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The air was oppressive, clinging like a hot, damp blanket draped across the heartland of the United States. Despite a cooling rain the previous night and a thick blanket of clouds through the morning, midday sunshine pushed temperatures past 90 degrees by early afternoon in northwest Iowa. After a warm and dry beginning to the summer, rain was a welcome sight for the many farmers who wrested a living from the fertile prairie soil. As towering thunderheads began to burst into the muggy afternoon skies, however, concern began to grow. A stiff breeze picked up, blowing from the south and east with enough force to rustle trees and hold flags at attention. This, long-time residents knew, was cyclone weather.
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July 5, 1893 was stuffy and uncomfortable. A stiff breeze from the southeast blew hot, moisture-laden air across the gently rolling prairies, giving the sky a slight milky haze. Clouds grew throughout the afternoon, until the night sky erupted with bolts of lightning and clashes of thunder. Wind-driven rain lashed the roofs and windows of the stately homes built on the west side of Pomeroy, a small but thriving town in northwestern Iowa’s Calhoun County. Between the miserable humidity and the boisterous weather, sleep did not come easy to many Iowans. By daybreak on July 6, a rain-cooled breeze had tempered the oppressive airmass that had wedged itself atop the area over the previous several days. As the fiery summer sun began to break through the ragged, ashen sheets of clouds, however, the overbearing heat and humidity rapidly returned.
Five hundred miles to the west-southwest, a broad area of low pressure drifted along the Colorado – Kansas border. A warm front was draped across the Upper Mississippi Valley to the east, while a strong southerly flow pooled moisture-laden air across a large warm sector to the south. A shortwave trough dipped south and east through the Northern Rockies, while a jet streak rushed eastward across Southern Minnesota and toward the Great Lakes. At about 10,000 feet, parched air blown from the desert Southwest began to settle over the region. The wind blew from the south at about 5,000 feet. At 30,000 feet and above, the wind roared in from the west. Near the surface, the strengthening low pressure center approaching from the west caused the winds to intensify and shift nearly due east. Though no one could know at the time, the result was a virtually perfect atmospheric setup for producing tornadoes across the Hawkeye State.
As the sun drifted past its zenith and began its long trek toward the horizon, the residents of Cherokee County, about 50 miles west-northwest of Pomeroy, ventured outside to take advantage of the cooling breeze that had moved in from the east. Just northwest of the town of Quimby, those who made their homes along the bluffs of the Little Sioux River had begun to take note of the sky. Great thunderheads, mountainous, cauliflower-shaped towers of cloud, had burst into the sky on the western horizon. At about 4:30pm, the skies grew dark. The cooling breeze from the east transformed into a howling gale, whipping and thrashing the chest-high fields of wheat and corn. Lightning flashed through the sky, followed shortly by booming thunder. At the rear of the storm, a maelstrom of heaving and twirling clouds began to lower toward the ground.
Just before 5:00pm, the tornado’s path of destruction began. Whirls of dark dust and dirt began kicking up from the freshly tilled fields northwest of Quimby. Along the rim of the broad river valley, several ragged tendrils of funnel cloud danced and writhed like snakes. North and east of Quimby, the incipient tornado encountered its first structures. The farmsteads of Jerry Bugh and J. H. McClintock were no match for the storm, and both houses as well as several barns and outbuildings were destroyed. The Perry Schoolhouse, so-named after Robert Perry, the first white man to settle in Cherokee County, was utterly demolished. The schoolhouse was swept cleanly away, leaving “no board fastened to another.” A drive well was located just east of the structure, and observers reported that the pump and nearly 40 feet of pipe were torn from the ground.
To the east, a family of nine saw the menacing funnel approach from the west and hurriedly took shelter in their cellar. The tornado decimated the farmhouse, scattering the debris for dozens of yards and tearing the sturdy wooden steps from the entrance of the cellar. The nearby parsonage of Reverend James McGovern was destroyed as well. The storm claimed its first lives as the tornado roared eastward. Near the banks of the Little Sioux River, the wife of Joseph Wheeler had just returned home with her mother and sister. After glimpsing the roiling black mass on the horizon, the three huddled themselves in the cellar of their well-built home. As the deafening roar bore down, the home virtually disintegrated. Mrs. Wheeler’s mother, Mrs. O.M. Lester, was killed instantly when she was impaled through the spine by a spoke of a wagon wheel.
