The Great Tornado Of The Northwest, June 3, 1860

During the midpoint of the 19th century the concept of formal weather observations and reporting was in its infancy. Some of the first weather hobbyists were being asked to record and report their weather observations, but their ranks only numbered in the hundreds nationwide. However, from these sparse reports important information can be teased out. For instance, it was known that the Minneapolis/St. Paul area had an exceptionally wet two weeks during late May and early June, suggesting a general storm track through the heart of Iowa and into Wisconsin. The last of these storms would go on to produce a tornado outbreak across parts of the middle and upper Mississippi Valley. One of these tornadoes would help to catalyze the movement for a national program to report the weather to those downstream. The evening of June 2, 1860 provided a precursor to the following day, as a tornado struck Alton, Illinois, northeast of St. Louis, causing significant damage.

By all accounts the next day, Sunday June 3, 1860, was like countless other June days across eastern Iowa and northwest Illinois. The heat was described as sultry, oppressive and lifeless. Today it is known that heat and humidity provide the fuel, the instability, that is necessary for thunderstorms to grow in size and strength. Despite the fact that Iowa was not even 15 years into its statehood, the fertile soils were already the basis for an agricultural society, with farmsteads spread all across the countryside. These early settlers were also already weather savvy, with a keen awareness for the power and unpredictability of Mother Nature. Just one year earlier the first tornado reported since the settlement of Iowa was confirmed by Dr. Gustavus Hinrichs, when on the evening of May 24, 1859 a tornado swept south of Iowa City, killing 5. Undoubtedly, many other tornadoes went unreported during this time, but this confirmation by Dr. Hinrichs, the first director of the Iowa Weather Service, proves that early Iowans knew of their existence.
Thunderstorms fired that afternoon of the 3rd in central Iowa, and with these first storms came reports of prolific hail. The hail was large enough to break windows in Calhoun and Webster Counties, where in Fort Dodge and Webster City stones were reported to be up to 7 inches in circumference. This translates to greater than 2 inch diameter hailstones. This also suggests that these early storms quickly became supercellular, since generally rotating updrafts are needed to produce hail larger than golf ball sized (1.75 inches). The storms tracked east southeastward, where the first tornado was reported in Hardin County, in the town of New Providence. The town suffered considerable damage, but no fatalities occurred, owing in part to the majority of the citizens being out of town at a Quaker meeting. Six miles farther east, the small community of Pritchard’s Grove was where the tornadic storm became a killer. Seven people perished there as the storm continued on to flatten the town of Quebec, in Marshall County. It was said that nothing was left standing above ground level, but miraculously fatalities were avoided. Due to the sparse population there was a lack of reports from Tama and Benton Counties, but accounts of damage suggested straight line winds and it is assumed the tornado lifted for a period. In fact, the damage was quite significant in Benton County, with a wide swath of wind damage, especially to trees. This could have been associated with the rear flank downdraft portion of the thunderstorm, or storms, that were moving into eastern Iowa. Conditions were about to quickly deteriorate, as a funnel cloud was sighted 5 miles south of Vinton, touching down as a tornado 4 miles northwest of Palo. Details are difficult to come by, considering that much of the reporting came from word of mouth, so it is possible there was more than one thunderstorm in the area capable of producing a tornado. It is also possible that this was a cyclic supercell, with multiple tornadoes on the ground at the same time. Or it could have been a combination of both. One thing is for certain, there are very consistent reports of twin tornadoes passing to the north and south of Cedar Rapids as the storm entered Linn County.

The northern tornado passed into Jones County, south of Martelle, causing fatalities in both Greenfield and Rome Townships. Soon after, this tornado dissipated, and there were no records of it continuing into Cedar County. Another tornado formed southeast of Cedar Rapids, continuing on a path 3 miles south of Bertram, 1 mile south of Mt. Vernon and through Lisbon. There were 5 fatalities west of Mt. Vernon, and at least 10 near Mechanicsville, as the tornado continued on its path. There is a wealth of eyewitness accounts from the Cedar Rapids area, many of which are very detailed. A resident of Mt. Vernon, farming west of town, reported clouds moving towards the center of the storm, and gusty easterly, then southerly, then northerly winds, before going calm. The storm passed less than a mile north of him, meaning he likely experienced strong inflow winds, fueling the storm, and then had the updraft pass nearly overhead as winds went calm. He was also close enough to hear the tornado, stating that the roar was not loud but heavy, like an “immense freight train crossing a bridge.” In addition, he reported shattered trees in the air around the tornado. His words likely summed up the feelings of many when he said, “the sight, while grand and fearful, was too fascinating to be lost unless the danger became imminent.” The editor of the Mt. Vernon News was also able to witness the tornado as it passed south of town. He reported threatening clouds that were “hanging” over the west, indicating the low clouds bases common with significant tornadoes. He also stated the tornado itself looked like an “upright hourglass” while the sound was of hundreds of train cars. The hourglass shape also indicates that there may have been a significant debris cloud, leading to a wide base of the tornado but a narrow middle. Yet another tornado was reported west of Ely, or 7 miles southwest of Cedar Rapids, resulting in fatalities in the Rogers Grove area. It is possible these two tornadoes south of Cedar Rapids were spawned from the same thunderstorm, as they moved in tandem and even moved closer together with time. Near Lowden, the twin tornadoes were 7 miles apart, and by Wheatland they were 2 miles north and south of town respectively. However, by 3 miles southwest of DeWitt the two tornadoes had become one, possibly as a result of the northern tornado occluding and wrapping into the stronger southern circulation.

