This is a reprint of a “From the Local History Room” column that first appeared in Dec. 2013, before the launch of this weblog.
Dreadful tornado smashes through central Illinois
By Jared L. Olar
Local History Specialist
“Buildings Twisted and Torn from their Foundations,” the newspaper headline said, describing a “DREADFUL TORNADO” that tore through Washington – the worst one that had ever struck the community in living memory.
It could have been a headline from November 2013 (nine years ago last week), but in fact this was a story published in the 20 May 1858 edition of the Washington Investigator.
That 164-year-old news report was featured in the Jan. 2009 newsletter of the Tazewell County Genealogical & Historical Society. In this week’s From the Local History Room column, we’ll draw upon the society’s newsletter to help us recall that harrowing event as seen through the eyes of some of Tazewell County’s early settlers.
Unlike the twister that left a trail of devastation in Tazewell County on 17 Nov. 2013, the tornado that hit Washington on the night of 13 May 1858, was accompanied by a severe thunderstorm that continued through the early morning hours of May 14, causing extensive flooding throughout the area. Eyewitness accounts from central Illinois residents indicate that the storm system that generated Washington’s 1858 tornado also sent rain, hail, high winds and tornados through many communities in Tazewell and McLean counties.
“The severest gale of wind, accompanied with rain and hail, visited our town last Thursday night, that has ever been known to the oldest inhabitants,” says the report in the Washington Investigator.
The report continues:
“About half past 6 o’clock the wind began to blow from the northwest, where a dark, heavy cloud had been hanging for sometime. It continued to increase in intenseness for near a half hour, accompanied with torrents of rains and volleys of hail. A little past seven o’clock it lulled away, the rain in a measure ceased, but devastation and ruin were the visible traces of its angry visit.
“Notwithstanding the fierce wrath of the storm had found its crisis at about seven o’clock, had visited almost every habitation in our town with a destroyer’s merciless intent, leaving them more or less scored and bruised, yet the heavy clouds poured down their torrents of rain, the forked lightning hissed its fiery course in vivid awfulness athwart the sky, the winds howled about the dwellings, thrashing trees and shrubbery with destructive violence till between two and three o’clock Friday morning when a calm began gradually to reign over our storm-scathed village.”
The Washington Investigator’s report then provides an extensive inventory of destruction in Washington and nearby communities – buildings moved off foundations, roofs torn off, doors smashed in, church spires demolished, barns wrecked, board sidewalks ripped up and blown away, fences blown down, bridges destroyed, orchards stripped.
“A small frame house in the east part of [Washington], occupied by Mr Creismann, was carried about ten feet from its foundation, and set down again, before him self and wife could get out of it. . . . A tree standing on the edge of Farm Creek, in the neighborhood of the depot, some two feet in diameter, was twisted off about ten feet from the ground, and the upper portion hurled some distance along the bank. The bridges on the north and south of town have been swept away by the flood; leaving no ingress for teams in either direction. A horse was found dead in the creek just below the flouring mill; supposed to have been blown into the water and drowned.”
At the town of Cruger, the tornado arrived just as a train was pulling into the east end of town, blowing the train off the tracks and dumping it upside-down into a ditch filled with two feet of water, but amazingly only four of the passengers were reported to have been hurt.
The widespread destruction left many people injured. Remarkably, Washington escaped with no fatalities, but reports from elsewhere mentioned persons killed or missing. The Washington Investigator says:
“At Kappa a number of dwellings were torn to pieces. Three persons killed – a man in attempting to save his house from blowing over, was crushed beneath the falling timbers of his house, which contained his wife and child – all killed . . . Two men were killed a short distance from Eureka . . . A rumor reached here, the truth of which we are unable to substantiate, to the effect that a house containing a family of several persons, situated on the prairie, about two miles north of the head of Walnut Grove, was missed from its accustomed locality, when some persons went in search of it. They visited the spot where it had once stood, and found nothing but the fallen chimney. They followed the direction the storm had taken, but no trace of the lost house or its occupants could be discovered.”
Other storm deaths included a number of people who drowned in Peoria Lake – the storm came through while they were boating on the Illinois River. Some of the survivors were rescued by the crew of the Samuel Gaty, “which had lain at Pekin during the heaviest part of the storm” and then came up the river and took aboard “the wrecked passengers of the Obion . . . among which were three ladies – one, Mrs. Tew, of Pekin, was very feeble from long exposure in the water,” according to the Washington Investigator report.
“The storm appears to have extended over a territory of more than 25 miles in width,” the report says, “but where it commenced or where it ended in its devastating journey, we have no means of stating at our present writing. The dismay and suffering, loss of life and property, and the consequent lamentation, marks the progress of this sweeping tornado, as one that has scarcely, if ever been equaled in Illinois.”