Moments later, the wife of Henry Molyneayux and her friend were rushing to their cellar when the storm hit. Mrs. Molyneayux was thrown several yards and killed when she was struck at the base of the skull by flying debris. Her friend was unharmed. In the fields nearby, dozens of horses, cows and pigs were killed, some thrown up to a quarter mile by the wind. A number of the bodies were reported laid out in rows, as is often seen in the phenomenon of wind rowing during violent tornadoes. Corn stalks were ground down or ripped from the earth and trees in the area were completely debarked and denuded, reduced to ghostly white stumps rising out of the bare soil. A heavy cast iron corn sheller was torn and twisted into small pieces before being scattered over several hundred yards. Next in the storm’s path was the Pilot Rock Bridge. The heavy iron truss bridge, spanning 120 feet across the Little Sioux River, was forcefully ripped from its sturdy anchors and tossed a number of yards to the north into the river.
East of the river, several recently constructed homes were smashed to bits. One home was reported to have been thrown over 100 yards before disintegrating. Further along, the home of Samuel Burdge was obliterated and scattered. Mr. Burdge was found dead nearby, while his wife and two children were thrown several hundred yards from the former site of their home. The young girl was found 300 yards away, with a wound “as if an axe had been driven into the forehead.” The older boy was found nearly half a mile away with his neck broken and one leg missing. The final child was found, still alive, wrapped around a maple tree. She would die a short time later. A short distance up the road, two more victims were killed when a pair of farm houses were leveled. One woman’s leg was torn off and later found more than two miles away. The other victim, Marion Johnson, was ripped from his cellar after his home was reduced to splinters. To the southeast, just south of the town of Aurelia, several witnesses claimed that a horse was lofted by the twister to a height of 200 feet and carried half a mile before being dropped back to the earth, dazed but uninjured.
After several miles in which the damage appeared to have lessened, the full force of the tornado returned just east of the Buena Vista county line. A line of farms was struck, destroying several barns, homes and outbuildings. James Wadsworth and his hired hand, 20-year-old Bernard Johansen, struggled to set the their horses free as the growling funnel approached. The barn, said to have been the finest in the county, disintegrated around them. Mr. Wadsworth sustained several injuries, including a possible lightning strike that he later described as like being enveloped in a “stream of electricity.” Mr. Johansen was thrown nearly half a mile and was later found wrapped around a tree. He lingered for nearly two days before succumbing to his injuries.
At Jacob Breecher’s farm, 60-year-old hired hand Joseph Slade and one of Breecher’s sons worked quickly to unhitch the family’s team of horses. As heavy, wind-driven rain began to fall from the inky, greenish-black clouds, Breecher ran to the house to fetch his son a coat. The wind erratically shifted, gusting from southeast to northwest with spasmodic intensity. The tornado struck just as Breecher reappeared at the door. His son was blown several dozen yards before managing to wrap his arms around a tree. He clawed desperately at the tree’s base as the tornado stripped it of all bark and snapped it just inches above his hands.
The house, the barn and several smaller buildings were completely demolished in a matter of moments. In the rubble of where the house had been, Jacob Breecher’s five-year-old daughter laid dead. Slade, the hired help, was found some distance away with a broken arm and leg and extensive internal injuries. Breecher himself was stumbling toward the ruins of the farmhouse when his son approached him. Reaching his father just as he collapsed, he saw that his neck had been struck by a flying timber and very nearly severed. He died moments later. Despite the totality of damage, Breecher’s wife and sons both survived with minor injuries.
The homes of W. R. Clemons and C. N. Totman soon met the same fate, being swept from their foundations and destroyed. The debris was granulated so finely that those who witnessed the scene remarked there was “not a piece of timber left as large as stove wood.” For more than a mile between homes, the ground bristled with embedded shards of debris and pits and mounds from debris impacts. Several large groves of shade trees were debarked, denuded and snapped or twisted near ground level. A stone schoolhouse was shattered apart and spread across a wide area, leaving only the foundation.
