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Hancock County, Illinois


Weather Stories

Source: History of Hancock, Illinois, Together with an Outline History of the State, Thomas Gregg 1880
Transcribed by J.S.
Chapter X.
Weather Phenomena.
The year 1811 is far enough back to go in search of historical incidents connected with Hancock county; and what we have to record of that year, concerns alike the whole Mississippi Valley. That was a year long to be remembered. The first steamboat to traverse the Ohio and Mississippi rivers - the "New Orleans" - was launched at Pittsburg in the summer of that year, and made her trip to New Orleans, scaring the aborigines along the rivers out of their seven senses. Arrived in the vicinity of New Madrid, the terrible earthquake occurred, which rocked the waters of the river, sunk large tracks of land, partially destroyd the town and came very near putting an end to the first experiment of steam navigation in the West.  To increase the dismay caused by the earthquake, a fiery comet was seen coursing through the heavens, exhibiting an immense and gorgeous length of tail-the supposed harbinger of disaster to the astonished inhabitants.

But the earliest date we can reach with safety, in regard to weather phenomena in Hancock county, is that of the memorable
so well recollected by all living in this region in 1830-31. That winter marks an epoch in the history of Hanockc and all the Military Tract and indeed, throughout a large portion of the great Northwest. What its limits were we are unable to say, but they were extensive. To recount the suffernings caused by it would fill volumes. Those who were caught unprepared-as many always are, especially in a new country, were put to great extremes for the means of sustaining life till spring. Fire-wood, generally near at hand, could be reached by dint of hard labor. But the difficulty was in procuring provisions. Wild game and the product of the cornfields was the main dependence of the settlers. In most instances, the corn had not been gathered. It became a herculean labor, first to find it, as it lay imbedded in the snow, and then to procure it, and when procured, how was it to be got to the mills and returned in meal? Travel, for the greater part of the winter, was almost entirely suspended, it being impossible to got but a few roads in a day, with the best of teams. A great deal of stock died, from suffering in the snow, and from want of food. Game died in great numbers in the woods; or if alive, could not be found, and if occasionally found, was easily caught, but so poor as to be frequently unfit for food.

But the greatest suffering, perhaps, was in those instances where people were caught away from home and out in the storm. Some of these instances of peril are reported in other portions of this book.

The snow began to fall on the 29th of December, 1830, and continued almost incessantly for three days. The average depth was about four feet, with drifts in all the ravines and low places, sometimes twenty and thirty feet deep. What few fences there were had been entirely covered; roads, of which there were but few, were obliterated. The New Year of 1831 was ushered in upon a canopy of universal whiteness. The snow remained on the ground till spring, and as the winter advanced and a crust began to form, the difficultifes of travel increased. All remember the deep snow of 1830-31.

STORM OF 1836.
The next to mention is the remarkable storm and "sudden freeze" of Dec. 20, 1836. This we describe as experienced at Carthage. Other accounts from other placed somewhat differ.

The night had been warm, and in the morning a soft rain was falling, which continued till seven or eight o'clock. Then the weather began to grow colder, a slight wind began to blow from the west and afterward from the northwest, every moment increasing in violence. The rain ceased, but soon was succeeded by sleet, and by ten o'clock there was a continuous and violent gale blowing, driving before it a body of fine round sleet, as hard as ice, and so cutting that it could not be faced. The soft ground was soon frozen hard, its uneven spaces filled with the sleet, till it became as hard and almost as smooth as ice, making travel very difficult. It continued all day and long into the night, the gale and sleet and cold unabated, and at times coming with increased violence. How low the mercury fell we can not now remember, but there was within the twenty hours of the storm a change of not less than sixty or seventy degrees of temperature.

People who were so unfortunate as to be caught out in the storm suffered intensely. Frozen ears, frozen feet and hands were numerous, and numbers over the country were frozen to death. One man was frozen to death between Carthage and Commerce, while on his way with an ox team. His comrade barely escaped with his life. The Illinois river froze over in an incredibly short period of time.

