The Centennial Storm
The United States Centennial was celebrated across the country on July 4, 1876. But that evening, a storm would strike Iowa, causing tragedy in Warren County. As the sun set, the air became more and more “sultry and oppressive.” Between 9:30 and 10pm, “the wind swelled to the fury of a hurricane and was accompanied by a continuous blaze of lightening andpearl [sic] of thunder.” The storm that formed was one to four miles wide and travelled from west to east, just missing Indianola.
Despite missing the county seat, the storm still destroyed one hundred and twenty houses and barns, which were “demolished or unroofed.” At the time, the average price of a house in Warren county was $500, meaning the storm caused a total of $60,000 worth of damage on houses and barns alone. Today, that total would equal over $1.3 million.
Because of the heavy damage done, there is a high likelihood that this was a tornado, not merely a disastrous thunderstorm. However, the exclusion of the word “tornado” in descriptions of the storm was actually characteristic of the time. In the 1880s, the U.S. Army Signal Corps “banned the word ‘tornado’ from official forecasts because they were concerned the word would cause widespread panic.” This avoidance of “tornado” as a descriptor continued until the 1950s.
One Warren County resident whose home was hit by the storm, Mr. Hardin, described the horror he and his family faced that night. Upon opening a window in hopes of a breeze, Hardin noticed the storm, and became “frightened at its unusually threatening appearance.” When the rain began, it “seemed to come right through the walls.” He got up and tried to move his bed, presumably to get it away from the windows, when one of the windows blew in. Hardin tried to go downstairs, but “was forced back by the wind and water, which came up the stairway with such force that no man could face it.”
Hardin describes the events: “Then I knew destruction was at hand, and commenced hallooing—perhaps with the idea of arousing the children to do something for themselves, although I hardly knew why. My wife was standing next to me, and the hired hand was in the north room. We felt the house go; we were beaten down by the rain and wind which struck like something solid, and we were under some of the wall. My wife said, ‘This is fearful close.’ I managed to lift the wall until she could crawl out, but I didn’t see her any more.”
Hardin crawled out from under the wall but was quickly thrown across his yard by the wind. Desperate, he tried to grab ahold of the grass around him to hold him down, but it was too short. Upon standing up to get to a tree to hold on to, he was thrown again, this time fifty yards. He grabbed onto some nearby posts, and held on.
“I suppose I prayed with all my might for my family,” Hardin said, “I thought they were all dead; but I called, and called, and my wife and the hired hand answered, but they dare not come to me. They were sheltered by some of the west wall that was not quite down. We kept calling back and forth until the wind went down, and then they came to me, and I went back with them to the house to look for the children.”
They found one of their three boys dead, the other two injured. One of their girls was injured but the other two avoided injury.
As far as the rest of the county went, “Most of the farmers went vigorously to work next day building fence, and those who had any, to repairing their houses.” The flooding that accompanied the storm did not do too much damage, but many bridges were lost or harmed.
One account said that “The complaining is all done by the lightest losers. With those who saw the real fury of the storm, there is no feeling so deep as that of gratitude for life and thankfulness for family and friends.” In the end though, one account concluded, we shall be drawn closer together and made more neighborly by our calamity.”
Sources: SHSI: Gerard Schultz and Don L. Berry, History of Warren County Iowa, The Record and Tribune Co.: Indianola, Iowa (1953).; SHSI: The History of Warren County, Iowa, Union Historical Company: Des Moines (1879). Sean Morris, “Up until the 1940s, Americans didn’t even get tornado forecasts,” CNN: (May 24, 2011).