Shortly thereafter, in a touch of irony, the seething mass passed over Storm Lake. Many observers reported that the water receded nearly 100 feet at the north shore of the lake as the tornado swept through. After its passing, the water rushed back as a tidal wave several feet in height. The slightly southward shift the tornado took when approaching and crossing the lake spared the town of Storm Lake and its residents. The shift was a subject of much speculation among scientists of the period, with many suggesting that the tornado had shifted its track in order to take the path of least resistance, apparently preferring the smooth lake surface to the many homes and groves of trees to the north of the lake.
The tornado covered the 22 miles between the initial touchdown point and Storm Lake in just over half an hour, suggesting a forward speed of about 40 mph. After crossing the lake and destroying several homes and barns across southeastern Pocahontas County, the forward speed slowed to approximately 25 mph. At the homestead of Amos Gorton, about two miles west of the town of Fonda, the damage became even more intense. The house and barn were completely leveled, the debris ground and smashed into splinters. Amos’ wife and two children were pulled from the debris, the wife and one child killed instantly and the other mortally wounded.
Just south of Fonda, the tornado followed and then crossed over the Des Moines, Northern & Western Railroad, sweeping away a string of farms in the vicinity. John Detwilder was thrown from his home after it was obliterated, and was later found several hundred yards away in a grove of trees that had been stripped bare and twisted. On the farm of Henry Becker, a new home had just been constructed weeks earlier. The home was built to replace the one that had been destroyed by a small tornado just two months earlier in May. The massive funnel razed the new home in seconds, leaving Mr. Becker homeless for the second time in two months. Further southeast, several more homes were completely swept away. In the open countryside stood vast, perpendicularly-aligned rows of willow hedges. Where the center of the tornado passed, the 15-foot hedges were stripped bare and occasionally ripped from the ground. Ground scouring may also have occurred in this area, where survivor John Sangstrom later remarked “scarcely a blade of grass was left standing.”
Following roughly parallel to the Illinois Central Railroad, the tornado encountered the farm of August and Teckla Weidauer, where it made short work of destroying every building and killing many livestock. After the storm passed, August Weidauer stared transfixed to his southeast, where he watched the tornado obliterate the Dalton farm. He clearly described a multivortex structure, which an artist would later use to construct the sketch of the monster tornado seen at right. Every building there was swept away and smashed to bits, with the rubble strewn several hundred yards to the east. Mr. Dalton remained in his home while his wife and a visiting Fred Parker ran to seek shelter from the incoming storm. Mr. Dalton suffered a broken leg and other minor injuries, but survived. Mrs. Parker made it successfully to a neighbor’s farmstead where she safely rode out the storm. Fred Parker also survived by dropping prone on the ground as the tornado approached.
Shortly after 6:30pm, the skies over Pomeroy became choked with dark, menacing clouds. Torrents of rain pelted roofs and windows. Flags and streamers, still dotting the town after the Fourth of July celebration two days prior, flapped and blew stiffly in the wind. The downpours continued for about 20 minutes, before a break in the rain seemed to indicate the danger had passed. Minutes later, a sooty mass of cloud was seen churning and bellowing on the horizon. The sky flashed brilliantly with strokes of lightning, punctuated by booming thunderclaps that rattled and shook windows. Residents on the fringes of town stole anxious glances at the western sky. Upon sighting the writhing mass of funnels, some residents sprinted to their storm shelters. Some of those who did not have their own shelters quickly made their way to the Saltzman and Mullan storm “caves” on the southeast side of town. Others, panicked by the impending disaster, ran crying and shrieking through the streets. Still others fell to their knees in desperate prayer.
The tornado thundered into the west side of Pomeroy just after 6:45pm. Entering about a block south of the Illinois Central Railway, the tornado began to rip through the most densely packed residential area of the town. On the northern fringe of the damage path the home of Ed Troon and family was pushed nearly 100 feet to the southwest, largely intact, scraping grass and soil from the ground beneath it. Many other rows of homes along Seneca Street were less fortunate, being completely demolished and swept away, the debris added to the churning mass of destruction as it chewed east-southeast through Pomeroy. The homes of William Shneck, Oliver Toll and William Billings were completely destroyed and swept away as the families huddled in their storm shelters below.
