Local Weather History: The Most Violent, Prolific Tornado Outbreak On Record for the Viewing Area

May 12, 1886 saw the most prolific, violent tornado outbreak on record for the viewing area as a whole, exceeding 1974, 1965.

Posted: May 14, 2019 5:39 PM
Updated: May 12, 2020 2:31 PM

1886 was a prolific year for severe weather & tornadoes in the central & Midwest U.S. after a yet another unusually cold, snowy winter.

Spring ramped up very quickly with severe weather & tornado outbreaks.

I plotted all of the severe weather reports from the U.S. Weather Bureau & local newspapers & diaries of that time in one of many outbreaks.  This one began as unusual hailstorms & damaging winds in parts of California April 11, then transitioned to historic outbreak Minnesota to Texas April 13, then produced severe weather farther eastward April 14.

This outbreak did not affect us much.  However, a month later, an outbreak would affect us greatly.

This is the 1886 Indiana tornado list:

I have found a preliminary count of 30 tornadoes in Indiana from that year.

The most tornadoes in a year for Indiana was 49 in 1990.

List of Indiana 1886 tornadoes.................deaths/injuries reported:

3/20/1886 Adams

3/20/1886 Wells

3/20/1886 Switzerland

5/12/1886 Warren, Fountain 9 21

5/12/1886 Warren 0 0

5/12/1886 Hancock 3 1

5/12/1886 Madison 1 4

5/12/1886 Jay 1 0

5/12/1886 Benton

5/12/1886 Tipton 0 4

5/12/1886 Tipton 0 4

5/12/1886 Tipton 2 12

5/12/1886 Shelby

5/12/1886 Carroll

5/12/1886 Randolph

5/12/1886 Marion

5/12/1886 Miami

5/12/1886 Madison 43 +100

5/12/1886 White

5/12/1886 Cass

5/12/1886 Newton-Jasper

6/9/1886 Vanderburgh

8/12/1886 Fountain

8/15/1886 Warrick

8/17/1886 Randolph 0 0

9/16/1886 Vermillion, Parke

9/16/1886 Fountain

9/16/1886 Vigo 2

9/16/1886 Madison

9/16/1886 Adams


The biggest outbreak of the year, however, was that of May 12, 1886.

Stats from the May 12, 1886 outbreak:

1.  At least definite 11 tornadoes in the viewing area.

2.  6 of the 11 show tornadoes strong evidence of EF3-EF4 strength.

3.  3 tornadoes in Tipton County alone.

4.  Most destructive tornado:  Attica Tornado:  +200 homes damaged/destroyed....9 deaths, 21 injuries.

5.  Hailstones of 3.8" of diameter were measured near Forest, Clinton County & weighed more than 1/2 pound!

6.  2.54" rainfall was measured at Purdue University in the outbreak with a high of 85 & a low of 59.

7.  Following the outbreak, a low temperature of 36 was recorded on the morning of May 16.

The 43 killed at Anderson was the second deadliest & fourth most-injurous (+100 injured) single tornado in Indiana record tornado history. 

Severe weather reports are plotted below from the U.S. Weather Bureau & newspapers & diaries at the time.

Photographs of the Attica tornado damage are below.  Attica images are the only Indiana damage pictures I have found from this outbreak.

28 people were killed in the disastrous flash flooding from the storm at Xenia, Ohio.  It is interesting to note that another "Attica" was hit in Ohio's Seneca County.

Here is a write-up from Ohio History.org of the outbreak:

Early reports were of a single 110 mile tornado path, but later research showed it to be three separate tornadoes. The destruction was impressive and prompted the Cleveland Plain Dealer to proclaim “Nothing like it has ever been known in the history of Ohio.” The first tornado entered Ohio about 10 P.M. north of Fort Recovery and ended near Celina in Mercer County. Six people were killed as farm houses were leveled along the path. Three churches and a school were blown down. The next tornado touched down at 11:20 P.M. at Dunkirk in Hardin County and traveled 20 miles into Wyandot County south of Cary. This tornado leveled a brick school, dozens of farm houses, and many barns. Eleven people were killed near Dunkirk and Cary. The third tornado touched down at midnight west of Attica in Seneca County. There were no deaths, but a gravestone was lifted and flung against a barn one-quarter mile away. Fence rails were driven six feet into the ground and entire orchards were uprooted in Seneca County.

