Saturday, March 31, 2012

Tornadoes in the Wild West: Hunkerin' Down for the Big Winds

I have always been fascinated by weather, particularly tornadoes. On May 22, 2008, I spent three hours in a basement closet with my infant granddaughter as the Larimer County, Colorado emergency services issued one tornado warning after another. Eventually, a mile wide tornado with golf ball size hail and winds of 150 mph touched down on the east side of the highway causing horrendous damage to the city of Windsor. One person died, 14 were injured, and the total damage to homes and vehicles came to $193.5 million.

Radar image of the May 2008 supercell over Windsor, Colorado. 

While researching stories for my weather website, Wild West Weather, I read about a similar mile-wide tornado in a book by Rod Beemer called The Deadliest Woman in the West: Mother Nature on the Prairies and Plains. Beemer tells the story of a young man, Ely Moore, Jr., who traveled into the Kansas Territory during the summer of 1854.

Multi-vortex tornado in Dallas, Texas on April 2, 1957.

Ely Moore, Jr. was 21 years old that year. His father, Ely Moore, Sr., was a special agent for the confederated Indian tribes, which included the Miamis, Weas, Peorias, Kaskaskias, and Piankeshaws. Moore was asked to deliver a packet of letters from Washington to deliver to his father. The first stop on his journey was at the Miami Mission, 65 miles south of what is now Kansas City, and he arrived just before the annual buffalo hunt, which the tribes used to stock up on meat and robes for the winter months. Moore was invited to join the tribes on their hunt and he eagerly accepted.

Peoria Indian. Painting by George Catlin.

The Miami and four other tribes joined together in a group of 400 men and 50 women. They had 100 wagons with two oxen each and 200 pack ponies in addition to their hunting horses. They were headed for southwest Kansas, a place called "Blind River," where they expected to find vast herds of buffalo. The group was well-armed to protect themselves from any hostiles during their journey. I suspect they did not consider that hostile forces might come from the skies!

Buffalo in Wellington, Colorado. Photo by Darla Sue Dollman.

Nevertheless, three weeks into the hunt the weather turned unbearably hot. Even the buffalo seemed reluctant to move. Humans and animals alike slowed their movements to a crawl as they struggled with the slightest activity, including breathing. The description sounds very similar to what cowboys in the Old West referred to as a Blue Norther, a sudden rise in temperature followed by a quick drop in temperature and a severe storm.
Severe storm in the Sandia Mountains of New Mexico. Photo by Darla Sue Dollman.

The Indian chief called for the hunters to return to camp and Moore joined them. The chief pointed to a swarm of grasshoppers. Rather than stopping to devour everything in their path as grasshoppers will do when they transform into locust, this swarm seemed to be fleeing. The chief told the group he suspected a "Devil Wind" was coming and instructed everyone to prepare.
Grasshopper photo by Darla Sue Dollman.

This is the part that fascinates me. Clearly, these men and women had experienced this type of weather before. They knew exactly what to do to prepare for the coming storm and it took them nearly five hours to complete the process.

First, they moved the wagons into a circle formation and dug narrow trenches so each wagon wheel could be lowered to its axle into the trench. They used strips of buffalo hide to secure the wagons and wagon covers. The hunting horses were led into the center and the braves stood beside their horses through the storm. According to Moore's report, the value of these horses surpassed their usefulness in hunting. They were also considered to be "a desirable companion in the crossing-over journey." The women and children took shelter by lying down in the wagons. The cattle were rounded up and watched with double guard. This seems logical to me. The last thing you would want to have during a storm would be a cattle stampede inside a circle of wagons!
Wagon train, 1800s. Photographer unknown. 

The prairie land was silent. Not a sound from the birds and bugs--they had all moved on. The sky turned an eerie black, purple and green color, and anyone who has experienced a storm with tornadoes knows that color of green. It is something you never forget. The cloud moved forward and a faint rumbling sound could be heard. Moore looked around the camp at his companions who stood silent, confident and brave, prepared for the worst.

