In 1877, when Shelby County residents had no warning about in-coming tornadoes, except what an individual or his neighbors could see in the sky, the principal news coverage of the storms detailed only their aftermath.
This was the case after the May 17, 1877 tornado that touched down in Shelby County four miles north of the town of Shelby following a northeasterly trajectory. George Ross, the editor of the Harlan Herald, witnessed the storm’s destruction after its passing and wrote about it for the May 24 edition of his newspaper.
Ross reported that May 17 had been a pleasant day, after two dreary weeks of rain. About supper time in Harlan, the wind shifted from south to southwest, and “a great black cloud made its appearance which threatened us with a fearful drenching, and we were not disappointed, as the rain soon commenced pouring down in torrents, literally covering the ground to the depth of three or four inches on the level land, the earth appearing as one vast sheet of water.” The storm lasted an hour.
Only after that storm had passed did the residents of Harlan learn that a tornado had passed south of town. Two physicians from Harlan, with a few others, rushed to the aid of those who had been in the tornado’s path. From evidence on the ground, it was later determined that the storm had been about a 1/4 mile wide and touched down about 4 miles north of Shelby Station (later Shelby). It first damaged corncribs and fencing on one farm, but, in heading east, it struck the home of J.O. Ramsey and his family about 2.5 miles southwest of Harlan, the first of several homes in its path. Mr. Ramsey had been in the barn milking when he saw the storm approaching. He rushed to the house, and he and his wife were just securing the door against the wind “when the house was lifted from its foundation and carried into the air; this is the last recollection any of the family have until Edith Alena, the eldest daughter, one of three children, being the least injured (her right arm slightly hurt), found herself several rods from where the house had stood.” Fifty feet from the foundation of the house, the girl found her father, unconscious, lying on a log with his hands over his face. When he regained consciousness, he went in pursuit of his wife and found her down the hill, unconscious. While he carried her to the well to wash the blood from her face, the other two Ramsey children appeared. The family made their way to the neighbor’s, the Casey home, a half mile away. Mr. Ramsey, writes Editor Ross, later could recall none of this.
But it was Mrs. Ramsey who sustained the worst injuries. Besides the broken ribs and facial lacerations, the physicians from Harlan feared she had also sustained internal injuries and described her condition as critical. The two youngest children suffered serious cuts and a sprained arm.
The tornado struck another home, that of C.O. Ashmore, some 100 yards north of the Ramsey’s. Unlike the Ramsey family, Mr. Ashmore, his wife, and two grown children saw the storm’s approach in time to rush to the cellar. The funnel cloud lifted the house from over their heads, carrying it away and leaving the family exposed. A nearby wagon, sucked into the storm’s circulating winds, rotated above their heads until it fell trapping the two, young people. Although their parents were able to free them, Mrs. Ashmore had severe injuries herself, the result of falling debris. In addition to the house, the stable had been demolished and the animals injured.
Mr. Ashmore, a tenant farmer of little means, had been saving money in a valise that the winds took with the house. Though the valise was found the next day, 150 yards from where the house had stood, the money was gone, apparently stolen. Editor Ross expresses his contempt for such behavior.
The tornado crossed the Nishnabotna River south of Harlan. On the river’s banks, “large trees were uprooted, while others were twisted and broken.” It then struck a third house, this one belonging to the postmaster and occupied by the Headley family, a Miss Forest, and a boy named Clarence Caleb. The Headley’s four children included an infant born three days earlier. The infant and Mrs. Headley were in bed when the tornado struck the house, pulling it apart. Mr. and Mrs. Headley, their three oldest children, Miss Forest, and Clarence Caleb were sent flying in different directions by the winds, but none sustained life-threatening injuries. The infant, however, was not among them. The next day, the baby’s body was found lying in a furrow beneath mud and debris.
The storm struck two more homes before departing. At the first of these, the family had reached the cellar steps before the funnel cloud lifted the house and carried it over the tops of nearby trees. Ross speculates that the storm was weakening when it struck the last house because it moved the building a few inches on its foundation but did not lift it into the air.
Such detailed, eye-witness reporting makes it clear why novelists and filmmakers have retold stories of tornadoes’ particular form of violence. That violence contains both awesome power and human heartbreak.
Source: SHSI: Edward A. White, “Past and Present of Shelby County, Iowa,” Indianapolis, 1915.