Above: The Approximate Tornado Tracks

The now lone tornado was tearing up the countryside, leaving behind a quarter to half mile wide swath of damage that looked “like a desert.” Despite there being few towns between DeWitt and Camanche, many farmsteads suffered direct hits and over 20 fatalities occurred across the interior of Clinton County. Just west of Camanche the destructive power of the tornado became evident, as a family watched their house, from a safe distance, be lifted by the tornado and carried westward 100 yards only to be returned back to its original location before being shattered by the winds. The owner described it as being, “rubbed out as you would rub a snow-ball between your hands.” At 6:30pm the tornado entered Camanche with its full fury, as the wind was so loud that it blotted out all other sounds. As the Lyons City Advocate reported the following day, Camanche was “literally blown to pieces.” Hardly a building was left standing, as the center of town took a direct hit. A New York Herald correspondent, traveling near Camanche, described the scene as if, “the angel of destruction [had] passed over it, and with his wings had brushed it from the bosom of the plains.”
Though the tornado lasted about 2 to 3 minutes, according to eyewitnesses, the damage was nearly total, leaving only rubble or partial structures. Debris was strewn across the land to the east, taken from homes that once made up Camanche. The front of one frame house was reportedly removed, only to have the contents of the house remain relatively unharmed. Nearby, another house lost all of its windows and the force of the wind that entered through the openings crushed the furniture to pieces. A plank was driven through the door of a hotel, lodging in the floor, and effectively sealing the door shut. One store on First Street was said to have the first floor removed, only to have the second floor settle down as if the first floor had never existed. Near the edge of town, livestock were reported to have been airborne, and carried hundreds of feet away. Elsewhere, a stable was removed from the ground and carried away, leaving the horses behind still tied to their racks. A 2 ton chimney was removed from the side of a house, only to be set down next to it completely erect and unharmed. Cedar shingles were also driven through the east facing walls of downtown stores. This debris was carried from the western parts of town, and the rotational winds drove them east to west into the walls, opposite the motion of the storm. This is a common tornado damage signature. It was in Camanche that the majority of casualties occurred. News of the destruction was quick to reach the surrounding areas. Men on horseback set out to neighboring towns to bring word and plead for assistance. To the north at Clinton, the storm had produced mainly heavy rain and only a little wind, and residents were now enjoying a calm evening as vivid lightning lit up the sky to the east. Upon hearing of the tornado, hundreds of citizens headed off to help, along with every available doctor and supply for dressing wounds. By the time they reached the outskirts of Camanche the moon was bright and the sky was clear, providing little evidence for the storm that had just passed through. At the first house they arrived at volunteers were greeted by children with broken limbs that had been evacuated from town, and from there the sights only became more grim. That night a steamboat from the neighboring town of Lyons was offered to run supplies, and the next day special trains were run for any and all volunteers who wanted to help. On Tuesday the 5th, a service was conducted to mourn 25 of the dead from Camanche. Reverends from Camanche, Lyons, Clinton and Low Moor participated, in a show of support from surrounding communities. Sadly, this was tale of just one of the many towns impacted by the tornado over the course of June 3rd.
After striking Camanche the tornado swept east, dumping debris and homes into the Mississippi, and drowning their occupants. A raft had the misfortune of passing Camanche on the river at this time, and of the 26 on board only 3 survived when they washed ashore in Illinois, with no memory of how they got there. On the opposite bank of the Mississippi, the town of Albany, Illinois stood in the path of the oncoming tornado. The town suffered a similar fate as Camanche, with most buildings being in utter ruin. Fortunately for the residents of Albany, their position on the bluff offered them an unobstructed view to the west and of the onrushing storm. Most of the town was able to take cover, but the destructive power of the tornado was able to claim over 10 lives in and around town, as well as cause numerous injuries. The tornado continued on a generally eastward track, resulting in 4 fatalities near Morrison. It then continued through Como, 3 miles south of Sterling and 8 miles south of Dixon, destroying farmsteads and resulting in at least 8 more fatalities. The tornado then tracked through Harmon and Marion Townships, passed 2 miles north of Amboy, and likely dissipated near Shabbona. Along this length there were more fatalities and homes “blown to atoms.”
This storm system likely produced more thunderstorms that spawned tornadoes across northeast Illinois. A tornado was reported to track from West Elgin to Dundee, and yet another near Glencoe. Ships on Lake Michigan also reported sighting large waterspouts, as the thunderstorms continued to track east. The last report from this complex of thunderstorms came from as far away as the eastern shore of Lake Michigan. The most devastating part of the tornadic supercell, tracked from New Providence, Iowa to near Shabbona, Illinois. This means that the storm moved over 200 miles in about 4 hours, a forward speed of around 50 mph. This rapid movement and the lack of an organized weather reporting system resulted in catastrophe for those downstream of the initial touchdown. Depending on the source, when all was said and done this tornado, or family of tornadoes, claimed near 140 lives, and injured around 300 others. Until the Tri-State tornado, the Great Tornado of the Northwest claimed more farmers than any other tornado in history. It is impossible to assign a rating to this tornado because of the lack of an accurate damage assessment, but it is very likely that this was a significant (EF2+) tornado. Whatever the true wind speeds were, to this day the Camanche tornado ranks as one of the worst tornado disasters this country has ever seen. is the U.S. government's official web portal to all federal, state and local government web resources and services.