Local Weather History: The Pre-Christmas Tornado of 1871 at Lafayette

A brief tornado struck downtown Lafayette around Christmas time 1871.

Posted: Dec 17, 2018 4:13 PM
Updated: Dec 17, 2018 9:24 PM

A pre-Christmas tornado hit Lafayette with narrow corridor of rather heavy damage on December 23, 1871.  Two people were injured in the 0.5-mile damage path length, which was near 0.2 mile wide. Damage peaked at EF1 strength with winds to 95-100 mph.

A newspaper reporter on South Street & corner of Fifth, saw the twister at 12:30 p.m. as the storm blew in. He said it reminded him “of a great screw driven point foremost shot out of a cannon………southwest traveling northeast” with sound like that of a “minnie ball”. From South Second & Columbia to North Street & North 9th, many buildings were damaged, including Trinity Church with debri thrown everywhere, damaging structures on either side of the tornado. General, damaging straight-line wind occurred over a 2-square mile area prior to the twister to the southwest.

The storms passed in the morning as temperatures rose overnight to spring-like levels & a strong, intense surface low passed through northwestern Illinois.

Cold front was very sharp with temperature dropping from around 61 to the 20s very quickly.

Interestingly, the morning low on December 21 was -3, but the intense storm pulled a potent chunk of warm air with strong gusty southerly winds ahead of & behind, the strong cold front that sliced through the area.

At 4:35 p.m., with howling northwest winds here, temperature was down to 29 at Lafayette, while Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania had an unusually warm 67 & Cleveland, Ohio 59.

So what did it look like?

It was reportedly shaped like a cork screw & slanted rather horizontally (probably owing to the very strong winds at the low levels pushing it along).  We know that there was an area of straight-line wind damage that occurred just southwest of the track in the heavy rain.  Also, it wasn't a strong tornado with peak strength at EF1.  There was no mention of the condensation funnel being viewed completely to the ground & most were caught completely off guard due to it being December & that the funnel was not the classic. picturesque funnel that is often photographed.

It probably looked like this:

Deepening surface low was ejecting out of Oklahoma & reached northern Missouri by late night on December 22.  There was a lot of cold air in front of it, but as howling low-level jet developed & very, very strong warm advection took over, temperatures soared.  Note how St. Louis was 21 at 7:35 a.m., but 48 at 11:35 p.m.  Cairo, Illinois was 56 at 11:35 p.m. on the 22nd after 29 at 7:35 a.m.

Hours before the tornado, the cold front had just passed St. Louis at 7:35 a.m. on December 23.  The temperature then fell to 51.  Howling southwest winds propelled temperatures to 50 in our area by 7:35 a.m., before peaking around 61 by the time of the tornado.

As seen below in some newspaper accounts.  Other severe weather (with substantial structural damage in places) occurred in Indiana from Indianapolis to Terre Haute to New Albany.  The New Albany, Indiana tornado (near Louisville) reportedly hit just 30 minutes prior to the Lafayette tornado.  Terre Haute reported wind damage to telegraph wires, trees, as well as roofs & chimneys, while the roof of the Turner Hall was completely blown off east of Terre Haute at Brazil.

This storm produced a severe blizzard over Iowa with white-out conditions & deep drifts.  It reportedly "blockaded all roads".

Much colder air followed in our area.  It was literally 12 hours of spring.

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Here is the account from the Lafayette Courier:

The thunderstorm of Friday night started people to thinking about rough and windy weather ahead for the next day, and sure enough it came. High winds prevailed all morning Saturday, and in fact until near nightfall. But about 12:30 p.m., there came a great gust of wind-tornado, whirlwind, jimmycane, or whatever you chose to call it-that caused a great deal of damage in the city and vicinity. Our reporter, who was on South street, just opposite the Falley building, corner of Fourth, when the gust passed over, describes the sound made by it as similar to that made by a minnie ball, and reminded him of a great screw driven point foremost, as though shot out of a cannon. Most whirlwinds travel with a perpendicularly rotary motion, but this seemed to have a horizontal motion of remarkable velocity and force. It came from the southwest, traveling toward the north-east, and was not more than two squares in width.

The first building affected was the Falley Block, corner of Fouth and South streets, the roof of which was raised, on the south side, fully two feet, but which fortunately fell back and resumed the proper position.

The roof of Mrs. Peter Vall's new building, on Columbia street, near the corner of Fifth, came next in order, the tin upon which was rolled up like so much paper, though it was not blown clear off the building.