The three images below are courtesy of the Missouri Valley Historical Collections.  I included these to show the extent of the violent outbreak.

This is an image I uncovered of damage at Hannibal, Missouri:

Damage at Kansas City, Missouri:

Viewing area accounts:

May 12, 1886. Attica, Fountain County, Ind. (scale 3).-Time, 10 P.M.; in vicinity, 9 killed; 200 houses razed; loss, $200,000

Science: An Illustrated Journal Volume XVI July-December 1890 1890 Page 45

One of the most destructive tornadoes ever recorded struck this city about 6 o'clock yesterday evening, leaving death and destruction in its course. The tornado appeared to form in the southwest; and parties who had an opportunity to observe it form describe it is having the appearance of smoke from an engine at first, then it began to assume a funnel shape and darker and more ominous looking clouds were rapidly attracted toward it until the tornado started to move in a northeasterly direction. The tornado first struck the river a few hundred feet below the wagon bridge, throwing water at least 200 feet high. One man was about entering the bridge, saw the tornado approaching and hitching his team started on a run up town. The tornado then struck the wagon bridge, shattering it to pieces, one portion being carried high in the air and fell on the roof of Fred Lash's store, a distance of about 300 yards. Mr. Mentzer was in the toll house at the time the bridge was carried away and had a miraculous escape. Mr. Mentzer was in the east portion of the house and hearing the noise made by the tornado put his head out of the window in time to see the bridge blow away and the west side of the house vanish. The tornado then started on its deadly mission through a portion of the city, laying everything in ruins in its path. John Bethel's house near the river was badly damaged, and George Sim's carpenter shop was lifted from the foundation and badly crushed. The fence factory was entirely swept away and the roof torn off Sam Clark's saw mill and smoke stack torn down. The C. & I. C. depot was shattered to a considerable extent and the freight depot totally demolished. Several freight cars were blown from the tracks and one was turned bottom side up. The loss to the company can not yet be ascertained, but it will foot considerable. Fisher, Arborgast & Company's carriage factory is a total wreck, the loss being estimated at from $30,000 to $35,000. This firm will lose all they had accumulated in 25 years of hard labor. Will VanDeventer was in the factory at the time and was completely buried beneath the falling bricks. Willing lads were soon at work to rescue him from this perilous position and it was not long until he was taken out. Medical assistance was immediately summoned and it was found that VanDeventer had received a broken leg and several ribs fractured. Hess and Harvey's wagon shop is a total wreck, the loss being roughly estimated at $15,000. Charles Johnson and Person & Points' carpenter shops are in ruins, and Andrews and Company's lumber office is a total wreck. Nixon's warehouse was struck and badly damaged, the engine room being laid in ruins. Feurstein's warehouse is a total wreck and Frank Milford's property at the foot of Main was slightly damaged and the Feuerstein property east of Milford's was shorn of roof and badly damaged. Moses Loeb's saloon was entirely demolished, the occupants narrowly escaping. The third story of Green's ware rooms was lifted up and hurled with terrific force between the block, gutting Henney's photograph gallery and Hemphill's dry goods store, the loss being fully $3,000. The roof was taken off Green's hardware store and hurled like paper through the air. LaMonte Green was in his office back of the store when the tornado reached the building and made a jump for the store, and just as he cleared the steps the third story of his warerooms came crashing through the office, totally demolishing that portion of the building. Wolf Hirsch's house, on Main street was unroofed and otherwise damaged. Dave Smith's wagon shop was damaged to the extent of about $2,000. One end of the opera house was torn away and all the small buildings in rear of the Banta block were destroyed. The roof was torn of Zeigler's dry goods store, but none of the stock was injured. The roof was blown of Pixley's saloon and the rear portion of Kiff's stables is in ruins. The valuable horse, Bald Hornet, was buried beneath the debris, but was gotten out uninjured. The Revere House, a three-story brick, was badly wrecked, a portion of the north end being torn down.

The Attica Ledger Attica, Indiana May 13, 1886 Page 1


The Attica Covered Bridge is no longer standing …it crossed the Wabash River on Mill Street (in Attica) Section 6, Township 21 North, and Range 7 West (Gould mistakenly identified it in Range 8), where it connected the counties of Fountain and Warren. This six span structure was built by the Attica Bridge Company in 1861 and was listed in the World Guide (according to G. Gould's 1977 list) as #14-23-07 in Fountain County and as #14-86-03 in Warren County. The Attica Covered Bridge was lost to a tornado in 1886.


