History of Iowa From the Earliest Times to the Beginning of the Twentieth Century/2/3

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THE GREAT TORNADO OF JUNE, 1860. DESTRUCTION OF CAMANCHE

THE greatest tornado that ever swept over Iowa was formed from a hail storm which was first seen on the prairies of Calhoun and Webster counties, on Sunday, June 3, 1860, at about half-past three o’clock. The day had been sultry with the exception of an occasional slight breeze. The wind continually shifted from one direction to another, and after blowing for a brief time, disappeared. As the day advanced the heat became more intense and not a breath of air was stirring. It was noticed that the cattle and horses in the pastures were uneasy and walked about throwing their heads into the air as though disturbed by some unusual apprehension, they would follow along the fences seeking a place to get out. The birds gathered in the groves and shade-trees about the houses. The dogs were seen snuffing the air as though someone or something unusual was approaching. I was living on a sightly prairie elevation from which could be seen groves at a great distance to the west and southwest. The air seemed unusually clear and the trees near Tipton, a distance of seventeen miles, were plainly visible, a thing that had very seldom been known. At about five o’clock, we noticed in the west just appearing above the horizon, banks of light-colored clouds in a long triangular line reaching from far in the north away to the south. Very slowly they arose and in half an hour we could see below them the darkest blue-black continuous cloud that I remember to have seen, reaching the whole distance from north to south. Soon a light haze of a bluish-green tint began to be visible in the atmosphere. At this time the air seemed to be most profoundly still and oppressive. The uneasiness of all domestic animals increased. Those running at large upon the prairie ranges were seen approaching the settlements in anxious haste. As the long line of clouds slowly arose, the lower portion, which seemed to touch the earth, became of inky blackness. We could now faintly hear long continued rumble of thunder and for some time sharp tongues of lightning had been visible. The atmosphere, the haze and the rising bank of clouds had a weird unnatural appearance and the oppressiveness of the lifeless heat became almost unendurable. It was now noticed for the first time that the light-colored upper clouds, which resembled the dense smoke of a great prairie fire, were rapidly moving from the north and south toward the center of the storm cloud, and, as they met, were violently agitated like boiling water descending in a rapid movement to the black cloud below. We were all now intently watching this strange movement, something we had never before seen, when the thought flashed across my mind—this is a tornado! The cloud had now been in sight about three-quarters of an hour and the vivid flashing of the lightning and steady roar of the thunder were continuous.

The wind came in gusts from the east, changing to the south, and again suddenly veering to the north, then dying away into a dead calm. The cloud was now rising rapidly and trailing below it seemed to be an immense funnel, the lower end of which appeared to be dragging on the ground. We could hear a steady roar, very heavy but not loud, like an immense freight train crossing a bridge. Looking toward a grove some three miles distant in the path of the black 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. My family had gone into the cellar, which was of large rocks, upon which rested the balloon frame house. I stood close by the outside doorway, ready to spring in if the fearful black swaying trail should come toward the house. It appeared to be passing about half a mile north of us. The sight, while grand and fearful, was too fascinating to be lost unless the danger became imminent. The roar was now awful, and a terrific wind was blowing directly toward the swaying, twisting black trail, which seemed to be sweeping down into the ground. It was now coming directly toward the log house of my nearest neighbor on the north, and I saw the family run out and down a steep bluff of Rock Creek and cling to the willows. Suddenly the funnel rose into the air and I could see falling to the earth, tree tops, rails, boards, posts and every conceivable broken fragment of wrecked buildings. We watched the angry clouds as they swept by toward the east. It was an awe-inspiring sight. The whirlwind column which had so suddenly risen from the earth seemed absorbed and lost in the rolling, tumbling mass of clouds that overshadowed the eastern sky. The sight was appalling as the cloud of inky blackness settled down to the earth again in the distance, sweeping on with a mighty power, glowing with a thousand forked tongues of lightning as the very earth seemed to tremble beneath the incessant roar of thunder. No pen or tongue can convey to the mind a true picture of the frightful sights and sounds that lurked in the rear of that irresistible tornado as it was then gathering greater power of destruction to overwhelm and crush the town of Camanche.

