Few things in nature are more terrifying or sudden, and none more violent than a tornado.
A tornado, which is part of a thunderstorm, consists of a dark funnel-shaped cloud in which rotating winds can reach speeds in excess of 300 mph. About half of all tornadoes are classed as F1 on the Fujita scale with wind speeds of 73 to 112 mph. By comparison, an F5 tornado has wind speeds of 261 to 318 mph.
The first recorded tornado in Illinois history occurred on a Sunday, June 5, 1805, racing through what would later become known as Tornado Alley.
In 1887, Illinois author John Reynolds quoted the following account about that first tornado:
“On June 5, 1805, a terrific hurricane swept over a part of Illinois. It was one of those tempests of the whirlwind order... It was about three-quarters of a mile wide, and to that extent, for several miles in Illinois, it prostrated trees and even swept the water out of the river and the lakes in the American Bottom to that width... A large bull was raised up high in the air; carried a considerable distance, and every bone in his body was broken... The storm carried in it pine tops from Missouri, which do not grow nearer than fifty or sixty miles from the American Bottom.”
The referenced American Bottom extends from Alton south to the Kaskaskia River, bounded on the west by the Mississippi River and to the east by the rocky bluffs. It encompasses abut 175 square miles.
According to researcher Scott Kampas, the 1805 tornado apparently was spawned in Missouri, crossing the Mississippi River about 20 miles below St. Louis. Damage was documented as far east at a point to the south of Albion.
According to Forces of Nature, one report of the 1805 tornado claimed that “fish from the river and lakes were scattered all over the prairie.”
However, because the region was sparsely settled, there was little damage to property and no reported human injuries or deaths.
In their paper “Illinois Tornadoes Prior to 1916,” Wayne Wendland of the Illinois State Water Survey and Herbert Hoffman of the National Weather Service report that between 1805 and 1916, Illinois experienced a total of 325 documented tornadoes. The first reported injury came on May 14, 1858, when a tornado swept through Sangamon and Logan counties. On May 30, a tornado raced through Henderson and Warren counties, claiming seven lives – the first recorded deaths attributed to an Illinois tornado.
The most catastrophic series of tornadic events during the 1805-1916 period occurred on May 27, 1896. Four separate tornadoes struck with deadly violence as follows:
• Washington and Jefferson counties – 14 dead and 50 injured.
• Madison County – 255 dead and 1,000 injured.
• St. Clair and Clinton counties – 24 dead and 125 injured.
• Washington and Jefferson counties – 3 dead.
Next: Cass County’s first recorded tornado.