Boyle County tornadoes in the 1800s

Published 4:30 pm Tuesday, May 7, 2024

By Jon Nicholson, Contributing Writer

For most of human history, twisting, turning, and thundering columns of wind would descend from the blackened sky onto unsuspecting people with little more warning than what your own senses could provide.

The ability to forecast tornadoes was the same during the 1940s as it had been during the American Civil War, but this wasn’t for lack of trying.  Early meteorologists studied severe weather, specifically tornadoes, in the 1880s with the first guidebook on predicting tornadoes published in 1888 by John Park Findley.  However, due to departmental politics and the fear of public panic, the term “tornado” was officially banned by the Weather Bureau until 1950.  During this long period akin to a meteorological dark age, many tornadoes did in fact occur, even in areas of Boyle County which many of us call home.  I have gathered the scarce news reports for three of these forgotten tornadoes and hope they shed some light on the meteorological history in our own backyards.

Jon Nicholson

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The earliest storm – the mystery tornado of 1819
Danville in 1819 was an emerging hub for education and commerce with a population of 500 and growing.  Just about the time local leaders were planning to build the “Old Centre” building, a tornado descended and ripped through the western part of town.  This tornado destroyed several homes, barns, fences, and the cabin of James Harrod, reportedly the oldest home in town by that point.  This early tornado might have shaped the way the downtown developed, but nothing else is known about it.  In fact, the information above was collected from an Aug. 10, 1886 article in The Kentucky Advocate, a full 76 years after the storm was reported to have taken place.
During most of the 19th century, local newspapers focused on national news, possibly because by the time they could print the local news, you had probably already heard it anyway.  However, this began to change towards the end of the 19th century.  During this period, local newspapers began to report local news with much greater detail.  Because of this shift, a tornado in 1888 and another tornado in 1890 were documented more thoroughly than ever before.  Around this same time, there was an increase in tornado coverage throughout the country, along with a boom in people trying to sell “Tornado Insurance.”

The Great Boyle County Tornado of April 5, 1888

“A Tornado swept through a strip of Boyle County last Thursday night about 11 o’clock … The top of the covered bridge between Mitchellsburg and Perryville was blown away, but is in no other way damaged.  Coming on the east, the course of this monster was through the farms of Messrs. Geo. Tarkington and W.L. Caldwell.  Both suffered greatly from loss of fencing … It drives the rails of worm fences before it as does the autumn winds the dead leaves, until it strikes the premises of James Harlan where in the twinkling of an eye it pulls up eleven locust and three cherry trees from his yard.  These trees were from eighteen inches to two feet in diameter.  Not content with such plays, it lifts up the carriage house and sets it down in a field nearby (sic), a wreck …  When the wind had full swing at a pane of glass,  the glass was crushed in.  The storm is pronounced the strongest that ever swept through Boyle County.  Its track ranged in width from 300 yards to three miles…” – The Kentucky Advocate on Tues. April 10, 1888.

The Danville Tornado of March 18, 1890     

“At five minutes past ten o’clock Tuesday night a cyclone, traveling from a northwestern direction to a southeastern direction, struck Danville … For fifteen or twenty minutes the wind blew a perfect gale and was accompanied by rain, hail, thunder and lightning.  A low rumbling, roaring sound accompanied the storm, such as go with cyclones.  The new residence of Hon. R. P. Jacobs on Lexington Street, was considerably damaged.  The southwest corner chimney was blown down and front wall injured.  The damage, though annoying, can easily be repaired.  Not half a square away the stable of C.H. Rodes, Esq. was razed to the ground … coming down Main street the Clemens House (Hotel) was struck and the chimneys and roof on the north side of the house were badly damaged.  Quite a panic was created in the hotel while the storm was raging … Two recitation rooms at Caldwell College were badly damaged, the roof of one of them being blown some distance and came down on the chapel roof, where it lodged.”  – The Kentucky Advocate on Fri. March 21, 1888.

Many of these historic tornadoes descended on people with little warning, and even worse, at night.  Additionally, it was difficult to document a tornado in action.  The first photograph of a tornado was not taken until 1884 in South Dakota, 58 years after photography was invented.  The aftermath of tornadoes would not be systematically studied until Japanese-American scientist Dr. Ted Fujita began using tornado damage as a way to link wind speed to tornado intensity, thus creating the Fujita Scale in the 1970s.  Our modern systems of forecasting aim to provide 15 minutes of warning for an impending tornado, a leap of improvement from the absence of warning our ancestors faced.  The next time severe weather looms on the horizon, be aware, but also consider the Boyle Countians who faced such storms with little warning.