When we recovered from the terrors inspired by a narrow escape from instant destruction, a few of us followed the path of the tornado to learn something of the devastation wrought. Night was fast approaching and we hurried along the trail marked by the tearing up of the young grass and growing grain, broken rails, fence posts pulled out of the ground, shattered limbs of trees, the whole covered with a slimy coating of mud. When we reached the grove we found great trees torn up by the roots and swept into piles in ravines as though carried there by a mighty flood. Other trees had been caught by a rotary power and whirled around and around until they hung by a mass of fine splinters to their stumps. Others, green and full of life, had been entirely stripped of their bark even into the small limbs. Nothing could better show the irresistible rotary motion of the whirlwind. Beyond the grove we followed the fearful path thickly strewn with the shivered and splintered fragments of a neighbor’s house until we reached the cellar, all that remained of the family home of two hours before. Several of the inmates were terribly injured, while others had strangely escaped. We returned home dreading to hear the tidings that were sure to come from the east and west. At ten o’clock that night we were aroused by some emigrants who had been caught in a part of the tornado many miles to the east and were so terrified by the dreadful scenes they had witnessed that they fled form the horror, too dazed to realize that they were out of danger. We learned form them that twelve miles east, in Clinton County, houses and barns had been swept away, scores of people killed and mangled, animals killed and strewn over the farms and along the highway, and the roads obstructed by shattered trees. Day after day the news came of death and desolation until this was finally known to be the greatest tornado which has ever swept over any Northern State.

Investigation showed the storm to have gathered in eastern Nebraska as an ordinary thunder shower, about one o’clock p.m. An hour later it passed over Sioux City, where the rain was very heavy, with but little wind. In Hamilton County it was reinforced by other heavy clouds, which were driven toward it by air currents, and the hailstones increased in size. The clouds came together from different directions and the rotary motion developed. Column-like masses of cloud depended from time to time and the volume of wind increased as it bore southeastward into Hardin County. New Providence was a little country village in the south part of the county, and was largely settled by Quakers. Most of them were at an afternoon meeting some distance south of the town, out of the track of the storm, which had now become a tornado with its trunk-like trail dragging on the ground. It struck the village from the northwest; eleven houses were torn to pieces and several persons injured. It passed south of Eldora and crossing the Iowa River at Sanderson’s mill, swept a clean path through the woods and passed on through a corner of Marshall, Tama and Benton counties, in a direction to miss most of the settlements. The destroying funnel appears here to have risen, as little damage was done. As it approached Linn, near Palo, two funnel-shaped clouds settled down toward the earth and the work of destruction began anew. These clouds were several miles apart, passing Cedar Rapids, one on the north and the other on the south. The storm passed near Bertram and just missed Mount Vernon. At Lisbon, the freight depot, a large warehouse, and a freight train of ten loaded cars were completely destroyed. The north branch of the tornado now passed into Jones County, while the south branch swept into Cedar. The Jones County branch passed through Greenfield and Rome townships. The southwest branch of the tornado swept through the north part of Cedar County, destroying eight houses and one church, killing three persons and wounding thirteen. About five miles east of the Wapsipinicon River the two branches united and a broad black column again descended, which now swept on through the south part of Clinton County with a wider sweep and accelerated force. With a propelling power driving it eastward at a rate of seventy miles an hour and a rotary motion of inconceivable velocity the storm proceeded on its work of destruction. In many places the path of the tornado was from eighty to one hundred and sixty rods in width and this track was left a desert waste. Scores of people were killed and mangled and beautiful homes swept out of existence. As it neared the town of Camanche, the appearance of the storm was awful beyond description. The light of day was blotted out and the roar of the elements stilled every voice and blanched the cheek of the bravest. No escape seemed possible. Many families ran to the cellars, while others huddled together and clung to each other in their terror. The fury of the united tornadoes struck the village at seven o’clock in the evening. One who visited the ruins the next morning gives the following description of the sights:

“Amid the devastation that met the eye and is utterly indescribable, wherever a few boards hung together were gathered the survivors, some slumbering, others sitting in despair mourning the loved and lost; some nursing the wounded, while many lay dead side by side in rough boxes in a building. The tornado had swept through the town a quarter of a mile wide, literally prostrating everything before it. The town was not a mass of ruins, but it looked as though the houses and their contents were literally scattered. There were fragments of what had been houses everywhere. All that was left of Camanche was a few houses and all of these injured. No houses were left in the direct track of the tornado, and those at the edges were riddled as if by cannon shot. In many cases broken timbers had been hurled through houses, carrying death and destruction. Eleven store buildings fronting on the river ere piled in ruins, and much of them with their contents were swept into the river. There is not a business house in the town left unimpaired, and nearly every one was totally destroyed. The scene was appalling and cannot be described.”