A correspondent in the north gives us the following: In the month of June, 1838, a terrible tornado passed over the north part of the county. The storm-cloud commenced gathering west of the Mississippi, and by one o'clock had assumed a formidable, black and angry appearance, Crossing the river near Fort Madison, it started in an easterly direction. Then the clouds assumed the appearance of large inverted funnels, three in number. Clearing the bluff timber, it struck the earth near the west line of 7-7, about midway of the township. Then it presented an appearance at once awful, and grand to behold. The weeds and grass of the prairie were literally torn up by the roots. Continuing east, with a noise like a thousancd thunders, it struck the young settlement of Pilot Grove. Huge trees were uprooted and broken like pipestems, and log houses where blown down. In one of the houses an old lady by the name of Sears was killed. A new frame-house that had just been built, was taken from its foundation, carried several rods and set down again, without receiving any material injury. Three persons were killed in the vicinity of Pilot Grove. Some cattle and horses where killed and missing.

The tornado continued on through the timber east of Joseph Lionberger's mill, completely destroying every tree and bush in its path. It finally spent itself over in the bluffs of the Illinois river. For many years afterward, the track of this fearful tornado was visible, and the dire effects of its fury to be seen.

We are unable to give all the years in which the Mississippi rose to unusual height, but those of 1835, 1844, 1851 and 1853, are particulary remembered. In each of those years the water covered the whole valley from bluff to bluff, with slight exceptions, all the way form Lake Pepin to St. Louis, making a broad expanse of water from two and three to seven miles wide. At Warsaw, and between that and Lima lake, the whole of that rich and valuable bottom land, now attempted to be reclaimed, was overflowed to a depth of several feet; while on the opposite side it extended to the sand ridge five miles away, leaving Alexandria from four to eight feet under water.

The year 1836 - the year of our first acquaintance with the river - the water was also high, and there have been several seasons of high water since - dates not now remembered. These annual overflows are known as the "June rise," because they occur in June on the lower Mississippi; here they generally reach the maximum by the middle of May, and are often on the dcline before the beginning of June.

But it will be observed that the "Father of Waters" is, by slow degrees gradually diminishing in volume; these high stages becoming less frequent, and its low stages in the autumn months more marked.

The tornado which passed through Bear Creek township on the evening of July 3, 1873, was not only very destructive, but was attended with peculiar characteristics. There had been wind and heavy rain all over the middle and southern portions of the county during the day, but the tornado proper began about three miles west of Basco, and held an easterly course towards Bentley, where it became less violent. It was, without doubt, accompanied by fire, as parties who were in it remember a sensation of heat, and some say, a smell of sulphur. Those who witnessed it from Basco, represent it as sublime and terrible; a smoky, blue-colored cloud, rolling forward at great speed, emitting flames at intervals, and carrying destruction in its path. Houses, barns, farm implements, horses, cattle, trees, fences, and human beings, were carried bodily into the air and deposited chiefly outside of the tornado's path. The total width of the hurricane was only about a quarter of a mile, while the tornado proper was only a few rods wide. It so happened that but few residences lay directly in its path, hence the destruction of life and property was not very great.

A full account of this terrible tornado, and the destruction it occasioned, was published in the Carthage Republican of the 16th from the pen of its editor, J.M. Davidson, Esq. The incidents narrated in it are so remarkable, and so well authenticated, that we copy almost entire, omitting only the least important portions:

"Arriving at the village of Basco by the morning train, the writer, was taken in kindly charge by Esquire Crow, a venerable and good citizen of the village, who procured a horse and buggy, and, without unnecessary delay, we were on the road to Booz's place, where the tornado seems to have made its first appearance in the township.

