Friday, April 09, 2010

The Johnstown Tornado of 1899

A twister in the Nebraska Sandhills

Wikipedia says that there are ten Johnstowns in the United States. Johnstown, Nebraska, the subject of this post, is surely the smallest member of the ten. Its population in 2000 was only 53. Nonetheless, this speck of dust on the map is interesting to me because it was once my address. Until I was six, my family lived on a ranch about ten sandy miles south of Johnstown.

I recently came across an account of a tornado near Johnstown, Nebraska, in 1899. Mr. A. H. Gale, a volunteer weather observer from Bassett, Nebraska,  recorded the event. He stated that the tornado started as a whirlwind about 5 miles northwest of Johnstown.

Gale reported that Mr. A. Brown witnessed the formation of the tornado, as he stood in his barnyard harnessing his horse. Mr. Brown saw a little whirlwind pass by, ruffling the straw eaves of his barn's thatched roof. As he watched the whirlwind's movement across the ground, it gained intensity, grew taller, and began to pick up plant debris and dirt. A "smokey veil" formed around the column of spinning air. (This was probably a swirl of fine dust.)

Mr. Brown observed with curiosity, but not fear. Then, as the whirlwind grew larger, darker, and taller, a funnel reached down to meet it from a low-hanging storm cloud overhead. The article says that "with this union the thing took on a terrifying aspect..."

Gale's report does not mention damage to Mr. Brown's property. Probably the tornado passed out of the immediate area before it was big enough to wreak havoc. It moved along slowly -- Mr. Brown estimated its speed to be 10 mph. Soon it passed through a cornfield, adding cornstalks to its whirling mass. Then it destroyed the buildings at Mr. John Strohm's homestead:

Mr. Strohm and his family saw it as it rose along the slant of the cornfield to his house on its edge, and dove for the cellar. The destruction at this place was complete; house of heavy logs, windmill, and tower, and stable, in all seven buildings, completely leveled to the ground, fences upset, broken down. Fence wire woven and interwoven with broken lumber, straw, debris of all sorts, plastered with mud. Every fence post standing in the track formed a dam around which was massed debris of everything imaginable, the whole daubed with mud; it was a picture of desolation and ruin -- dismal in the extreme.

Source: The Making of America, by William Matthews Handy, Charles Higgins, Volume 7, page 399. Published in 1905 by John D. Morris & Company.

Before it dissipated, the twister traveled for about 18 miles in an east/southeast direction. It probably passed through or near the land that became my parents' ranch, half a century later. Its path varied from less than 20 feet wide to about 50 feet wide. The report does not mention any injury or loss of life, either of livestock or people. If true, that was fortunate indeed.

In the time period when this tornado took place, many areas of the Nebraska Sandhills were still being homesteaded. Tornadoes must have been especially frightening for immigrants who had never seen weather phenomena of this sort in their homelands.

Top ten killer tornadoes in Nebraska
A tornado funnel that may be like the formation Mr. A. Brown witnessed

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CONTENTMENT: Keep your heart free from hate, your mind from worry, live simply, expect little, give much, sing often, pray always, forget self, think of others and their feelings, fill your heart with love, scatter sunshine. These are the tried links in the golden chain of contentment.
(Author unknown)

IT IS STILL BEST to be honest and truthful; to make the most of what we have; to be happy with simple pleasure; and to be cheerful and have courage when things go wrong.
(Laura Ingalls Wilder, 1867-1957)

Thanks for reading.