- Historic Sites
The Winds Of Ruin
June/July 1978 | Volume 29, Issue 4
That was merely a prelude. Some twenty minutes later, as residents crept from cover to assess the damage, they noticed bearing down on them from the northwest an inky cloud of terrifying aspect and dimension. Some witnesses told of seeing one funnel, some two, and some none at all—only a two-mile front of solid blackness advancing “majestically” on the prostrate town to finish what the original funnel had begun.
Fourteen townspeople were killed in that second onslaught, including a mother and her four daughters, ages two through nine, whose bodies were later found scattered nude over the prairie. More than thirty-five others were severely injured, and forty buildings were swept away.
A country newspaper account of that week tells of horses caught up in the wind and deposited wild-eyed and mud-caked in strange pastures, of chickens stripped of their feathers and wild rabbits blown slick of their hair, and of a partly decapitated hog seen wandering the wrecked village days afterward, still “quite alive and … apparently at ease.”
At the height of the storm, it had occurred to some of Irving’s people that the end of the world might be at hand. Afterward, many of them salvaged their belongings and fled back to former homes in the East. But traumatic as the visitation had been for the people of the village, it scarcely even suggested the damage a tornado could wreak on a modern city.
Eighty-seven years later and sixty-five straight-line miles away, sometime after six o’clock the evening of June 8, 1966, William Corbett sat at the kitchen table of his farmhouse southwest of Topeka, the Kansas capital, listening to broadcast weather bulletins. The area was on storm alert.
The radio told of a terrific hailstorm headed his way, Corbett, now ninety-one, recollects. Then he looked out his kitchen window, saw the cloud’s underside, said to himself, “Hell, that ain’t no hail!” and retreated to the cellar with a pet parakeet. The tornado passed a bit to the north, wrecking Corbett’s barn but only lightly damaging the house. Unknown to him or anyone, it already had killed an elderly couple several miles west, whose bodies were found stripped of all but their stockings.
John Meinholdt, a volunteer weather observer, had a better view of the storm’s approach. From his assigned station atop Burnett’s Mound, a prominence at Topeka’s southwest edge, he watched the enormous black cloud—still fifteen or twenty miles distant—come boiling in across the farming flatlands toward the city. The storm cell, he was told by mobile radio, did not appear on the weather bureau’s radarscope. Meinholdt waited.
About ten miles out, the cloud, preceded by rain and hail, sagged down to touch the earth, not yet in the form of a visible funnel but as a broad, black mass rushing toward Meinholdt and the city. The observer shouted a last warning into the radio, then gunned his truck down off the mound at a safe right angle to the storm’s path. Topeka had thirteen minutes’ notice.
There was a long-cherished belief, supposedly grounded in Indian legend, that Burnett’s Mound, rearing up to block the southwest approach, assured immunity from destructive winds. But this time the killer cloud—now assuming the form of what one witness described as “a big, slick funnel,” oozed directly up and over the hill where Meinholdt had stood and descended at seven fifteen with a throaty rumble on the capital.
In a matter of moments, a swath of continuous desolation ranging from one-quarter to one-half mile wide had been chewed through the heart of Topeka. Sixteen persons were killed outright or fatally injured and more than 320 hurt severely enough to need hospital treatment. The property loss surpassed $135,000,000.
In the days to follow, identifiable debris from the shattered city was discovered as far as sixty miles away. One of the artifacts was a homemade chocolate-iced cake, perfectly intact on its plate in a soybean field near St. Joseph in the neighboring state of Missouri.
“… there came a great shriek from the wind.… Then a strange thing happened.
“The house whirled around two or three times and rose slowly through the air. Dorothy felt as if she were going up in a balloon.”
The twister carried the house and Dorothy all the way from the Kansas prairie to deposit them in the Land of Oz. And though that was only a fiction, strange things truly do happen in the whirl of the storm.
A tornado that tore through the community of Kirksville, Missouri, on April 27, 1899, plucked up two women and a boy, carried them over a church, and restored them to earth on the town common one-quarter mile away, scarcely hurt.