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1880 History
The Great Tornado

In early days Iowa had an unenviable notoriety for wind storms: and undeservedly so; for while a number of frightful storms have swept across the State, they have not been greater in number nor more destructive in their results than in other States.

One of the most destructive tornadoes which ever passed through this latitude was the one occurring on the 23d of May, 1873.  Certain portions of Keokuk county were particularly unfortunate.

The following account of that tornado, with a minute description of its effects in this county, was written for the "Sigourney News," by John A. Donnell, Esq., which we copy entire:

"The most terrific whirlwind, simoon, tornado, cyclone—or whatever name you may choose to call it—ever known, passed over a portion of this county on Thursday last, leaving death, destruction, and utter ruin in its track.

"At about 6 o'clock in the morning the rain came down in torrents, and in less than thirty minutes the streams were 'on a tear,' and gave us new high-water marks—the highest for many years.  After it was over the people gazed up into the heavens and wished for dry weather, with about as much solicitude, I imagine, as Noah did, when the waters of the flood subsided, and the dove was sent forth from the window of the ark to look for the top of the mountain.  The morning was warm and sultry; noon came, and up to that time, neither wind, hail nor rain.

"At about half-past 2 o'clock P. M., the clouds gathered in the west.  More rain was predicted.  An ominous silence prevailed—not a bird sung, and not a leaf fluttered in the air.  The clouds passed over from the northwest to the southeast—just as clouds often do—a few drops of rain came down at first, then the bottom seemed to fall out and in a few minutes the streams were on another "bender."  But still there was no wind, and as yet but little hail.  The rain almost ceased, and Old Probabilities being absent, some of his lineal descendants looked again into the heavens and prophesied fair weather, but a yellowish tinge in the west and northwest caused many to shake their heads in doubt.

"In a few minutes the drops of rain began to fall again, with hail-stones the size of a hazel-nut, and when one came down as large as an acorn, it was picked up and displayed to the eager crowd as a trophy.  Stories were remembered, that were told by the grandfathers of the present generation, of hail-stones falling as large as a hen's egg, in some other State.  But Young America wouldn't believe it.  But they did believe it, for while these old stories were being repeated, hail-stones came down thick and fast, weighing from two to eight ounces, and measuring from three to four and a half inches in diameter.  Some were round and looked like white doorknobs; some were ragged and bad the appearance of broken geodes; others looked like quartz, and many were egg-shaped; some had the appearance of three or four hail-stones having been frozen or melted together—and when they fell on the house, awnings or sidewalks, some would bound like a "Star" ball, and others would break and fly like glass into a thousand pieces.  One hail-stone came down on the head of Dudley Buck, who was standing on his porch, and started the "claret," but without waiting for further ceremonies Mr. B. retired into the house, fully persuaded that he could see just as well by standing a little back.

"During this time, to the southwest of Sigourney about nine miles, two clouds were seen—one above the other—darting hither and thither, backward and forward, upward and downward, like one bird darts at another in the air, when suddenly, with a whirl, the two came together, and then sailed forth in an easterly direction at the rate of about twenty-five miles an hour, on an errand of death and destruction.

"It bore the resemblance of a funnel, with the small end down, or, perhaps, shaped like the hopper of a grist or coffee-mill, but with this distinguishing difference: in this whirlwind hopper the grist came in at the bottom and went out at the top.

"When it had broken in pieces and almost ground to powder everything it gathered in its march, the centrifugal force carried the contents to the outer rim, and it boiled over like soda-water.  Sometimes it went up like a rocket fifty or sixty feet high, and moved with the current for a mile, and then like a hawk, with one fell swoop it came to the ground, and swept everything in its onward march from the face of the earth.

"Without a detailed description of the sad havoc done at the starting point west of Haysville, about nine miles southwest of Sigourney, which was very great indeed, let us drive to a point where the tornado crossed North Skunk river, about eight miles southeast of Sigourney, and see what we can see in a two hours' ride along the track to the northeast.

