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Local Weather History: March 20, 1866 Tornado Outbreak

Destructive tornado outbreak occurred in the viewing area on the first day of spring 1866.

Posted: Mar 19, 2019 8:46 PM
Updated: Mar 21, 2020 4:05 PM

A tornado outbreak blasted through the viewing area.

A railroad bridge destroyed by tornado at Lafayette caused a train derailment. An ice house was destroyed & several buildings damaged in the city of Lafayette.

Lebanon, Indiana Tornado: “Tornado left scene of run never before witnessed on morning of March 21st. Came like an avalanche, hurling fragments of trees and buildings in every direction.”

In Montgomery County, near 7 p.m., a large tornado roared through Scott Township. Originating “three quarters of a mile north of the southwest corner” & moved “diagonally” across the township. The noise of the twister could reportedly “be heard for miles”. Several homes & farms were completely “demolished” with others on the edge suffering roof & structure damage. Three children & one wife of a family were killed, while another resident was blown “100 yards & most seriously wounded. Many were more or less injured.” A 12-acre cornfield of A.W. Armstrong was nearly swept clean of stubble & fodder. Debri, machinery, clothes & building material were found “miles away”. A pitched roof of a residence was found 15 miles away from the tornado track. A bureau drawer was found 8 miles from the tornado track & a tin-wash boiler was found in the forks of an oak tree 35’ from the ground. This tornado track is said to have run all the way to near Terre Haute, destroyed vast amounts of timber & killing many animals in its path.

In one pass, 60 acres of timber were reportedly swept away north of Ladoga by the tornado.

Given the reports, all reports to this tornado in Montgomery County being a violent, long-track, large one in the EF4 or greater strength. 

In Delaware County, a tornado caused extensive damage & injuries, including three people working in a sugar grove tapping for syrup when the tornado passes nearby, pinning then in fallen branches & trees.  Bones were broken, even one man's jaw, but they survived.

Hail was reported at Rensselaer.

Tornadoes extended into Illinois with 20 houses "entirely demolished" by a "terrific tornado" in the "vicinity of Sullivan" (Moultrie County).

Another large tornado reportedly completely "enveloped" valley below in blackness" with "heaven filled" pieces of farms with no clear discerning of its direction or that it was a tornado.  It has been reported as large blackness that filled the sky filled with debri.

Violent weather reportedly occurred as far south as south of Nashville, Tennessee where all telegraphic communication was cut off in that area.   

This all followed a stormy January-March for the Midwest, Plains & Great Lakes (a surge of warmth with damaging severe t'storm was reported at Lafayette in January 1866).  A historic blizzard slammed Minnesota with white-out conditions & feet of snow February 13-15, 1866.  We even had severe weather in the viewing area January 1866 during a warm spell with damage from storms in the city of Lafayette.

Around 8 months later, another outbreak occurred with substantial structural damage in the viewing area.


There is increasing evidence (& I will be making edits to this map below) that it was a single, strong to violent, significant tornado from Moultrie County, Illinois to Boone County, Indiana with peak strength in Montgomery County.

Lebanon had the damaging large hail north of the tornado track within the supercell.

There are no reports that I have uncovered from Hamilton County, but this may have been the same supercell that spawned the long-track tornado through Delaware County & beyond with debri from Indiana falling in farm fields across northwestern Ohio to near Lima.

Connecting a line the reports from Moultrie through Douglas & Edgar counties  in Illinois to those in Parke, Montgomery to Boone counties in Indiana all line up.  Complete destruction noted in various points from de-barked, large trees to virgin forest tree ripped off 30' up, forests completely swept away & large, heavy objects & material hurled impressive distances.

If you connect the timing of the tornado in Moultrie County to Montgomery County & the timing of the large hail at Lebanon, it would have moved at 58 mph on average.

The damage track at Lafayette (very similar to 1858) was indicative of EF1 damage, but it was this supercell that was the big one.

No one single town or city was directly hit, however.