"Mr. Booz's residence was a log house consisting of a story and a half, with a frame lean-to kitchen on the north. Between four and five rods to the north of the house was a large, new frame barn. East of the house, from 8 to 10 rods, was a fine growth of young timber, most of the trees being from 5 to 7 inches in diameter. So much for the situation. Mr. Booz was in the house when his oldest son, 18 years old, came running in and cried out excitedly: 'Father, come out here and see what this is?' Mr. Booz ran out and saw a dense cloud that looked like smoke and smelled like sulphur. He ran into the house, shut the doors and got his wife, children and himself into the cellar just in time to hear the whole upper part of the house go off with a crash. The concussion was so great as to tumble over the milk pans in the cellar and shake the cellar walls terribly. He says: 'The whole house was lifted about one foot from its foundation on the west side, but fell back again.' The storm lasted less than five minutes and then he came out of the cellar to witness a scene of destruction that fairly paralyzed him. The upper half of his house was gone; his kitchen and smoke house nowhere to be seen; nothing left of his fine new stable but a few foundation posts and a pile of manure, and the pretty grove of timber twisted and broken into indescribably fantastic shapes. In the stable were three horses, a threshing machine, a cultivator and other tools and about five tons of hay. A new wagon stood close to the stable. None of these were now to be seen: all were swept away. One of the horses as carried into the timber and fell into the top of a young hickory tree and from thence to the ground where it was found dead next morning. Another horse was evidently carried over the house into the road, and seemed not to have been badly hurt. The other was carried in an opposited direction, and landed in a meadow without injury. The broken remnants of Mr. Booz's wagon, cultivator and parts of the barn were found scattered through the timber and beyond. Some remnants are not found yet. The most of a heavy iron cultivator was found in Sanderson's meadow, 100 rods east! It is stated that Mr. Wm. Damron, who was some half mile north of the tornado saw Mr. Booz's stable lifted into the air 200 feet, that it whirled around rapidly and finally fell to pieces and was blown off into the timber. Seventy-five apple-trees were torn out by the roots and carried across fields; posts five feet long on which the barn sat were pulled out of the ground in which they had been set nearly four feet! Two cows and calves were carried fully 100 yards an adjoining meadow, all more or less injured.

"We have been more particular in describing the destruction at Booz's place because it will answer for a faithful description in general, if not in detail, of the remarkable effects of the tornado throughout its entire path.

"East of Booz's, about a quarter, or a little more, was a hewn log house belonging to Mr. W.C. Baldwin and occupied by Howard Steffy and wife as renters. This house, and the barn adjoining it, were blown to pieces, the logs carried hundreds of feet into an adjoining meadow. The floor only of the house was left. They said there had been a stable near by, but we don't believe it!

"When the tornado approached, Mr. Steffy undertook to secure the door, but in an instant he was hurled 50 feet toward the road, the house taking another direction. After the storm passed he searched for his wife and found her lying composedly behind a locust stump in Sanderson's meadow with the logs of their house piled all around her! Mr. and Mrs. Steffy were both severely hurt, but able to pick their way through fallen timber and accumulated rubbish to Mr. Booz's place, and afterward to some neighbor's who had better accommodations! Sanderson's meadow, immediately east of Steffy's, was thickly strewn with debris, timber, parts of wagons, household goods, dead pigs and chickens, wearing apparel, etc. 

The next place struck by the tornado was that of John Sanderson, north of east from Steffy's half a mile or more. Here the destruction was as complete as if the premises had been mined with gun-powder. Not one stick of timber in either house or stable was left in its original position; even the rocks at the corners were thrown out of their places, and there was not enough timber of any kind left within a hundred yards - either of house or barn - to build a smoke house! The house and barn seem to have been carried up into the air, broken to pieces and scattered about by the whirlwind, while the contents of the dwelling, including Mrs. Sanderson and her two smaller children, were blown in a direct line south from 500 to 1000 feet. Broken bedsteads, tables, chairs, cooking stoves and other furniture, together with remnants of clothing, etc., were blown in fragments in a straight line south through the meadow just as if the house had been carried up into the air, and when the floor fell out an under current had driven the family and contents in the direction we have named. The fence south of the house, which not wholly blown down, was, on the day of our visit, festooned with remnants of wearing apparel, bed clothing, etc. 

Concerning Mr. Sanderson's whereabouts or escape, there seems to be some confusion. That gentleman told us that when the storm came on him he was in the yard west of the house. His oldest child, a little girl 8 years old, was with him. They fell down, or were blown down, on the ground. When the storm passed over, himself and little girl went round and round the fallen rubbish calling for mother and the little children, but getting no response, he said he thought his wife and children had been blown away off, and so he went over to Mr. John Elder's, three-quarters of a mile distant, to get assistance. We learn, however, that Mrs. Elder firmly believes that Mr. Sanderson and child were blown over half that distance by the storm, as he could not have reached her house so quickly otherwise after the destruction of his house, which she witnessed. 