The first fatalities in Pomeroy came at the home of 34-year-old Silas Rushton. Silas was in his home with his 28-year-old wife, three-year-old son Charlie, two-year-old daughter Mabel and brother-in-law Willie Pruden when the tornado struck. The home virtually disintegrated, and Silas was killed instantly when he was struck and impaled by several shards of timber. His wife was thrown several yards, sustaining severe internal injuries from which she would die several weeks later. His son Charlie was impaled in the head by a large sliver of wood, and died the following night. Willie Pruden suffered a broken jaw and reportedly had “a sliver run through his nose and into the throat,” though he survived his injuries. Daughter Mabel was thrown more than 200 feet into the rubble of another home, but miraculously sustained only minor injuries.
Even as the vicious storm entered town, Samuel Maxwell and his wife remained skeptical. Their neighbors, the Rosine family, pleaded for the Maxwells to join them in their storm cellar for the duration of the storm. Mrs. Maxwell, convinced there was no threat, responded dismissively, “No, I don’t think we’ll all be killed before morning.” Mere minutes later, the roaring storm dismantled the Maxwell home. Samuel and his 14-year-old son Alex were killed as the house was torn apart around them. Mrs. Maxwell was severely injured, but survived. The nine-year-old daughter, according to reports, was “rendered insane” by the terrible storm and its aftermath.
At the corner of Seneca and Third streets, the large and well-constructed German Lutheran Church bore the full fury of the tornado. The church was reduced to splinters, only the bell remaining intact. The parsonage of Reverend Schliepsiek and the small German schoolhouse just south of the church were completely destroyed as well, the remnants scattered over several hundred yards. Homes in the area were swept to their foundations as well, causing several fatalities including Mr. And Mrs. Henry Geicke on the corner nearest the schoolhouse.
The tornado continued east-southeast, demolishing homes and leaving a path of total destruction fully four blocks wide. Though most of the structures destroyed were residences, several businesses were heavily damaged or destroyed. A brick drug store on Second Street owned by a Mr. Mullan was nearly leveled, its foot-thick walls crumbled and pushed into the street. Another brick store on the next block was severely damaged as well, as were some wood-framed businesses in the vicinity. A sturdily-built Methodist Church was also razed to the ground.
The tornado brought a gruesome end to many of its victims. Seventeen-year-old Frankie Banks was killed when she was impaled through the chest by a fence post. The object was hurtled toward her at such velocity that she was pinned to the ground, requiring several men to free her body. Just to the east, John Davy, a well-known banker at the Bank of Pomeroy, was killed along with his brother Ben when the tornado leveled his house on Third Street. His skull was crushed when a large object was thrown on top of him, and his brother had “virtually every bone in his body turned to mush” in a similar fashion.
The wife of John Davy was killed in a home a few blocks away, where she was thrown more than 250 feet into the remains of another home. Their sister, Katie Davy, was killed as well. Many of the victims in Pomeroy were thrown great distances, and several of those caught in the open by the storm were left unrecognizable and partially skinned. Large boulders were said to have been torn from the ground and thrown several hundred yards. Groves of large, thick shade trees near the center of the path were totally debarked and denuded, as were low-lying shrubs planted around the perimeters of many homes.
At approximately 7:10pm, more than two hours after it was first spotted on the bluffs over the Little Sioux River, the tornado dissipated three miles southeast of Pomeroy. The 55-mile path of devastation varied from one-eighth to one-quarter of a mile wide, bringing destruction to four counties. The tornado claimed 71 lives in all, and left fully 80 percent of the town of Pomeroy in ruin. Despite having no advance warning, however, more than 50 of Pomeroy’s residents were saved by taking shelter in the eight storm shelters scattered around the town. Between 27 and 39 people were saved in the Saltzman and Mullan storm caves alone. As an indication of the power of the Pomeroy tornado, although their lives were spared, nearly everyone who took shelter in a storm cave was injured. Most shelters were damaged by the tornado, and many were ripped open and filled with debris. In one instance, an injured horse was thrown into a damaged shelter and on top of the residents hiding inside.