The Second National Bank building, north-east corner of the Public-square, better known as Reynold's store front, came next in the path of the wind. The tin covering of the whole roof was blown off, together with the timbers and sheeting of the entire southern half of it. Portions of the debris were blown clear across the street and landed in the rear of the O'Ferrell and Ruger and Roger's Block, smashing and breaking things generally as it came down. Several holes were smashed through the roof of the O'Ferrell's Block and in the rear of each of the two buildings above mentioned damaged was done to roofs, sky lights and out-houses.

In the track of the storm and parallel with the Second National Bank building was the old State Bank building, corner of Main and Sixth streets, the tin roofing of which was rolled up into a bundle and landed in the middle of the street.

The Eastern section of the Post Office Block, corner of Third and ferry streets, also suffered the loss of its tin roof and a portion of the sheeting and timbers underneath it. The debris of this building fell upon the out-buildings and stable of Mrs. Fifer, immediately north, and caused a great deal of damage.

One of the turrets of the new Trinity Church, corner of North and Sixth streets, was also blown down, causing a serious loss to the contractors for the building.

In additions to the above, we might mention the damage to the roof of Levering & Company's wholesale store on Third street, and to Hanley's Block on Fourth street, near the corner of South.

The roof on the north side of three of Burrough & James' ice houses, near the Wide-water, were also blown off and carried clean out of sight.

Out-houses, awnings and signs suffered a general demolition in the track of the whirlwind, though to file a list of them would be almost entirely impossible.

The large sign of the Bee Hive store, south side of the Public square, was blown off and fell to the pavement below. In its descent it struck down a lady and gentleman who were passing at the time, the former named Mrs. J.D. Jackson, who lives three miles form the city on the Dayton road, and the latter James Carrigan, a resident of the First Ward. Both the injured parties were taken into the store, where they were attended to by physicians who were speedily sent for. Neither were very badly hurt. The lady suffered considerably in consequence of the shock to her nervous system, while the main was bruised on the shoulder and arm. The sign, which was six by thirty feet in size, fell upon one end and then careened over upon the gentleman and lady, striking the upper end on a store box, crushing them both under it. Had it not been for this fortunate circumstance both would have been killed outright.

The heavy sign board on J.B. Lutz & Company's establishment, Columbia street, came down and struck not more than three feet in front of a little girl who was passing at the time. Fortunately, it fell away from her so that she was not hurt, though excessively frightened.

As the tin from the roof of the Second National Bank building came crashing down into the streets, half a dozen or more teams standing there hitched, started up Main street at full speed, making as many first class runaways. The lives and limbs of many people were jeopardized, though fortunately no one was seriously hurt.

A portion of the tin roofing from the bank building struck the rear end of a street car on the track, breaking out the back windows. At the same time the wind raised the back end of the car about three feet from the track. This was too much for the horses and they started off at full speed towards the post office, but were captured before going very far by the driver. The telegraph wires were broken in many places. Fortunately, Mr. Doolittle had a large force of men at work, getting ready to move his office, and they were put to work at once to repair the damaged wire. This was not, however, done on time to enable the operator to produce our usual Saturday night telegrams.

The landlady of one of the favorite boarding houses was just in the act of putting the finishing touches to an oyster pie for dinner, as the gust of wind came up. She had in her hand a large kitchen spoon intending to put in two spoonfuls extra of butter. The old lady was so much excited that she put the spoon into the dish of cold baked beans, and plentifully supplied the oysters with them instead of the butter. The effect at the dinner table can be better imagined than described.

Lafayette Courier Lafayette, Indiana December 25, 1871 Page 1

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Other newspaper reports of damage at Lafayette, Indianapolis & New Albany, Indiana:

INDIANAPOLIS, December 23d.-The wind-storm damaged many buildings. At Lafayette many buildings were unroofed, including the National Bank, Post Office and telegraph office. Several persons were injured.

Louisville, December 23d.— terrible tornado occurred about noon today.- It spanned about four miles below [New] Albany, Indiana, breaking down timber, destroying seven hundred feet of trestle-work on the Air-line Road, and breaking timbers off like whip-cords. Two men riding in a buggy on the track were overtaken by the storm, and horse, buggy and men were lifted in the air and carried forty feet, but escaped unhurt.

Daily Alta California San Fransisco, California December 26, 1871 Page 1

A Cathedral Crushed.

INDIANAPOLIS, December 23.- A portion of the roof of St. John's Cathedral was crushed by the falling of the upper part of one of the front towers.

Nashville Union and American Nashville, Tennessee December 24, 1871 Page 1

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