Covered Bridges on the Byways of Indiana by Bryan Ketcham, Self-Published in 1949.

Indiana Covered Bridges Thru the Years By George E. Gould Published by the Indiana Covered Bridge Society, Inc., 1977.

World Guide to Covered Bridges Published by The National Society for the Preservation of Covered Bridges Revision 1972 and 1989.


Attica's grit and ability to combine matters of mutual interest was clearly shown in 1885 [1886 1], when, in three minutes, a deadly cyclone swept over the town, wiping out scores of houses, razing factories and destroying the accumulations of years. It was on the 12th of May and before the night of the 13th contracts had been let for rebuilding. Within a year better homes and larger factories stood in the places of the scores destroyed and not a trace of work of the deadly air monster was left. It is the spirit of pluck, of combined interest and ceaseless enterprise, that had made Attica and that will keep her in the front rank of the smaller cities of the State of Indiana.

The Indianan Indianapolis, Indiana June 1899

1 Me Transcribing


This tornado was reportedly 2,640' wide (one-half mile) & exhibited a "balloon" shape in Fountain County with a northeast track. 1

The American Meteorological Journal A Monthly Review of Meteorology, Medical Climatology, and Geography Edited by Mark W. Harrington, A. Lawrence Rotch, and W.J. Herdman, Ph. B., M.D. Volume 6 May, 1889-April 1890 Ann Arbor, Michigan Page 350 & 352

1 Me Transcribing


Interestingly, the last tornado reported for the outbreak in Indiana was 10 p.m. with a second tornado in Warren County. The "funnel"-shaped twister moved due east. 1

The American Meteorological Journal A Monthly Review of Meteorology, Medical Climatology, and Geography Edited by Mark W. Harrington, A. Lawrence Rotch, and W.J. Herdman, Ph. B., M.D. Volume 6 May, 1889-April 1890 Ann Arbor, Michigan Page 350 & 352

1 Me Transcribing


About 4 p.m. last evening ominous storm clouds began fathering over the city. They first appeared to the southwest, and surging northward turned suddenly about in their course and descending rapidly broken upon the city in terrific bursts of wind and rain that happily, however was but in earnest of the the reserve force in store in the huge black banks that passed around on either side. The darkness was almost like night, and people fled to the nearest shelter and waited with blanched faces for the storm to hit. Clouds seemed to graze roofs of the higher buildings and poured out torrents in apparently solid massed for a time. The streets were running rivers, At 5 p.m. a terribly vivid flash followed by a peal of thunder shook up the city. A bolt had been hurled at the statue surmounting the Court House, but the lightning rod relieved the old lady from the brunt of the shock and conveyed the missile red-hot to the bowels of mother earth. Everyone about the Square felt the tingling of the electric current, which also attacked the Brush electric light wire, and entering the works on South Fifth street consumed a dial worth $125, and all the lights on its circuit went out. One of the lady clerks in the Loeb & Hene's was rendered insensible, but whether from fright or sympathy with the lady on top of the Court House is not known. The new German Methodist Church on the corner of Ninth and Brown streets was struck by a bolt and a large hole torn in the west side and the plastering pealed off. The storms then took a recess for supper, and peace prevailed. It was a terrorizer while it lasted, and made hearts quake with fear.

It was however, entirely insignificant compared with the second storm that returning form the northwest about 6:30 p.m., descended like a black pall from every side-crash after crash of fearful thunder, preceded by lightning so intense it seemed as if the world was on fire, thoroughly terrified men, women and children alike. A fierce wind accompanied the rainfall that came down in a solid sheet. The blackness that followed made the visit more terrible and cast and and upon the people of Lafayette which has never been equaled. In a moment the streets were running rivers, cellars were inundated, sidewalks washed out, and people began to long for an ark. The storm continued for an hour and a half, and was one of continual pour accompanied by an unbroken succession of vivid lightning and continuous peals of ponderous thunder. The wind amounted to a tornado, and great destruction of life and property seemed every moment about to begin. At 7 p.m. a brilliant display was followed by a solid crack, and the Brush electric lights about the square and at the Car Works were extinguished Then light was quickly put on the other circuit and business resumed. The telegraph offices presented brilliant but no inviting spectacles. The lightning played hide and seek among the keys and operators, reaching out after the latter occasionally in an extremely exciting but decidedly uncomfortable manner. This storm swept past to the other fields and pastures green. Following close upon its heels came another which set up business about 7:45 p.m., with a flash and a crash, a rattle and a band that sounded as if all the tin pans and iron vessels in the kitchen had suddenly taken a tumble and frightened the red-headed cook out of the window As a hair raider it was a big success.

