The first written accounts of tornadoes in the Great Plains were from settlements near and along the Missouri River in Kansas during the mid-1800s. On October 25, 1844, a tornado moved northeast from present-day Mission, Kansas, into Missouri. Many pioneer farms were damaged or destroyed. A horrific nighttime tornado struck the Baker home just outside Stanton, Kansas, on June 8, 1860, killing all the family. The local townspeople were unaware of the event until morning, when they saw pieces of the home scattered across the hillside. Another nighttime tornado struck near Galesburg, Kansas, killing three children and injuring their mother in their home. Tales spread about the "night phantom that appeared to be composed of fire."
A small outbreak of tornadoes struck central Kansas on June 6, 1876. One tornado near Salina was reported to look like an elephant's trunk moving side to side for about a half hour. A man was watching this tornado off to his north from the doorway of his home when another tornado approached from the south, destroying the house and killing him. On August 25, 1877, a tornado destroyed two spans of the Union Pacific Railroad bridge that crossed the Missouri River at Omaha. Wrought-iron bars on the bridge were bent and twisted. Eyewitnesses saw an immense cloud traveling down the river lifting water into the funnel. An injured watchman on the east bank of the river boated, then swam, to Omaha to warn the next train leaving town of the destroyed bridge. One of the first tornadoes reported in South Dakota occurred on April 17, 1878. The tornado passed about eleven miles west of Yankton near Olivet, destroying several homes. A wagon was reported to have been thrown two miles. One of the first tornadoes reported in Texas was on April 15, 1879, near Dallas, injuring twenty-five people. Fifteen homes were destroyed and six were damaged by what was reported to be a "green-rimmed cone-shaped tornado which rose and fell moving like a monster wave."
A large tornado outbreak in Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, and Iowa occurred on May 29 and 30, 1879. John Park Finley, a young army cadet, was dispatched from Washington to conduct a damage survey. Finley recorded numerous eyewitness accounts, documented the time of tornado occurrences, and even calculated the forward speeds of the tornadoes. He described in graphic detail the "agonies of death" experienced by some of the tornado victims: "All of the parties were covered with mud from head to foot; eyes, mouths, and ears filled, and clothing torn into shreds. The mother and two children were left in the rubbish; the former having her head crushed, and her long hair, which reached below her waist, was partly cut and pulled from her head, twisted into a rope, and found several feet from her body. That portion of her hair left upon her head was twisted into little wisps and mixed with mud." He wrote that "the bodies of the children, after having been washed for days, were still covered with specks of fine dirt and leaves which seemed to be driven into the flesh."
One of the most famous tornado stories came from Mr. Will Keller, a farmer near Greensburg, Kansas, who witnessed the inside of a tornado from his cellar on June 22, 1928. He looked up into what appeared to be a hollow cylinder and saw lightning, "which zigzagged from side-to-side." Many tornado stories have involved accounts of plucked poultry, sulfurous odors, and objects being carried great distances. Another fascinating account recalls the tornado that struck the railway station in Elmont, Kansas, on June 5, 1917. The ticket window was blown into a nearby field, where it was found beneath a heavy scale weight. The glass was not even cracked. On April 27, 1942, a frame house was blown away by a tornado that struck Pryor, Oklahoma, leaving a kerosene lamp, still lighted and burning, beneath a nearby tree. Such tornado stories made for good press, and together they constitute a distinctive folklore.
See also PHYSICAL ENVIRONMENT: Tornadoes.
Tim Marshall Flower Mound, Texas
Flora, Snowden D. Tornadoes of the United States. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1953.
Grazulis, Thomas. Significant Tornadoes. St. Johnsbury VT: Tornado Project of Environmental Films, 1993.