Dr. Hill, Mr. Tanner and others, of Basco, who were watching the tornado, saw Sanderson's house and barn rise in the air and go to pieces. The first named gentlemen at once mounted their horses and rode at full speed towards the scene of destruction. Others followed quickly. Search for the family was immediately instituted, and within five minutes Dr. Hill found Mrs. Sanderson about 70 steps south of the house, lying with her youngest child in her arms. Every particle of clothing except a remnant of an under garment was stripped from the poor woman, and that was wrapped tightly across her shoulders and under her arms. Dr. Hill threw his coat over her until remnants of bed-clothing could be picked up to wrap around her. The woman was conscious, and begged to have her head raised, which was done. The little child in her arms added its pitiful wail to the heart-rending scene. Mrs. Sanderson was found to be terribly bruised and mangled on every part of her body except on her bosom and arms, which were protected by the little child. The child was covered with blood, and yet, singularly enough, seems not to have been noticeably hurt. Mrs. Sanderson's right leg was crushed to a jelly between the knee and ankle. There was a deep gash near the small of her back, and one of her hips was literally impaled with splinters. 

Two rods distant her second little girl was found dead, with a terrible gash across her forehead. Not far off was found the little boy, aged three years, with both legs broken, one of them twice. The woman and children were conveyed carefully to the Basco House and medical assistance summoned. Two or three days later Mrs. Sanderson was delivered of a still-born infant that had evidently been crushed to death in the mother's terrible ordeal with the storm.

"About one-quarter of a mile, or a little less, south and five or six rods east of Sanderson's was the two-story frame dwelling owned by Doty and Donaldson, and occupied by Robert Donaldson and wife. On the approach of the tornado, Mr. Donaldson ran out into the orchard south of the house, calling to his wife to follow him. Mrs. D. preferred, however, to take the risks in the  house, and tried to close the door. In an instant the house was swept away, carrying her with it. She was shortly afterwards found some rods to the northeast of the house in the midst of a wreck of broken joist, timber, boards and pulverized household furniture. That she was not killed was a miracle. Her only serious injury was a partially fractured ankle.

"It will be remembered that the Sanderson house, some fifty rods or more to the north of Donaldson's, was blown almost directly south, while the Donaldson house was blown to the northeast - a remarkable evidence of the erratic pranks of the wind. Nevertheless, a large and huge pile of stove wood-close to Donaldson's house was apparently not in the least disturbed, although the orchard still south of it was badly torn up. North of the house a small barn and a threshing machine, were torn all to pieces and the remnants scattered over the fields.

"North of Donaldson's some distance, the tornado tore through a thick hedge fence, taking it out by the roots for several rods. The adjacent portions of the hedge were withered and killed as if by a flame of fire passing rapidly through it. Further on, Mr. John Elder's barn received a gently hint that is was not in the right place; and moving it a few feet and turning it around, the tornado passed on to the Huff farm.

"Here was an excellent two-story frame house, and a good barn. Mr. Huff was absent. Mrs. Huff, her three children, and two nieces were in or about the house. Mrs. Huff says her oldest son, a lad of 14, first observed the coming storm and its threatening character, and advised his mother and the children to get into the cellar, which all did at once except Mrs. Huff, who proceeded quickly to fasten the doors and windows. This done, she ran partly up a stairway on the west side of the house where there was a window. She saw the tornado strike the stable which was two or three rods distant, and lift if whirling in the air. She then ran into the cellar, and in an instant the kitchen and whole upper part of the house was blown away. The family escaped without injury. The wreck at this place was complete.

"Rohrer's house and barn were next assailed. The house, a brick structure, lost one of  its gables and was badly wrecked. The barn was demolished. Thence taking a northerly course the tornado struck Judge Skinner's barn, a large structure, which it carried off the foundation and completely demolished, killing two horses and a cow, and destroying a wagon and a number of agricultural implements.