Thirty-nine business houses were totally destroyed, beside two churches and two hotels. Forty-one persons were instantly killed, and more than eighty lacerated and mutilated in every conceivable form. Of the three hundred and fifty dwelling houses in the town not fifty were left uninjured, and eight hundred and sixty persons were homeless. Crossing the river the tornado struck Albany, on the Illinois side, swept on eastward through the entire State, killing eleven persons, wounding more than fifty, and destroying an immense amount of property. Crossing Lake Michigan north of Chicago we last hear of it in Ottawa County, Michigan, where it had exhausted its destructive power as a tornado after having traveled more than four hundred miles as a whirlwind, and a hundred and fifty miles additional as a sever hail, rain and wind storm. When it is remembered that in 1860 the larger part of the country over which the tornado passed was sparsely settled, the magnitude of this greatest storm that ever visited the northern latitudes can be realized.

From the most reliable information obtainable, the following estimate was made of the destruction of life and property:


Hardin County—Killed 7, wounded 27, houses destroyed 37. Loss $75,000.

Linn and Marshall Counties—Killed 22, wounded 51, houses destroyed 26. Loss $175,000.

Cedar County—Killed 3, wounded 13, houses destroyed 8. Loss, $15,000.

Jones County—Killed 9, wounded 30, houses destroyed 13. Loss, $30,000.

Clinton County—Killed 74, wounded 155, houses destroyed 168. Loss, $450,000.

Illinois—Killed 26, wounded 53, houses destroyed 60. Loss, $200,000.

Total—Killed 141, wounded 329, houses destroyed, 312. Loss, $945,00.


Many of the injured died of their wounds, bringing the fatalities up to nearly two hundred. The storm crossed the Missouri River at Sioux City at about two o’clock p.m., on Sunday, striking Camanche at seven and reaching the northeast corner of Ottawa County, Michigan, at about midnight, a total distance of about five hundred and sixty miles in ten hours, or an average velocity of fifty-six miles an hour. But it was observed that during the time the storm traveled as a destroying tornado it swept over the country at a velocity of about sixty-six miles an hour. It is estimated by several meteorologists who made careful investigation to ascertain the velocity of the circular motion of the wind which wrought such fearful destruction, that it was at the rate of about three hundred miles an hour, or something more than that of a cannon ball fired with a full charge of powder. Among the incidents of the passage of the tornado, which led to this belief, were the following: scores of live hickory and oak trees were found in the path with the bark entirely peeled off, even including that on the small limbs; hundreds of chickens were found stripped of every feather. Sills of houses were found driven endwise into the side of ravines so far that it took two or three teams to pull them out. Oak shingles were driven through the sides of houses and barns fast in to the trunks of trees. Spokes were torn from wagon wheels and driven into the bodies of people and animals with fatal effects.

The Republican National Convention assembled at Chicago, on the 16th of May, 1860, for the purpose of nominating candidates for President and Vice-President. Unusual interest was aroused throughout the North over the meeting of this convention, for there was a belief widespread that if the action was wise and harmonious, it was possible to elect a Republican President. So great was the desire of politicians to become members of the convention that Iowa Republicans sent thirty-two delegates, while entitled to but eight votes. Among these delegates were John A. Kasson, William Penn Clark, Henry O’Connor, James F. Wilson, William B. Allison, Alvin Saunders, C. F. Clarkson, J. B. Grinnell, William M. Stone, C. C. Nourse, Reuben Noble, H. M. Hoxie, N. J. Rusch, William P. Hepburn, Jacob Butler and William Smyth, all of whom have since attained prominence in Iowa and the Nation. John A. Kasson was the Iowa member of the Committee on Resolutions, and he, with Horace Greeley, formed the subcommittee which drafted the platform of that famous convention. Iowa divided its vote between William H. Seward, the great Antislavery leader and
John A. Kasson - History of Iowa.jpg
JOHN A. KASSON
Wrote the Chicago Platform in 1860
statesman, and Abraham Lincoln, who had recently won national fame in a series of political debates with Stephen A. Douglas. The platform was an able document, defining the principles of the party of freedom in clear and vigorous terms which aroused great enthusiasm throughout the country. The nomination of Abraham Lincoln, a typical representative of the West, was received with general rejoicing in the Mississippi Valley. The defeat of Seward was a sore disappointment to the radical wing of the party which gave Lincoln, however, a unanimous and loyal support.