The damage throughout the city was not so great as might have been expected from the repeated and terrific downpours. There was the usual washouts on Tenth street hollow, east on Cincinnati street and Gerry street. The damage to the later will not fall short of $500, which is Mr. Ed Sher's loss, that gentleman having contracted with the city last season to put the street in good conditions and hold it there for five year. Most of his repairs meandered down toward the river with the flood, and were fished out of the gutters this morning by the street commissioner's force.

Lafayette Courier Lafayette, Indiana May 13, 1886 Page 1


The storm yesterday was the first of the kind ever known in this locality. It has been heard of as far west as Decatur, Ills., and as far east as Tipton, Ind. The loss of life and property cannot now be estimated. It was a monster the people will prefer to hear of rather than witness. Grand in its power, terrible and relentless in its destruction.

The Warren Republican Williamsport, Indiana May 13, 1886 Page 2


On Wednesday evening, May 12, 1886, a terrific rain storm and tornado visited Tipton county. The Advocate published a glowing account of the storm, a portion of the article following:

The cloud was very low and appeared to be of a cylindrical shape, bounding up and down and of a very dark green color. From the course of the various paths of destruction were led to believe that there were three or four, all centering together about three-fourths of a mile south of this city. Added to the fury of the wind was an electrical current, lightning, thunder, rain and hail, altogether making one of the most frightening spectacles ever witnessed. The one from the west formed about a mile west of Tipton and passed over the county farm and commenced its real work of destruction on the fair grounds. Every building, fence, and nearly every tree was blown down or carried away. On it went, taking the timber in the creek bottom and over the old Tom Smith farm. The house on this farm was unroofed and the frame thrown about one-third around on the foundation. The barn was totally destroyed. Next, the residence of March Tucker succumbed, totally wrecking the building and injuring several of the inmates. Just across the road was the Roberts’ large two-story brick house. One side was entirely blown away and springing the walls on the other sides. A young man sitting in the rocking chair in one of the upper rooms was carried away and lodged in a fence corner unhurt, the chair being carried some distance father and was found the next day. Graham’s residence was moved on its foundation, and the house occupied by Frank Ridley was unroofed and the family blown into the woods, all receiving slight injuries. Shank’s Grove was the next attacked, and this beautiful and shaded resort was totally felled to the earth. The appears to be the end of this storm. Another formed about one mile northeast of the city and swooped down upon Shank’s fine timber land, tearing the trees in every which way, many of them falling across the Lake Erie railroad track. Crossing the railroad track, it demolished the barn & house of Lewis Deihl, throwing the family in every direction. A young lady named Miss Barger was carried along the railroad track, where she received fatal injuries. She was found by the railroad men and brought to town. Two horses were killed and a number of geese, ducks and chickens. The cyclone here fathered more force and sped across the fields and on its way unroofed Mike McMahan’s house, destroyed his orchard and committed other depredations. Its next work of destruction was carrying away the residence of Uriah Gates, together with his entire family. All were seriously injured except an infant babe. A little six-year-old boy was bruised and cut from head to foot, and was given up to die, but kind hands saved his life. An eight-year-old girl, Gracie, died the next morning Mrs. Gates had one arm broken in two or three places and her shoulder broken, besides many bruises and cuts. Uriah was injured on the arm and leg and other members of the family were more or less bruised. Across the road was the large two-story frame residence of Phil Burkey, which was razed to the ground, totally destroying and carrying away the buildings contents. The family had taken refuge in a small out house which escaped the notice of the storm, thus their lives were saved. George Vawter’s house was swept away and a house occupied by a family named Lane was unroofed. Peter Singer’s and J.P. Osborn’s residences and Jim Woodruff’s barn left their moorings and wrecked, After leaving Burkey’s, this electrical message of death turned west and met the one going east. Another coming from the southeast joined hands with the other two and all tree made an attack on Steves, Roberts and the two Cochran farms, completely destroyed the fine timber that each of these farmers had saved, Southeast a man by the name of Snipe lost his residence and orchard. Asbury Tichenor’s orchard was ruined and all the fences along the wake of the storm were gone. Besides, the terrible work of the cyclone there was a heavy wind that extended almost all over the county. In Prairie township, timber and fences suffered terribly. In Liberty township the same work of the destruction went on. Bennett Pratt had a barn unroofed and Jesse Jackson had several outbuildings upturned. At Kempton, David Goodnight’s house was badly damaged and barns, houses and timber were destroyed in every direction. Over toward Ekin, timber, fences, and houses were destroyed. Tipton barely escaped. The course of the cyclone was less than a fourth of a mile south. The roof of the Commercial Hotel was hurled away, several barns were turned around and outbuildings, shade and fruit trees suffered seriously. Near Burkey’s a brick school house was completely demolished. During this death-dealing disaster the lightning flashed with brilliant fury, the thunder rolled long, loud and deafening, and th rain poured down in perfect torrents, flooding streets and streams. Horsemen came to town for aid. The cries of the injured were heartrending and terror was picture on every countenance. The pen refuses to describe the awful night, imagination fails to portray and human tongue cannot tell the horrible tale.