"We stop where the hospitable mansion of Joseph Kohlhans stood a few days since, only a quarter of a mile north of where the tornado crossed the river.  At a glance we can tell that, prior to the coming of the Storm King, long, weary years of toil and patient waiting had brought Mr. K. a competence of this world's goods, but in less than fifteen minutes time his riches had taken wings and flown to the uttermost parts of the earth.  His dwelling, saw-mill, out-buildings, fences, in the track of the storm, are all gone.  Some of the castings of the mill were picked up two miles away:  The water in the pond between the mill and the river, was scooped up as with a dipper, and rolled up to the summit of the hill where his house, stood, at least forty feet above the level of the pond.

"Ducks were sucked up out of the pond, and their feathers picked off as clean as they are picked for a barbecue, and they were dumped out 'dead ducks' half a mile away.  Down the river bank, great elms and hackberry trees were snapped asunder like pipe-stems, and their standing stumps; stripped of their bark, are white and ghostly.  Hazel-brush, crab-apple trees, and white thorns are bruised and twisted, and lean to every point of the compass.  Fence-stakes, boards, and two-by-four pieces of every variety and length, are sticking in the ground almost as thick as the stakes in Waite's vineyard.

"We went to the spot where the house once stood.  There, on the hillside, fronting to the south, we found the cellar only, used by the family of Mr. K. as a residence, and Mrs. K. "at home," ready to receive us and tell us her story.  She is as blue in the face as indigo, and rolling up the sleeve of her dress, she showed us an arm, bruised and blackened from the shoulder to the hand. She was otherwise injured, and from her personal appearance we wonder that she escaped alive.

"We asked her if she saw the storm coming.

"Mrs. K.—'Yes, sir; we saw it about half an hour before the storm reached us.  The air was black with dirt and missiles, and looked dike, flocks of geese flying.'

"When your house went down, who was in it?

"Mrs. K.–'My husband and myself, John Gross, our son-in-law, my son Casper, my daughter Mary, and Lewis Kinsel.  Five of us were more or less hurt, but none seriously but John Gross, and he will get well again.  Dr. Cook, of Sigourney, comes to see us.  We are very thankful that we were not killed; but everything we had is all gone—our house, our mill, our clothing and fences, all gone, and it will take $3,000, or more, to fix up our place again.'

"At this Mrs. K. grew silent. She tried to speak on, but could not; her eyes filled with tears as she looked upon the ruins of her once beautiful home—fitted up only after twenty years of unremitting care and toil.

"We strolled over, say forty acres of the farm, and here is a part of what we saw:  The ground was strewn with rails, logs, sills, pieces of roof; studding, pieces of pumps, pieces of work-benches, pieces of walking-plows, pieces of chains, spokes, castings, hubs, pieces of brick-bats, pieces of stoves, bedsteads, wagon tires, the rim of wagon wheels, with tire and fellows only, chickens, ducks and turkeys with every feather blown off, rats, rabbits, wool, plowshares, pieces of clothing, and a piece of every kind of farm machinery and bedsteads sold or offered for sale in this county.  The ground itself is literally punched full of holes by falling timbers, and in many places the grass and growing wheat seemed torn out by the roots.  One field, planted with corn, is well seeded with wheat, oats and rye, and it is now coming up as thick as it can stand.  Apple trees eighteen inches through are twisted off or entirely uprooted, and the grape vines lie broken and bleeding on the ground.  From Mr. Kohlhaus' we drove to Peter Marshe's farm, a distance of about three miles to the northeast.  On the way we passed the farm of George Starr, who had twelve head of fat cattle, three and four-year old, taken up into the air with the ease that a strong man would toss up his baby, and after being carried an incredible distance, they were dropped to the ground with broken limbs and broken necks.  They were burned the next day in one common funeral pile. The little groves by the roadside were stripped of every leaf, and they remind us very much of the bundles of wheat in olden times after they were used to stop the cylinder of a tumbling-shaft threshing machine.  We passed by the ruins of a new barn, just completed by Mr. Leutz, at a cost of $1,000, and in a few minutes were at the residence of Gray, now converted into a hospital.  Here we find Peter Marsh, his wife and two children, all seriously injured, the wife fatally.  The little babe was killed in its father's arms.  One-quarter of a mile northwest of George Gray's stand the ruins of the house and barn of Peter Marsh, where the whirlwind wrought such great ruin.  The house and barn seemed to stand in the center of the track, and as we drove towards them the debris was piled up by the neighbors in piles until the entire portion of the farm traversed by the tornado had the appearance of a meadow thickly studded with shocks of hay.  The barn was a good one, with a stone basement, and not a stone or piece of lumber can be found above the ground. Three horses were killed outright in this barn, and of two hundred chickens, before the storm, only thirteen remain, and seven of these had the feathers blown from their heads and necks.  The house, which stood about thirty yards distant to the southwest, was built of hewed logs, about fifteen feet square, with frame porch to the front on the south.  Standing on the ruins, we met Wendell Horace, the father of Mrs. Marsh, and with him we walked over the grounds and heard his story.