The Democratic National Convention, which had been held at Charleston, on the 23d of April, had divided into two factions on the issues relating to slavery. Delegates from the extreme Southern States demanded that the platform declare that neither Congress nor territorial legislatures had power to abolish slavery in the Territories, nor prohibit the introduction of slaves therein, nor impair the right of property in slaves by legislation. Ben. M. Samuels, of Iowa, presented a minority report indorsing the Democratic platform of 1856 on the subject of slavery. The minority report was adopted by a vote of one hundred an sixty-five to one hundred and thirty-eight, whereupon the delegates from Alabama, Mississippi, Florida and Texas, and a portion of the delegates from Louisiana, South Carolina, Arkansas, North Carolina, Delaware and Georgia, withdrew from the convention. After a session of ten days the convention adjourned to meet at Baltimore on the 18th of June. When it reassembled a portion of the delegates seceded, and those remaining nominated Stephen A. Douglas for President and H. V. Johnson for Vice-President. The seceders held a convention, nominating John C. Breckinridge for President and Joseph Lane for Vice-President. Another national Convention was held at Baltimore, May 9th, by delegates from twenty States representing the Constitutional-Union Party. It adopted for a platform the Constitution, and declared adherence to the union of the States and the enforcement of the laws. John Bell was nominated for President and Edward Everett for Vice-President.

The old Whig party had now disappeared, and is no more heard of in American politics. Slavery, the crime against civilization, had no longer use for a party of compromises but demanded the support and protection of the National Government. The Republicans sternly—and the Douglas Democrats mildly—resisted such demands. The Constitution-Union party was neutral and the Breckinridge Democrats were aggressive in support of slavery. All minor issues were overshadowed and the great conflict between freedom and slavery aroused the most intense interest of the entire country.

The Republican State Convention met at Iowa City, May 23d, 1860, and nominated Elijah Sells for Secretary of State; J. W. Cattell for Auditor; J. W. Jones, Treasurer; C. C. Nourse, Attorney-General; A. B. Miller, Register Land Office and George G. Wright for Supreme Judge. The resolutions indorsed the platform and candidates of the national Republican Convention.

The Democratic State Convention was held at Des Moines on the 12th of July, and nominated the following candidates for State officers: J. M. Corse,[1] Secretary of State; G. W. Maxfield, Auditor; J. W. Ellis, Treasurer; Patrick Robb, Register; D. F. Miller, Supreme Judge. The convention indorsed the candidates of the Douglas wing of the Democratic National Conventions and declared for economy in State expenses, a revision of the Constitution and radical changes in the banking system.

The campaign was a warm one, the candidates for electors took the field and advocated the respective platforms of their parties with vigor, arousing enthusiasm and fierce antagonisms, which resulted in bringing out a large vote. The result was the election of the Republican candidates by the following vote:

Republican average vote 70,300
Douglas Democrats average vote 55,000
Constitution-Union average vote 1,750
Breckinridge Democrats average vote 1,035
Republican plurality 15,300
The Republican State ticket received an average plurality of 13,670.

In the First District, Samuel R. Curtis, Republican, was elected to Congress over Chester C. Cole, Democrat. In the Second District, William Vandever, Republican, was elected over Ben M. Samuels, Democrat. Iowa had now become one of the firm Republican States and as long as American slavery was an issue in politics her people continued to stand for freedom.


  1. Corse became a distinguished officer in the War of the Rebellion.