"John Huff's house and barn, on the township line, were next attacked and blown to pieces. Mrs. Huff escaped with a painful hurt. A description of the devastation at other points will answer for the scene here. Nothing hardly was left but kindling wood, and that scattered up and down the road and through the adjacent fields.

"The tornado next made its appearance a short distance north and east of Bentley, greatly damaging the respective premises of Dr. James and Mr. L. Simmons, the particulars of which were given in our last issue.

"At Basco numbers of citizens saw the approach of the tornado from the northwest. From its peculiar appearance most of them supposed it was a large fire. The notion was quickly dispelled as it approached nearer, and when the barn and dwelling of Mr. Sanderson were seen to rise and whirl high up in air. The same spectators saw in a moment afterwards the Donaldson house disappear as if by magic. The whirlwind looked like a dense cloud of purplish-gray smoke, and seemed to be filled with innumerable objects whirling and tossing in every direction. Flames of fire were observed by many to shoot through the rolling mass of cloud; and those who were momentarily within the influence of the rush of wind, declare that the air was as hot as a furnace. Some aver[sic] that the air was strongly impregnated with the odor of burning brimstone! others that it smelled like scorched rage, and, as tending to confirm the impression of extraordinary heat, there were found pieces of shingles and boards that were scorched as if from sudden exposure to powerful heat. The hedge fence referred to elsewhere in this article, seems to have been literally roasted adjacent to the gap torn out by the storm."

JULY 4, 1873.
The storm of the next day was also very severe all over the county. It occurred about seven and eight in the morning. At Carthage it was very disastrous, utterly ruining one wing of the public school building, and damaging the structure to the amount of $4,000. The roof of the west side of the Carthage College building was blown off, and the structure otherwise greatly damaged. Other buildings were blown down, and not less than 100 chimneys blown away.

At Bentley much damage was done, many chimneys demolished and several roofs blown off.

At Bowen the fine public school edifice was demolished, and much injury done to other property.

At Augusta the steeple of the Presbyterian church was prostrated, and the roof of the building blown off. The steeple of the Christian church was also demolished, and the building moved from its foundation. Lines of freight cars on the railroad track were overturned.

At Plymouth a freight car was started down the road, afterwards followed by an engine adn brought back.

At West Point a large frame house owned by Dr. Cheney was blown to pieces, also the grocery store of Funks & Howerton; and other damage done. In this vicinity the residence of Mr. Henry Garner was blown down, and Mrs. Garner and child and sister killed. All over the county, in the south part particularly, much damage was done to orchards, fences and groves.

WINTER OF 1836-7.
From an old settler in the north part of the county we have the following: "The winter of 1836-7 was one of much snow. On Dec. 12 the first snow fell to the depth of about sixteen inches; three days afterward it clouded up again and continued snowing most of the time, night and day, for nearly four days, and when it quit the snow was full three feet deep. The weather moderated, the snow settled and the roads got good, and sleighing was very fine, the snow lying on till the last of February. Spring opened easy and fine."

Numerous other weather phenomena, such as rain, hail and wind storms, thunder and lightning, floods, severe winters, hot summers, etc., etc., have occurred worthly of note, but memory wil not serve us as to dates, and the "oldest inhabitant" has failed to report them.

Many Bridges Gone-Story Blown Off a Block-Watermeloms Float Down Creek

Source: The Saint Paul Globe, Aug 20, 1902 -transcribed by J.S.
Keokuk, Iowa, Aug 19. Another series of wind and electrical storms passed over Hancock county, Illinois, this evening. The heavy wind caused great damage to crops and farm buildings. Telephone lines were knocked out so that details are impossible to obtain tonight.

The city of Fort Madison was lighted tonight, after being in darkness since the storm on Sunday night, which washed out the main gas works. Resumption of the telephone service brings reports of damage by the storm within a radius of fifty miles of Keokuk, in Iowa and Illinois aggregating a large total.

The region about Colchester, Ill., was damaged by floods caused by five inches of rainfall. Many bridges were swept away and thousands of dollars' worth of watermelons floated down  the creeks. The rise in the Des Moines river is still on, but the forecast is that it will not reach the height of the July flood.


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