THE CAMANCHE, IOWA TORNADO, JUNE 3, 1860
Over the years Iowa has been struck by a number of deadly long track tornadoes. One of the worst just had its 161st anniversary and impacted the core of my area. The Camanche tornado (likely more than one) killed 141 people, 115 in Iowa, 74 in Clinton County, and injured 329. Some of the injured later died of their injuries raising the total in some estimates to approximately 200. Damage was measured at $945,000 (more than 30 million in today's dollars).
The tornado started in Hamilton county Iowa, (about an hour north of Des Moines) and traveled just south of due east deep into northern Illinois as far east as Amboy where it finally lifted around 9pm. It's likely the supercell cycled producing tornadoes for well over 6hrs. The town most directly hit was Camanche, Iowa, where over 50 people were killed. Nearly the whole town was wiped off the map by the tornado that was reported to be 1/2 mile wide at this time.
This infamous long-track tornado produced a path of destruction nearly as long as the Great Tri-state tornado of 1925. In this case nearly 240 miles. Much of Iowa to this day is farmland, but 161 years ago population was significantly more sparse. One can only speculate how damaging the tornado would have been if it would have hit more highly populated areas, particularly today with the growth that's taken place along the HWY 30 corridor.
This account of the storm appears in the free and open access section of the Iowa Historical Society and is entitled the Camanche Tornado-Dorothy Wagoner. It appeared in the Palimpsest in 1959 but was authored following the storm. I've only included about half of the article but the writing and story telling of the 1800's is quite compelling.
Recommended Citation Wagner, Dorothy. "The Camanche Tornado." The Palimpsest 40 (1959), 537-547. Available at: https://ir.uiowa.edu/palimpsest/vol40/iss12/4
Steve Gottschalk, an NWS observer and contributor to this site wrote this account of the storm.
On June 3, 1860, the town of Camanche, Iowa, was settling into a typical Sunday evening. Residents were unaware that a severe storm had begun in western Iowa and was on its way to wreak havoc in Clinton County. In a matter of four minutes, a tornado formed near the Mississippi banks, flattening more than 200 homes and businesses. In addition to hundreds of thousands of dollars of damage, the tornado claimed as many as 50 lives in Camanche alone and left over 119 injured. Others died later from their injuries.
NWS simulation of the tornadic supercell and its track across Iowa and Illinois
News of the devastation spread nationwide, attracting aid in the form of people and donations. An artist from Harper’s in New York City was dispatched to create drawings of the damage that were published in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper.
While many historical accounts of the tornado focus on the outpouring from surrounding communities, many also personify the tornado, insinuating the storm was selective in its path of destruction. An article from 1979 in the Quad City Times tells of rapids pilot, Wes Rambo, who was on the shore of the Mississippi when the tornado hit. Jim Arpy wrote, “He saw two thirds of the bottom of the river swept clear as the floor before a tidal wave swept back, lifting everything, including the log raft. The body of a horse the terrified raftsmen had seen was found later on the Illinois side of the river. It had been in a Camanche pasture on the Iowa side.”
There were further accounts of the tornado sparing the lives of children, carrying baby buggies for more than a block and setting them down unharmed. The same article recalls a 16-year-old named Emma Dammann who was rescued from a pile of debris, where she was found with only her foot exposed. While she sustained knee injuries and lost teeth, she lived, her neighbor died of her injuries.
One of the most resonant images captured by artists was of 29 coffins in a row in front of the town bank. The mass funeral was attended by over 2,000 people from neighboring counties and the nation. As a result of over $2,000 in donations, the town of Camanche focused on rebuilding and continues to memorialize those lost.
A gravestone from the Rose Hill cemetery in Clinton County commemorating the lives of 29 people buried in a plot.
Needless to say, the Camanche tornado is arguably the worst to ever hit Iowa. It ranks high in width, distance, duration, deaths, damage, and destruction. No official EF ranking has ever been assigned to the storm due to its age but I would feel confident in saying that at some point it attained at least EF4 status, if not higher. To this day, the tornado is ranked by the Storm Prediction Center as the 20th worst in United States history. That says it all!
Due to the length of the Camanche story, I'll keep the forecast short and sweet. That actually works out well because that's precisely how our weekend stacks up. Mostly sunny skies, warm temperatures, and moderate humidity covers it. Highs Friday, Saturday, and Sunday should remain in the upper 80s to near 90. The pools and beaches that are accessible will get their first good workout of the year.
Monday on the humidity increases and with limited capping, chances for diurnally driven showers and storms will gradually go up. These are likely to be hit and miss and after springing to life in the afternoon will fade in the evening as heating diminishes towards sunset (a tropical set-up to be sure). This looks to go on much of the week, especially Tuesday-Thursday...perhaps even Friday. For those lucky enough to scare up a storm, some quick downpours are likely but coverage would be only 30-40 percent at best. Are you feeling lucky? Where the storms do not form, very warm and muggy conditions will give the corn crop a welcome chance to grow. Have a great weekend and roll weather...TS