The first tornado captured by the NSSL doppler radar and NSSL chase personnel. The tornado is here in its early stage of formation. Union City, Oklahoma. May 24, 1973.

As the cloud grew closer, Moore explained, a strange electrical current whipped through the circle. According to Moore, "As electric sparks snapped from the tips of our horses' ears, the moaning, shivering creatures pressed close to their masters. The wheels of our wagons were circled by the electric fluid, and many bolts were drawn from our wagon-beds. Then came the wind, and with it hail of irregular shape and great size." The hail caused great harm and pain to the cattle and ponies, and undoubtedly to the men who were trying to protect them, as well. The hail also shredded many of the wagon covers.

Hail in Loveland, Colorado on July 13, 2011. Photo by Darla Sue Dollman.

When Moore looked up at the main tornado cloud moving toward them he estimated it to be a mile wide. At first, it appeared as if it would miss the wagons, then Moore noticed a second tornado, which he referred to as a "feeder of the parent dragon." The second tornado was set to hit the wagons head-on when it was suddenly sucked back up into the clouds and instead dropped sand, earth, grass and trees from the sky in large enough quantities to break a few of the wagon beds.

Union City, Oklahoma. May 24, 1973. 

Moore does not report any human fatalities, though a few of the cattle and ponies where injured severely enough that they were put down. The men and women repaired what they could and left the camp to continue their journey in the morning. They found the path from the tornado was more than a mile wide. They also found a few buffalo that had apparently been picked up by the tornado and crushed when thrown back to the ground.

Buffalo in Wellington, Colorado. Photo by Darla Sue Dollman.

The experience did not discourage Ely Moore, Jr. In fact, it inspired him. He fell in love with the great power of nature as displayed in the Kansas prairies and made his home there. He lived in Lawrence, Kansas until 1918 and died at the age of 84.

Dimmett, Texas, June 2, 1995.


  • Beemer, Rod. The Deadliest Woman in the West. Caxton Press. Caldwell, Idaho: 2006.


Indigo Red said...

Wow! We don't often think of tornadoes happening in the distant past and I've wondered what the Natives did at such times.

Darla, I've a nephew who told me he was taught in high school this past year that tornadoes didn't happen before the current "climate change". I'll have to show him this post.

Darla Sue Dollman said...

Yes, please do. There are many stories of tornadoes prior to the climate change. I can try to track down a few more, too.

Nigel said...

Another excellent read. I remember as a child going to visit my relatives in El Paso, Texas coming from near Superior, Wisconsin. That trip always took us down I35 and across US 54 into Kansas and sometimes in I40 through Oklahoma...there is no better place to see the awesome power of nature. The storms could be seen for hundreds of miles and for hours and hours gaining strength. All of this while traveling in a 1963 Volkswagen bus! Later years saw us in a new bus and then a Ford matter what the vehicle the beauty of it all was amazing. This brings me right back to those moments.

Darla Sue Dollman said...

I lived in the Texas Hill Country for five years and traveled six times a year to Colorado to visit my grandchildren. I would choose my route--either Oklahoma/Kansas or New Mexico--according to the weather, but Mother Nature has her own plans and in those five years of travel I encountered just about every weather event you can imagine, from gustnadoes to blizzards to dust storms. It's always a bit thrilling, fascinating really, to find you're being chased by a massive black cloud that spreads across the sky as far as you can see.

Tim Shey said...

I love that old photo in the upper right corner of that tornado in North Dakota.

I grew up in Iowa and only saw one tornado, but it didn't touch down. I hitchhiked and walked through Nashville, Tennessee in April 1998 and saw the damage that a tornado did a week earlier. I hitchhiked through Greensburg, Kansas and saw the damage the tornado did there in 2007. Locals told me that the tornado leveled 90 percent of the town. Here is a post from my blog describing Greensburg after the tornado:

"Greensburg, Kansas"

I remember I hitchhiked through Greensburg in 1996 and this lady stopped to give me a ride. I ran up to the car and she rolled down her window and she said, "Sir, if you don't kill me, I will give you a ride."

