27. Tornado Damage Near Logan, Iowa

Aerial photo of tornado damage

© 2000 Airphoto—Jim Wark

Another one for Alex

It was another bad day for Pvt. Alexander Willard (see "Courts Martial on the Trail.") About noon on 29 July 1804 he realized he'd left his tomahawk at the previous night's camp. He had to walk more than three miles, over land he had seen only from the river, to retrieve the tomahawk he had absent-mindedly left at the previous night's camp, then walk back to rejoin the company. On his way back, as he teetered across the Boyer River on a log, he dropped his rifle in the water. He was a tolerably good swimmer, but he couldn't find the weapon in the deep mud, so there was nothing to do but catch up with the main party and get help. The captains sent him back downriver in the white pirogue with its crew, and Reubin Field dove in to retrieve his rifle. We can only imagine the deluge of ribbing he had to endure when he finally reached the evening's camp.

'dreadful haricane'

On that same day, Clark took note of "much fallen timber, apparently the ravages of a dreadful haricane which had passed obliquely across the river from N. W. to S. E. about twelve months since. Many trees were broken off near the ground the trunks of which were sound and four feet in diameter." He could not have known they were in the northeast part of what is now called America's "tornado alley." In a remarkable coincidence, just two days before Jim Wark shot this scene, a tornado crossed the Lewis and Clark route near here, felling many trees and killing two women.1

It must be said that in calling it a "haricane," Clark was by no means showing his ignorance of the basic differences between a hurricane and a tornado. Aside from his phonetic revision of the word's orthography, he was merely reflecting the fact that throughout the 18th century (and well into the 19th), those two terms were widely considered synonymous. Indeed, it was not unusual for both to be used in reference to the same storm in the same published account. A windstorm over land was often called a whirlwind, but that name seldom entirely displaced either hurricane or tornado. There were other words in the climatological lexicon, too. Benjamin Franklin wrote a typically eloquent and rational comparison of a whirlwind with a waterspout, each having, generally, "a progressive as well as a circular motion"–a spin and a track.2

Often, details were given in a published account that a 21st-century reader can easily interpret as signifying one storm type or another. But back then, as one correspondent admitted in a letter in which he sought to define hurricane: "That this subject, so curious in itself, and on many accounts so interesting, should never have been effectually discussed, can only be ascribed to the want of sufficient and accurate materials for that purpose."3 That is to say, the evidence was largely anecdotal, and therefore scarcely reliable.

While the expedition was under way, the Atlantic Coast was struck by two serious storms during the same season. On September 7, 1804, "a hurricane, such as has not been witnessed in this part of the world, since the year 1752, took place on the coast of the southern states of America."4 It lasted for five days. Four and one-half weeks later, on October 9, another tremendous storm, perhaps a nor'easter, struck the the coast of Massachusetts.5 Although nor'easters typically last longer than hurricanes, this one continued with "the most violent and unremitted fury until about five o'clock of the morning of the next day." However, it blew "with a degree of force and fury, unequalled in the memory of the oldest inhabitants, or in the annals of that state, but by one which took place in September, 1727. . . . Of the damage done it would be fruitless and unentertaining to attempt an accurate estimate, or a precise detail. . . . As in the former hurricane to the southward, the wharves and shipping were essentially damaged, and some small craft destroyed, and the several ports and shores were covered with wrecks."6

Judging from the sometimes tabloidal tone and the range of details in the published accounts of those two 1804 storms, one might suppose that the men of the Lewis and Clark expedition heard about them soon after they got back. Some of the more shocking highlights might even have been passed on to the captains by their mutual friend Robert McClellan during their brief exchange of news headlines when they chanced to meet on the river just eleven days before the expedition reached its end at St. Louis.


From Discovering Lewis & Clark from the Air
Photography by Jim Wark

Text by Joseph Mussulman
Reproduced by permission of Mountain Press

1. At present (2012), the recorded history of tornadoes in the U.S. begins with the one that struck the village of Rehoboth in Plymouth Colony, in August, 1671. Owing to the highly varied local and seasonal frequency of tornadoes, and the difficulty of collecting scientific data, the record continued to be spotty until the the propagation of the Fujita Tornado Scale by Dr. Tetsuya Fujita of the University of Chicago beginning in 1971, and revised as the Enhanced Fujita Scale in 2007. NOAA National Climatic Data Center, http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/oa/satellite/satelliteseye/educational/fujita.html.

2. The Monthly Register, Magazine, and Review of the United States, January 1, 1805, p. 35; American Periodicals Series.

3. Monthly Review and Literary Miscellany of the United States, Vol. 1, No. 2 (February 1805), p. 75. American Periodicals Series Online.

4. "Causes of Hurricanes Explained," The American Museum, or, Universal Magazine, Vol. 9, No. 4 (April 1791), 215. American Periodicals Series Online. The systematic historiography of tropical storms generated in the Atlantic Ocean, Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea began in 1851 with the inception of the North Atlantic hurricane database (HURDAT).

5. The season of nor'easters lasts from October to April.

6. "A Letter from Dr. Benjamin Franklin, to his friend: Relative to Water Spouts, &c.," in The Royal American Magazine, or Universal Repository of Instruction and Amusement, Vol. 1, Issue 9 (September 1774), p. 340A. American Periodicals Series Online.