"How far do you live from here, Mr. Horace ?

"Mr. H.—'Over there, about half a mile.'

"Where were you during the storm?

"Mr. H.—'I was at home; but as soon as it was over I came down here to look for my children.  Mrs. Marsh is my daughter.  Here, where we stand, is where the house stood.  Come with me and I will show you where we found my daughter and her children.'

"We went with Mr. H. about thirty yards to the southwest, in the direction that the tornado came from, and in a slough we stepped upon some house logs, and Mr. Horace continued:

"Here are some of the logs of the house, and here they were all found.  When the storm was coming, Mr. Marsh walked out on the porch and looked southwest, and saw Mr. Lentz' new barn go down, and fearing his own house might go, he went back into the house and wanted to leave it with his family.  He picked up his little babe, about six months old, and started out, but his children were afraid to follow, and he returned, closed the door and tried to hold it, but something struck it, and all he knows about it is that the house came down, or went up, and, with the child in his arms, he was taken up and let down three different times.  The last time he fell here in the slough, and something struck him with great force, and killed the child in his arms.  He looked down and saw his wife with her arms around the two other children—all under those house-logs, and how the babe escaped from his arms he cannot tell, but he remembers that he lifted the logs off his wife and children, and turned to pick up the babe, but found it was gone.  Every particle of clothing was blown from Mr. Marsh and his family, and when rescued by their neighbors they were covered with mud.'

"Did you find the baby afterward ?

"Mr. H.—'Yes, I found it myself, over there, about seventy-five yards to the southeast, dead, and covered with mud.  Its head was all broken.  I brought it here and washed it, and the next day it was buried.  Mr. Marsh, and the rest of the family, are now over at Mr. Gray's, and they will all get well, may be, except my daughter, I don't know, but I guess she will die.  The doctor thinks she is very bad.'

"Mrs. Engledinger was your daughter too, was she not?

" Mr. H.—'Yes, sir, she was my daughter too, and she and her little child were killed over there, about three miles from here.  My daughter was blown all to pieces.  We gathered up what we could find of her a mile around, and buried her and the baby next day. We could not find all.'

"Here the strong heart of Mr. Horace gave way, and he sobbed like a child. He is a kind-hearted, generous German, and with tearful eyes and subdued voice, he uttered these words; I tell you, gentlemens, it been mighty hard on me—loose my children so,' and he turned away in his declining years heart broken and desolate.

"We spoke a few words of sympathy, and passed on.  Within a few feet of the spot where Mr. Marsh and his family were picked up, we saw in the muddy debris just as the tornado left it, house-logs, pieces of chains, dishes and crockery, pieces of stoves and stove furniture, plane-bits, sickle-bars, bridle-snaps, hoop-iron, wagon-tires curled like shavings, pieces of corn plows and reapers, a cross-cut saw, and a thousand and one pieces of boards and lumber of all kinds, all sizes, and all lengths.  Who could go up in a whirlwind with all these things and come down alive?  And yet we have said nothing of the fat cattle, wagon wheels and plow-shares, that were in that same mill a part of the time.  Immediately south of this the growing oats were blown out of the ground, and shelled corn is scattered sufficient for all pigeons in Iowa for a month.  The grape-vines were twisted off, and the apple trees, about six inches in diameter, were bruised and broken and twisted and lean in whirls to-day, just as the whirlwind left them.  Standing upon the ruins of Marsh's house, and looking at the complete ruin wrought, we thought the whirlwind must have been something like a huge augur two hundred yards across the bit, that went driving through the air, whirling as it went.

