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A six-foot limb of a poplar tree blew in a window and landed across a crib where an infant lay asleep, without harming him.


Tornado of 1878

The Madison tornado of June 2004 brings to mind the deadly “cyclone” that ravaged southern Wisconsin on May 23, 1878. First touching down in Iowa County about 3:30 p.m. on the north side of Mineral Point, the half-mile wide storm track moved east into Dane County, pursuing a course roughly fourteen miles south of a line connecting Blue Mounds, Pine Bluff, Middleton Station, Mendota, and a spot three miles north of Sun Prairie. In its aftermath nearly 400 square miles of Dane County, including the city of Madison, were strewn with debris.

Lightning and thunder began about 2:30 that afternoon, and soon the clouds began to darken and whirl. Survivors later described the tornado as a column of black cloud, reaching to the ground and shooting up and down, whirling in confusion, filled with hay, leaves, straw, limbs of trees and other debris. The southern face of the cloud appeared to some as if it was ablaze with fire, while the northern face remained dark. The tornado roared; in Madison the sound “was like a train of cars passing over a covered bridge” and was distinctly heard for a quarter of an hour. A man painting in the house of N. B. Van Slyke commented “it takes a long time for that train to pass over the bridge.” Beginning half an hour after the eye of the storm passed, rain fell in torrents for the next hour, accompanied by hailstones said to be as large as a snowball or good-sized apple. At least had a diameter of four inches. The storm covered fences in the countryside with mud several inches thick; some of it was still visible four months later. In some cases, faces of the dead were “so masked with mud they were unrecognizable.”

Thirteen farmhouses, all constructed of logs, were utterly destroyed; part of Mr. Rice’s house was found eight miles away. Eight barns were demolished. Various farm outbuildings were swept away, and a stone church was damaged. On the farm of J. C. Kiser an oak tree two feet in diameter was broken off. Much standing timber throughout the county was twisted to the ground and uprooted. The storm passed directly over the Oregon cemetery, blowing down and breaking many monuments.

Six individuals died in Dane County - Charles Anderson, who was in the parsonage of the Norwegian Lutheran Church of Perry; Andrew Olson, who was sheltering in Dr. McFarland’s house; N. Byrge and his son, when their house was destroyed; Mrs. Galena, when her log house was leveled; and Mrs. Pierce, two weeks after being thrown against her stove when her house was struck.

The death toll could have been higher. M. McCarthy, his wife and eight children were spared when their house was hit, as was H. Hoibg, his wife, and a large number of children. The daughter of Mrs. M. Daly, who was trying to hold the door of her log home shut, found herself outside, twenty yards from the house, with the door on top of her. A twelve-year old girl was buried in falling stones to her shoulders, but was uninjured. Mrs. Bower was thrown 100 feet and landed on a pile of wood; one wall of her house fell upon her daughter; neither was seriously injured. In the town of Primrose the tornado struck the house of M. Obermdt, tearing it to pieces but sparing him and his seven children. A six-foot limb of a poplar tree blew in a window and landed across a crib where an infant lay asleep, without harming him. A man standing in his barn door, watching the storm, was blown 15 rods and lodged in a small tree. Mrs. Osborne leg was broken in two places, her daughter was so injured she couldn’t walk for three months, yet seventeen pans of milk in the cellar of her house were not disturbed by the tornado.

The roof of a blacksmith shop was lifted 100 feet into the air and deposited on the far side of a stand of tall trees. A wheel from a wagon was found a mile and a quarter away from the wagon. The deed to one man’s farm was found ten miles away.

Of all the survivors, the members of the J. Osmonson family were possibly the luckiest to be alive. A boy of 14 and a girl of eight were in the cellar and Mrs. Osmonson, carrying a three-month old infant, was partly down the cellar stairs, when the storm lifted their house into the air and over a stand of trees 40 feet high. Then the house broke up, dropping Mr. Osmonson, who was holding a four- and six-year old, to the ground, mostly unharmed. A 12 year-old daughter who was also in the house was buried in mud, and her arm was broken in three places. One of their horses was blown out of the stable and landed on his back in the cellar of the house; another horse landed in a tree.

The final death toll from the storm was 19 – 12 in Iowa County, six in Dane, and one in Jefferson.

Mark Gajewski