Friday, June 24, 2022

The Great Tornado of 1860


Camanche after the tornado.
(Harper's Weekly Magazine.)

1860 was the year the great tornado roared through Eastern Iowa and Western Illinois. It came up out of nowhere and took the lives of over one hundred and fifty people—one hundred in Iowa and fifty more in Illinois. The storm traveled the 150 miles from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to Sterling, Illinois, in less than two hours. The cities of Camanche, Iowa, and Albany, Illinois, were erased from the earth in less than three minutes.

Two tornadoes formed near Palo, Iowa, just above Cedar Rapids, around 6 p.m. on Sunday, June 3, 1860. At Cedar Rapids, they passed on either side of the town. Five houses were destroyed on the west side of town. One man was killed and another injured. Two homes were blown apart on the south side.

Not too far from Cedar Rapids, the storm-tossed Mr. Wooley’s home end over end like a play toy. Mrs. Wooley and her daughter took shelter in the basement, but they were swept into the bushes twenty feet away when the wind lifted the house off the foundation. The wind yanked Mr. Wooley out of the house and carried him nearly fifty feet away, where he clung to a stump for dear life. When the wind let up, he ran to help his wife, but the storm wasn’t done with Wooley yet. It picked him up and carried him another thirty feet, depositing him in the creek.[2]

A man caught in the woods clung to a bunch of hazel bushes. The winds picked him up and threw him a dozen feet, stripping all the clothes from his body. Another man threw his arms around a beech tree and held on as tight as he could. The storm lifted him into the air and smashed him to the ground, killing him instantly.[3]

At Mount Vernon, the townspeople gathered to watch the storm come in. “It was attended with a heavy roar, as of a hundred train cars. Branches of trees could be seen in the air, while its changing form and the flakes of clouds thrown from its sides showed its whirling motion. When within two miles of us, while people were seeking safety in cellars, or, as in some cases running wildly about the streets, it veered its course and swept by in full sight—sublime but fearful.”[4]

Another picture of the destruction at
Camanche, Iowa.
(Harper's Weekly Magazine.)

Mount Vernon survived untouched, but the next city in the storm’s path would not be so lucky. At Lisbon Station, the winds demolished the depot buildings. Ten freight cars were hurled from the tracks and tossed through the air. Three warehouses, Goodrich’s eating house, and two lumber yards were “utterly destroyed.” The storm shredded the wood from Chancy Lamb’s lumber yard into kindling.[5] The storm killed four people at Lisbon and another at Roger’s Settlement.[6]

The correspondent for the Mount Vernon News reported seeing “human bodies whirling in the air.”[7] Five people were killed at Cedar Rapids, sixteen at Mechanicsville, and two more at Onion Grove Station.[8]

In Union Township, seven miles south of Eldora, the storm tore the bejeezus out of everything in its path. It leveled the two-story brick home of Mr. Devine. Four out of nine people inside the house were killed, and the others injured. “The appearance of the mangled bodies as they were taken from the ruins, or picked up on the prairie, was truly horrifying and awful.” Mrs. Devine’s head was severed from her body and could not be found. Several children were so “completely crushed and mangled that they could hardly be recognized as human beings.”[9]

The Crist home next door was demolished by the storm. Fortunately, all but one person made it into the storm cellar. She did not survive.

From there, the tornado crossed the Iowa River near Sanderson’s Mill. Houses were torn from their foundations, and trees and fences were tossed into the air. Mrs. Garrison was killed, and many others were injured. Hailstones the size of hen’s eggs fell in Eldora. One hailstone measured thirteen inches around.[10]

Albany, Illinois after the tornado.
(Harper's Weekly Magazine.)

The same storm ravaged the area between DeWitt and Camanche in Iowa. 

George Ames saw the storm coming and rushed his family to shelter in a root cellar. When they emerged, the house had disintegrated in the winds.[11] A horse lay dead on the ground, “with a rail drove completely through his body.”[12] Not far away, they discovered five or six animals torn to pieces. 

The storm swept the Walrod house and family entirely away. Five family members perished in the wreckage; a five-year-old girl survived after being carried nearly a half-mile away. Further on at Hatfield’s, sixteen people lost their lives. One man was blown into a tree, and while hanging there, a rail passed through his body.[13]

The city of Camanche suffered the full wrath of the storm.

It was a typical summer day – hot and humid, with a clear blue sky. The tornado roared into the town of fifteen hundred inhabitants at about 7 p.m., “with the rapidity of lightning. The sky assumed a yellowish brassy aspect, and the air seemed dead.”[14] Mr. Liken said the earth trembled terribly.[15]

During its short stop in Camanche, the storm took 45 lives and injured 75 more. Searchers found a mother and daughter lying dead on the ground with no visible injuries. It was like the storm sucked the life out of them. Another mother lay dead with her two children next to her — “all three cold and stiff.”[16]

The Muscatine Journal reported, “the city of Camanche was completely destroyed, hardly a building being uninjured, and most of them completely demolished. The Millard Hotel is a mass of ruins. The wife and the two children of Mr. Sessions, the proprietor, are among the killed.” The New York Times observed the building “could not have been more effectively destroyed had a barrel of gunpowder been exploded within its walls.”[17] The Mudgett house was also destroyed. The “store and dwelling house of Mr. Westfall was demolished. He and his whole family were buried.”[18]