Well, I didn't kill her and we had a great talk. I guess I was the first hitchhiker she ever picked up. She bought a couple of Cokes for me and the next ride I got all the way to Southern California with a truck driver.

I remember Greensburg in 1996 with lots of trees. It looked a lot different in 2008--it looked like it had been carpet-bombed--like parts of Germany in 1945.

Darla Sue Dollman said...

Yes, that's how the fields looked leading to Windsor in the 2008 tornado, like they had been carpet-bombed. Everything was flattened, including the street signs, plastered to the ground and not a tree in sight. The tornado that hit Windsor, Colorado was strange because it hit around noon, which is uncommon for Colorado, and the tornado was moving in an odd direction, too. Luckily, most of the residents were at work and school.

Sara C. said...

ARGH! Today is the day I first create my own blog, and your blog is the recommendation for me by Google. Your blog's name really gets my interest as I know someone living in NM. I don't really have time to read everything here now, so I want to somehow like 'subscribe' your page like how you do on Facebook. The problem is I just don't know how!!! How frustrating! All I can do now is to save this as my favourite on my sidebar.

I guess I really suck at blog and internet stuff, and I'm 19!!! Gosh, worse than those cavemen.

Darla Sue Dollman said...

No, no, no. You're doing fine. The internet changes constantly and it's a learning process for all of us, promise. If you look on the right side of this post you will see a row of pictures. About halfway down there is a box where you can type in your email, then when I add a new post it will appear in your email. You'll do fine, Sara, I promise. It just takes a little time. And try not to get frustrated--blogging is supposed to be fun! :-)

Unknown said...

Loved it! Every word of it.

Sofia Yulandari said...

4m indo with love, nice info.

recumbent conspiracy theorist said...

Interesting for sure. The story illustrates how in tune the native peoples were with their environment. They knew the storm was coming well before it got to them.

I've seen more hail this past year here in Ohio than I ever have. As a cyclist it makes me nervous because I'm often out in the middle of nowhere.

Darla Sue Dollman said...

Yes, that's what interested me about the story, as well. I enjoyed reading about the preparations for the coming storm. They knew what they were facing by watching for signs, such as the drastic rise in temperature and insects fleeing the area. We lived in the Texas Hill Country this past year and experienced the worst drought I've ever seen, watching trees in our neighborhood literally turn brown and die in a matter of weeks due to the extreme heat, and yet, the few storms we had were so severe that I kept supplies in a closet at all times in case we needed a tornado shelter. I visited my children in Loveland, Colorado in July and we were caught in a sudden afternoon thunderstorm with hail of all sizes, from penny to golf ball, piled up so high on the lawn, doorways and windowsills it looked like snow, then a few minutes later the fast-moving storm raced into Greeley, the sky was clear, and the hail was gone within the hour, every last one melted. Odd weather, true, and frankly, I would be terrified if I was caught in one of these hail storms on a bicycle! But can we say this is a new experience? How long have scientists studied and tracked the weather in the United States? It's possible this is all part of a cycle. I am working on an article on Texas weather and the records and reports I've read from meteorologists show that even these extreme drought years show a pattern, a cycle.

Usenet said...

A great story, well written!

Cause and Effect said...

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Zetroc said...

Wow, this was really interesting! I've never really thought about such crazy weather happening in the past. My major encounters with tornadoes are pretty much nonexistent. The most extreme weather I've dealt with would be an ice storm when I was about 10, or an incredibly heavy rainstorm about three years ago. The ice storm added so much weight to a fairly large tree that it collapsed and almost landed on the house. The rain storm eroded away huge chunks of the road. When I stood in the deepest hole the road was at the same level as my waist!

Christmas dinner for a family, from a series of photos documenting Gen. John J. Pershing's 1916 Punitive Expedition into Mexico. ...