Copyright 2004 By Bob Hibbs
Saturday July 3, 2004 

Postcard 251: Tornado in Iowa City – 1859


“When it crossed the Iowa River its color changed instantly to white,” reported an eyewitness to an 
1859 tornado that killed five people along what is not the southern edge of Iowa City. 
This file image is of a tornado cloud a century later.


By Bob Hibbs


A tornado passed along what is now the southern edge of Iowa City killing five people, injuring others, and inflicting destruction on several farm homes, an orchard and crops on an early Sunday evening in late spring 1859.

Among those killed was Jesse Berry, “a well known citizen,” according to a 1912 description written by C. Ray Aurner. A falling timber struck Berry as his barn collapsed.

Although sources leave virtually no biographic material for either man, this may be the same Jesse Berry who is credited with opening the first local school. That occurred in 1840 in an 18-by-26-foot oak frame structure built along College Street just west of Clinton Street when College passed through what now is the Old Capitol Mall site downtown.

The Berry building later was moved to the longtime Bartley Law Office site at 528 S. Clinton. It apparently survived a century before being demolished to make way for the present brick-front structure there.

The late local historian Irving Weber wrote that a large oak timber from the Berry building was used as a fireplace mantle in the Bartley home along Ridge Road.

Connection between the school founder and the man who died in the tornado is not made by any of the primary writers of local history. Other records show the death of a person by that name at age 22 in 1909, clearly someone of a later generation.

In a firsthand account left in Old Settlers’ Association records, John Springer wrote in 1924 that as a nine-year-old, he watched the 1859 tornado.

“When it crossed the Iowa River,” Springer wrote, “its color instantly changed to white, and at a distance of about a mile, it seemed to be 20 feet or so in diameter, going east at frightful speed accompanied by a dreadful roaring.”

He said the storm left the Berry farmhouse as only a floor on a foundation, “not even a board was left of the structure.”

An 1883 Johnson County history reports an eyewitness account that as the 1859 storm crossed the river “it scooped out the water till the bed of the stream could be seen entirely across.” Curiously, that history records no fatalities from the storm.

Early 20th century historian Aurner wrote that near the Berry home three deaths occurred when Andrew Morgan, his son and grandson were killed as the farmstead was demolished. Other family members were injured.

He also writes that not far away a hired hand whose name is recorded only as Mr. McCoy, “had a stake driven in just back of the shoulder from which wound he died the next morning.”

The May 24 storm approached from the southwest on what was described as an ordinary day until toward evening when dark clouds appeared in the west and southwest which appeared to be an approaching thunderstorm. However, three lighting bolts in rapid succession seemed to announce something unusual.

“About this time a black cloud was pointed out, jagged and broken, from which suspended like an inverted cone or funnel, a smaller cloud,” a witness reported. “Not many minutes later it became pointed and made contact with the earth.”

“The noise from this cloud resembled that of heavy wagons on a plank road, a rumbling and continuous roar, distinctly heard by all listeners,” Aurner reports.

Springer also leaves the story that a farm hand was scooped up by the tornado and deposited nearly a mile away, practically uninjured. The man declared he was returning to the east, that he “wasn’t staying in a country where people were carried to heaven in a chariot of wind.”

Ironically, Springer wrote, word came later that the man had been killed in a train accident in the east.

Next Saturday: The swimming hole at Woodlawn and other old tales.

Bob Hibbs collects local postcards and other historic ephemera and researches history related to them. 

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