Camanche Tornado of 1860

In Historical by Jeff Wilcox

The civil war was about to begin only months later. It was quiet hot summertime Sunday afternoon on the banks of the Mississippi River in the little town of Camanache, a town that had just be founded only a few years prior. People were milling around with their activities until they noticed darkening skies to their west. Most townspeople thought that rain was soon set in, to cool off the heat that had been occurring all afternoon, what they didn’t know was that it was much more than just rain.

The storm that would spawn the Camanche tornado began in the early afternoon hours near Fort Dodge. It dropped golf ball sized hail on many farms injuring cattle and breaking windows in homes. As the storm moved to the east-southeast the storm spawned the first of what was to be many tornadoes along its path. The trunk-like tornado hit the town of New Providence in Hardin county. Luckily many of the townspeople were away attending a quaker meeting leaving only a few injuries. The storm however hit the town of Pritchard’s Grove killing seven there, The villiage of Quebec was also hit but no fatalities occurred there. The storm continued moving ESE across Tama and Benton counties, missing many of the small communities. (It may have lifted during this point). By the time the storm got to Cedar Rapids, two tornadoes were now visible, 12 miles apart. The twin storms split the small city of Cedar Rapids to the north and south and continued moving to the east-southeast. Benjamin F Gue (R) at the time was farming between Cedar Rapids and Mt. Vernon and witnessed one of the tornadoes. He writes

Looking toward a grove of some three miles distant in the path of theblack trailing cloud we saw high up in the air great trees, torn and shattered, thrown by the force of the whirlwind outside of its vortex and falling toward the earth

The two tornadoes missed the town of Mt Vernon. It’s neighboring town of Lisbon, was not so fortunate. The train depot and warehouse were destroyed as were several frieght cars that were tossed into the air. The tornadoes now followed the railroad line (Union Pacific today). The next town on the line was Mechanicsville which was hit the roaring twister. By the time the storm reached Wheatland in Clinton County, the two tornadoes were visible. Between Wheatland and DeWitt, the two tornadoes merged into a monster tornado and headed easterly. There were no towns in the path of the tornado before it hit Camanche but between the merger and the storm hitting Camanche, 28 people died at numerous farmsteads that were wiped off the face of the earth. At about 7pm, that Sunday evening, the tornado slammed into Camanche, destroying virtually every building in the small town of 1200. A 3 story brick hotel was leveled. almost 3/4th of the towns residents were now homeless. More than 50 people had died in Camanche alone with many more dying of their injuries later. The tornado then went across the river into Illinois smashing into the town of Albany, devestating the town, killing 5 people there. The tornado continued moving easterly. It passed south of Dixon IL around 9pm and was seen as far to the east as Amboy IL (SE of Dixon).

The Lyons City Advocate had a long piece about the storm which can be viewed here (NY Times Jun 7th 1860)

A correspondent from the New York Herald happened to be travelling toward Camanche when the tornado struck. In a report he filed two days later from Clinton, he wrote: had your correspondent been an eighth of a mile to the northward, doubtless some other writer would have given you the account of my destruction.

The tornado (or tornadoes) killed 141 people (115 in Iowa, 74 in Clinton County alone)and injuring 329. (As mentioned earlier, some of the injuried later died from their injuries raising the total close to 200). Damage was estimated at $945,000 ($22.3 million 2008 dollars)

The Great Tornado of 1860 by Benjamin F Gue
NY Times Article from June 6th 1860
Tornado Accounts of Tornadoes in Iowa Second Edition by John L Stanford (1987) Pages 34-41.

Hopefully this is a good account of this terrible storm to occur in Iowa’s early history.