The actual press accounts:


The most terrific wind storm that ever visited Montgomery county passed through this township March 20, 1866, just after the Civil war. It was seven o'clock in the evening that an awful hurricane rushed into the township three fourths of a mile north of the southwest corner of the territory, passing in a diagonal direction like a mighty sickle of death and general destruction. The sound of the rushing wind was frightful to hear. Thunder was loud and heard many miles distant. Buildings and trees were crushed and twisted in all kinds of shapes. The unearthly cry of animals of many species filled the ears of the inhabitants with awful sounds. Huge logs were as feathers before a tempest. The wind completely demolished new and older structures. Among the buildings blown to pieces are now recalled those of Dr. Straughan. M. F. James and H. A. Foster. All the buildings of John Frame were unroofed. and hundreds of dollars' worth of timber destroyed. A child of Mrs. M. F. James was killed outright. H. A. Foster's wife was found dead, and two children were killed. Dr. Straughan had a child blown a hundred yards and seriously wounded. Others were more or less injured. After the passage of the storm, birds, rabbits and other small animals were found dead in the track. H. A. Foster was in his sugar camp at the time, and although the air was completely filled with dust, dirt, rubbish, timbers and boards, his life was spared, but upon getting to his home the scene was awful. Pieces of buildings, machinery, garments and various articles were carried many miles away. A bed sheet was left hanging in the top of a tall tree for more than a year after the storm. A feather bed was found beneath the trunk of a large oak. Clothing belonging to both men and women, was found four miles distant. M. F. James claimed that a portion of the roof of his house was blown fifteen miles. and this was proven to be true from the fact that his was the only house that had a pitched roof between there and Terre Haute. A bureau drawer was found eight miles distant from where it belonged. A tin wash boiler was found in the top of an oak tree forty feet from the ground. All in all, this was the most terrible storm tragedy ever witnessed in this portion of Indiana.

History of Montgomery County, Indiana 1913 Page 413

The Recent Tornado.

A terrible wind storm visited this section of Indiana about 10 o'clock , on the evening of the 20th inst. Considerable damage was done in this county to fences and forests, but compared with that of Fayette county our loss was nothing. In Connersville along, the damage done to houses and stables amounted to at least $15,000. Scarcely a house, shed, chimney, fence, or shade tree, within the track of the tornado (comprising more than a third part of the town) remained untouched. At least half the chimneys were partly or wholly blown down, even with the roofs of the houses. Besides this over one hundred shade trees were uprooted, broken above or at the roots, or bent over by the wind.

The east span of the Junction Railroad bridge across Whitewater river was destroyed, the whole of it falling into the water below. The second span moved some four inches from its position. The entire roof of the bridge was stripped off. This was one of the most substantial structures of the kind in the State. It was four hundred and eighty feet long. Had the sides been weather-broarded, the whole bridge would no doubt have been capsized and ruined.

About the time the storm came up, the freight train from Cambridge arrived at the depot in Connersville. Immediately after the wind ceased to blow, the engineer let on the steam and started for Hamilton, not being apprised of what had happened at the bridge half a mile from the depot, or the danger which awaited him and his train. The consequence was, the train moved on, and the locomotive and three of the cars were precipitated into the river, the locomotive capsizing as it went down, the three cars falling upon or by the side of it.

The train was composed of seven cars, and all the attachees of it, except the engineer and fireman, were in the rear cars, which were not precipitated into the river at the time of the accident.-

The engineer and fireman, however, went down with the engine, and the former was dangerously and the latter fatally injured. The fireman died on last Wednesday morning. His name was Tilden Downs; he had a family and resided at Cambridge. On the morning of the day on which the accident occurred he had taken out a policiy in the Accident Insurance Company for three thousand dollars. The engineer, Wm. Leonard, a son of Mr. "Jersey" Leonard, of this county, is still living, and will probably recover. His life was insured for five thousand dollars. -Liberty Herald.

Marshall County Republican Plymouth, Indiana April 5, 1866 Page 3

The storm last Tuesday night week was terrific and destructive in its track.  At Lebanon the hail destroyed nearly all the window glass in the place, two houses were blown down, the streets ran with water sufficient to float a steamboat, and the cattle and other stock suffered severely. The town of Milton, in Wayne county, suffered severely. Several buldings were unroofed and others were demolished.

