distant, the base appeared to split into two funnels, which were not revolving, but appeared to unite. The sky grew very dark. A schoolhouse was being destroyed, and Marbourg saw timbers fly upwards. He started towards the schoolhouse, but a violent gust of wind from the north-west carried him several yards and badly damaged his outbuildings; ; it was followed by torrential rain, and a cold north wind. At last Marbourg set out for the schoolhouse, but could not find it. Suddenly, he saw the teacher and the children. They were covered in mud, and shivering; four of Marbourg's own children were there, but he did not recognise them. All were badly injured, and had no idea what had happened to them. The body of one student was found 40 yards north-west of the schoolhouse.

The storm passed from Washington County into Louisa County, moving south-east. Charles Crim, of Union township, saw a 'tongue of cloud shaped like a funnel hanging from the clouds'. It did not reach the earth.

Sergeant Mackintosh lost sight of the tornado track here, and, despite assiduous searching, found no further trace of it. At last he gave up, and took a train to Prairie City, Illinois, to investigate the track of another tornado. He had travelled many miles in Iowa, enduring intense heat and temperatures of over 90° F., questioning everyone he met on the road, in the fields, or at home. “Of course, by far the majority could give no information worth taking”, and by the time he arrived, several weeks after the tornado, “its traces were becoming rapidly obliterated, both in the memories of the witnesses and upon the surface of the earth”.