Mr. Butcher braced himself against the back door of his house. The “the tornado wrenched it from its hinges like a plaything and carried him upon the door through the house and out into the garden.”[19] The wind picked up two German men driving their buggy and tossed them through the air. The horses flew in one direction, the men in another, where they landed dead on the ground.[20]

Eli Milliner rushed his wife and child into the basement of his home. Unfortunately, the waistband of his pants got caught in the floor rafters. Before he could break free, the winds lifted the house off the foundation and set it down eight feet away, crushing Eli underneath. Mrs. Miller, the postmistress of Camanche, got buried under the rubble when her home collapsed on her and her two-year-old daughter. Mrs. Miller emerged unharmed, but her daughter didn’t make it.[21]

When he saw the storm coming, G. C. Westphall, a grocer in Camanche, hurried his wife and four children into the basement. But, before he could follow them, the building crumbled on top of him. The next day, they found his remains “horribly mutilated,” his head and body “terribly mangled.”[22]

The animals took it as hard as the people. Between DeWitt and Camanche, farmers buried seventy-six head of cattle. Many more disintegrated or were carried off in the storm.[23] One man saw “a horse come flying through the air at about twenty feet from the ground, followed by a cow...which must have been carried over three hundred feet.”[24]

From there, the storm crossed the Mississippi River and attacked Albany, Illinois, where five more people lost their lives, and thirty-five were injured.[25] All but two buildings were destroyed.[26] As it crossed the Mississippi River into Albany, the tornado formed an immense waterspout. A raft carrying twenty-seven people got smashed to “pieces in an instant.” It was thought only two or three escaped.

The tornado ravaged the area five miles south of Morrison, Illinois. Eight to ten people were killed, and as many as fifty seriously injured. A woman asleep in her bed was carried 150 feet away. Cattle were swept into the sky and dashed to the earth.

Mass burial of several of the victims at Camanche.
(Harper's Weekly Magazine.)

Not far away in Amboy, John Hubble’s farm fell victim to the storm. The winds pulverized his house, barn, and fences, and most of his livestock was killed. Mr. Moss’ property suffered the same fate. The storm killed his wife and seriously injured his daughter and two sons. Mr. Crosbie’s farm was destroyed, one of his children killed, and another injured. Many others suffered the same fate.[27]

Sterling and Lynden, Illinois, took a fierce blow from the same storm. Four people were killed at Lynden and fifteen more injured.

A reporter said the tornado blew in from the southwest. It crashed into David Scott’s brick home, pulverized Alonzo Golder’s place, and tore James Wood’s house off its foundation while the family hid in the cellar. Not far away, Mrs. Pike lay fatally injured, and her son and daughter broke an arm and a leg.[28]

Captain Doty’s house disintegrated in the storm. His son and William Yeoward got tossed one hundred feet in the air and seriously injured. Cattle swirled around in the funnel cloud. Turkeys and chickens had their feathers plucked from their bodies.[29]

Stunned onlookers in Davenport watched a little girl come crashing out of the sky and land head first in a puddle of mud. They dug her out, still alive. A four-year-old Clinton youth got carried two miles before crashing to the ground dead.[30]


In the aftermath, looters pawed through the wreckage. They tore the clothes and valuables from the bodies of the dead.

[1] Muscatine Weekly Journal. June 8, 1860.

[2] Sioux City Register. June 16, 1860.

[3] The Weekly Ottumwa Courier. June 14, 1860.

[4] St. Charles Republican Intelligencer. June 14, 1860.

[5] The Buchanan County Guardian. June 13, 1860.

[6] The Weekly Ottumwa Courier. June 14, 1860.

[7] The Iowa Transcript. June 7, 1860.

[8] The Iowa Transcript. June 7, 1860.

[9] The Press and Tribune. June 12, 1860.

[10] The Press and Tribune. June 12, 1860.

[11] The Weekly Ottumwa Courier. June 14, 1860.

[12] Daily Democrat and News. June 6, 1860.

[13] The Burlington Weekly Hawkeye. June 16, 1860.

[14] Muscatine Weekly Journal. June 15, 1863.

[15] Daily Democrat and News. June 5, 1860.

[16] The Iowa Transcript. June 7, 1860.

[17] The New York Times. June 7, 1860.

[18] Muscatine Weekly Journal. June 8, 1860.

[19] Muscatine Weekly Journal. June 15, 1860.

[20] Muscatine Weekly Journal. June 8, 1860.

[21] The Press and Tribune. June 9, 1860.

[22] The Press and Tribune. June 9, 1860.

[23] The Buchanan County Guardian. June 13, 1860.

[24] Wolfe, P. B. Wolfe’s History of Clinton County, Iowa. 1911. Vol. 1. P. 404.

[25] Daily Democrat and News. June 6, 1860.

[26] The Iowa Transcript. June 7, 1860.

[27] Daily Democrat and News. June 6, 1860.

[28] Daily Democrat and News. June 6, 1860.

[29] Daily Democrat and News. June 6, 1860.

[30] The Iowa Transcript. June 7, 1860.

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