Marshall County Republican Plymouth, Indiana March 29, 1866 Page 2

The storm Tuesday was the severest of the season. Hailstones of immense proportions rattled down-thunder rolled its deepest bass through the heavens, lightning gleamed in regular July style, and the rain poured down in torrents. Such a regular old-fashioned war of the elements has not been witnessed here about for many years.-New Albany Ledger

Marshall County Republican Plymouth, Indiana March 29, 1866 Page 2

We are informed by a Passenger on the New Albany road, that on Tuesday night, a terrible hurricane passed over a section of territory about a mile wide in the immediate vicinity of Ladoga. Several houses and barns were unroofed, a number of persons injured, if not killed, and large amount of property destroyed. -Putnam Banner

Marshall County Republican Plymouth, Indiana March 29, 1866 Page 2


There was a severe thunder, rain and wind storm at Cincinnati last night, which interfered so much with the operations of the telegraph lines as to prevent the transmission of all the report. Hence the meagerness of our dispatches this morning.

Indianapolis Daily Journal Indianapolis, Indiana March 21, 1866, Page 1

The storm last Tuesday night week was terrific and destructive in its track. At Lebanon the hail destroyed nearly all the window glass in the place, two houses were blown down, the streets rain with water sufficient to float a steamboat, and the cattle and other stock suffered severely. The town of Milton, in Wayne county, suffered severely. Several buildlings were unroofed and others were demolished.

Large Hail Stones.

We saw, yesterday, nearly a bushel of hail stones, picked up in the garden of M.S. Patrick, Esq., at the Junction, six miles south of this city, which after having lain forty -hour hours, were still as large as hen eggs. J. P. Root Esq., of Hyde Park, brought one into this city which measured nine inches and a quarter in circumference. The storm swept over a belt of country about a mile in width, in a west-by-north-west direction, breaking trees and windows in its course with a wantonness unparalleled in our history. We have heard of it as far east as sixty-five miles from this city 1........Speculation was rife, yesterday, as to origin of these hailstones; some gravelly asserting thier belief that two ice bergs has been taken up by a water-spout in the arctic regions, and, meeting in the air crushed each other to fragments. Few seemed disposed to belive it possible that these monsters could be produced in the ordinary way-by congelation of rain drops while falling.-Chi. Trib., 23d.

Marshall County Republican Plymouth, Indiana March 29, 1866 Page 2

1 65 miles east of the storm would be around Michigan City, Indiana - Me

Connersville and Lebanon, Ind. Tornado left a scene of ruin never before witnessed on the morning of 21st. Came like an avalanche, hurling fragments of trees and buildings in every direction.

U.S. Department of Agriculture Monthly Report March 1866

...........the sentiment favored calling it a tornado..............

All of these wind hail & rain storms (1858, 1866 & 1897 1) came from the southwest up the Wabash river and switched over towards the northeast along the line of the old canal. The Wild Cat valley seemed to be their objective point. They all took the same course.

The east span of the Main street bridge was blown away and the ice house of George W. Burroughs was totally demolished. At the same time the Wild Cat bridge was broken from the west shore and strung along the east bank of the stream.

According to Dr. Keith Heidorn, “Bridge destroyed by tornado leads to train derailment [on March 20, 1866]” 1

1 Transcribed by Me

Past and Present of Tippecanoe County Edited by Richard Patten DeHart 1909 Page 398

CHICAGO, April 2d.-A terrible tornado swept over parts of Illinois, and Indiana, on the 20th, the details of which have just come to hand. It seems that it first appeared in Johnson county, in the extreme southern portion of Illinois, and proceeded north about one hundred miles to Douglas county, and thence east fifty miles, to Montgomery, Indiana, where it disappeared, leaving a track of desolation three hundred yards wide. The totals loss of life is estimated at from sixty to one hundred, including entire familes from five to nine persons. Houses, trees, and cattle were taken up bodily, and heavy articles which have been recognized, have been carried twenty miles.

Daily Alta California San Fransisco, California April 5, 1866

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