"Mr. Marsh's loss of property will exceed $2,500.  From Mr. Marsh's we went to Murphy place, about half a mile to the northeast, passing as we went the ruins of Michael Fuh's house, and barn, and out-houses.  His loss is heavy.  When his house went down, one of his boys started to his uncle's about two miles distant to the east, and the wind helped him along at intervals about half the distance. When found, one of his eyes were out and his arm broken.  At the Murphy place, owned by Mr. Harris about two weeks only, the storm did the wildest kind of work.  The tall cottonwood trees that stand like sentinels around the front yard, are stripped of branches, bark and leaves; the house and household goods were probably blown to Halifax, or some other seaport.  Rails, sills, and all the muddy debris like that to be found at Newhouse's and Marsh's, strew the ground as far the eye can reach, and the top of the hedge fence is riddled in pieces, and looks like a row of old-fashioned split scrub-brooms.

It is said that everything that grows is of some use; and at this place we found out what a wild gooseberry bush is fit for.  When the house came down with five boys and one girl in it, one of the boys crawled under the wild gooseberry bush, and by clinging to it was saved.  Two others of the boys were found in the cellar with logs on them, and the remaining two boys, one fourteen and the other twelve years of age, were found with their heads in a No. 8 Loyal cook-stove, with lumber and trash piled upon them so high they could not get out without assistance. We saw one of the boys to-day kindle a fire in the same cook-stove, and he is as sound as a trout, and happy as a king.  At this place three horses, one cow, one yearling calf and five hogs were killed, and other stock seriously hurt.  Mr. Harris' loss will exceed $2,000.

"But the story is not yet half told and never can be.  Further on in the track lies the farm of Paul Pfeifer, whose remodeled house looks like a new one not yet painted.  He sustains a loss of about $1,500.

"Mr. Kortch's loss is perhaps the greatest in property destroyed of any of the sufferers in this county.  He can not replace it with $5,000 in cash, and the loss of Engledinger will amount to not less than $2,000.

"To these sums add $500 for the loss sustained by Mr. Beevin, $1,000 for the loss sustained by Geo. Starr, and $10,000 for the loss in Lancaster township, and we have an aggregate of $27,500 for the loss in Keokuk county, and this large sum will not near cover it.

"The following is a list of the killed and wounded, as far as known: "Killed—Mrs. Engledinger and child; child of Mr. Marsh, Mrs. Marsh—died to-day.

"Wounded—Mr. Marsh severely, and two children slightly; Mrs. Kohlhaus, Mr. Kohlhaus, John Gross, Casper Kohlhaus, Mary Kohlhaus, Mr. Lowe, child of Mr. Fuhs, two boys of Mr. Hamis, Mrs. and Mr. Kortch, and some others, were all more or less injured, but none seriously except Jno. Gross.

"We returned from the sad scene thankful that the storm did not visit our city in its fury.  Had it done so, the comfortable houses we now enjoy, our brick blocks and public buildings, and everything in the track of the wild destroyer, would have gone down with a crash, and the mangled forms of many that we love would have been borne to their last resting places beneath the cypress and the willow.

"And now, at the close of this article, pardon one suggestion; 'tis this:  Would it not be well for our people—of town and country—to unite in a petition to the board of supervisors of our county, and ask a liberal appropriation for the relief of those who were so unfortunate as to live in the track of the storm, and who lost not only houses and loved ones, but the savings of a life-time, in a few moments. Besides this, let us give of our substance as it hath been given to us.

In accordance with the suggestion made in the closing paragraph of the foregoing article, the board of supervisors, at the June session, passed the following order:

"The board of supervisors having been asked by petitions numerously signed, to make and appropriation from the county funds for the relief of such of our citizens as had their homes destroyed by the tornado which recently passed over a portion of our county, May 23, 1873, and who are in a suffering and destitute condition; therefore,

"Resolved, That William Jackson, T. McCoy and Mathias Blaise be appointed to investigate into the condition and circumstances of said sufferers to ascertain the extent of their necessities and to extend to those whose condition require it, relief from the county fund to any amount not to exceed $1,500; and the auditor is authorized to draw warrants for said purpose in favor of said committee, or on their order to said sufferers in such amounts as may be desirable to effect the object, not to exceed in the aggregate of fifteen hundred dollars."

Transcribed by Steven McBride.

Source: The History of Keokuk County, Iowa, A History of the County, Its Cities, Towns, &c., Illustrated, 1880