History of Tipton County, Indiana: Her People, Industries and Institutions By Marvin W. Pershing 1914 Page 243-244


A tornado, which peaked at F4 intensity, touched down in Vermilion County near Armstrong, and passed between Alvin and Rossville before moving into Indiana. At least 5 houses were destroyed, two of which were totally swept away.

The National Weather Service Central Illinois


Logansport, Ind., May 13-A terrific cyclone struck this city last night. Hundreds of houses were unroofed, fences, trees and houses blown down. The High school and American Normal college both lost their roofs. Thousands of trees blocked the country roads. Lightning struck several houses and their inmates were badly shocked, but there was no loss of life. Damage about $50,000.

Peru, Ind., May 13-The heaviest storm here for years took place last night at 7:30 o'clock. There were wind, hail, lightning and floods of water, which demolished every smoke stack, lowered the baseball park and all high fences, played havoc with shade trees, unroofed several buildings, and mixed up telegraph and telephone wires. There was very heavy damage done to stock and grain from the lightning and wind. One of the Howe factory buildings was completely wrecked. Loss on machinery and building $4500; partially insured in the home of New York.

Forest, Clinton County, Indiana: a hail storm occurred at this place on the 12th. The hailstones were reported to have been nine ounces in weight and twelve inches in circumference. Great damage was done to growing crops and to the windows of stores and dwellings.

General Weather Service of the United States Monthly Weather Review United States Signal Service May 1886 Page 128


Surface map for May 13, 1886 7 a.m. (morning after outbreak)...................I did put approximate position of upper trough & the surface pressure drops from the t'storms were noteworthy:

Note very sharp wind shift interpolated with boundary in area from east-southeast to south-southwest near the surface, while at 5,000' winds were southwest area-wide.

10,000 to 18,000' are strong from west to west-southwest.

Specific humidity is the mass of water vapor in a sample of moist air divided by the mass of the sample.

Purple shows a very high specific humidity at 950 mb or 2400', which show low LCLs or lifted condensation level (cloud bases).

This is a key to tornadogenesis.

Anomalous, significant surface pressure drop occurred Kansas & Missouri to Illinois & Indiana:

Unusually low gP heights in the West & unusually high gP heights in the Midwest show a bit temperature contrast:

Note the anomalous CAPE over our region & viewing area at the time:

Also note the anomalous warmth. 

Anomalously-strong low-level jet was blowing north from the Gulf of Mexico:

Even at less than 1/2 mile up or just 2400', winds were anomalously strong right from the the Gulf of Mexico with warm, humid, unstable air:

675 mb temperature at 32F in high CAPE, sheared environment at the mid-levels (& strong winds in mid & upper levels) promotes efficient large to very large hail production.

This shows temperatures around 33 at 650 mb....good enough, given the environment, for large hail.  Several 3-4" diameter hail reports were received to local press at the time during the outbreak.  Even after some melting likely occurred in the heavy rainfall, the Clinton County hail stone at Forest still weighed 1/2 pound with that 3.8" diameter (12" circumference).

There is a Precipitation Rate anomaly for the period in our area (light blue).

32° wxIcon
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Cloudy Monday With A Few Flurries
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