A Day in the life...
First hand accounts from our local citizens
The accounts of the victims following the aftermath of the tornado on March 31, 1892 as told by the Wichita Daily Eagle, published on April 2, 1892.
"Thursday night at about half-past 9, I was called by Mr. Sorter, in whose hotel I was staying, to save myself." These were the words of Miss Ella Thornton of Towanda yesterday to a reporter for the Eagle. "He cried for me to get out of the house and I could feel it lifting and quivering. I ran to the north door and threw it open, and then I must say I passed through an experience that is the strangest of my life. My hand had scarcely flung the door back when I was caught up and wafted into the air like a feather; for a moment I was queered by the suddenness of the whirl, but I soon recovered sufficiently to see that I was burned upward by a irresistible force, amid a shower of boards, planks, chairs and household articles that I could easily distinguish in the flashes of the continuous lightning. My body was sometimes horizontal, sometimes my feet were up and sometimes my head. After what seemed to me an eternity, I saw a white object near me which proved to be a large pillow. This I threw both arms around, hoping that if I ever descended, it would help to break my fall. Soon, I was dropped head foremost; struck something, and that was all. Afterwards, they told me that it was a horse I fell upon. You see, I am not hurt badly. My neck is a little stiff. I was carried through the air two blocks.
The little town of Towanda yesterday presented the appearance of having been swept by the gigantic besom of some ferocious monster. But a few houses were left standing, and these showed the dire effects of the terrible storm. Everywhere were strewn the boards of the once happy homes and the household articles and decorations, which served to make them attractive and dear to their occupants. The site of the town was not covered with heaps of debris of fallen buildings; it was worse than that, it was "swept." Everything was flat on the ground. For miles beyond the town in the track of the storm articles and boards were picked up.
In one of the few remaining buildings which was until yesterday the local restaurant, on a few hard weather-beaten, blackened plants, lay three long suggestive forms, covered rudely with coarse blankets. The dead are:
Herschel Cupp, 21 years, incision in the back of the head.
James Bailey, 21 years, strangulation.
John Blake's baby, 6 months, head severed from body.
Mr. J.D. Godfrey, 78 years, injured internally.
Albert Barnes, Age 22, crushed by timbers.
The first of these, Herschel Cupp, a son of a prominent man, was pending the evening at the house of Mr. Kerr, when the storm struck. He must have got out into the street and was felled there. His body was picked up a thousand feet away in a ravine. His face showed numerous wounds and bruises.
The corpse of James Bailey had a horrible appearance and every feature was indicative of the horrible agony of his death. Bailey was a section hand in the employ of the Missouri pacific and was staying at the National Hotel. When his body was extricated from the ruins, it was found that he had fallen head foremost in a feather mattress and had smothered to death. He was an exemplary citizen. Bailiey's parents live in Guthrie.
Mr. and Mrs. John Blake's 6-month old baby met a ghastly death. It was decapitated. Early Friday morning the baby's head was picked up, but the body could nowhere be found. Finally it was picked up three hundred yards from where the head was found. The mystery to all is what cut the baby's head off. The guillotine never did a neater piece of work. Surgeons present said that the best master of the scalpel in the world could not have made a neater incision. In the temporary morgue the head and body were laid together and a very narrow ribbon tied about the baby throat would have entirely concealed the fatal would, and for all appearances, the little child might have been only asleep. The parents of the infant were among the wounded.
Dr. J. D. Godfrey was a retired physician of Towanda. He was an old man and liked by every one. He was invalid and was in bed when the raging blast struck his little home and wiped it from the face of the earth. He was picked up in the street bleeding at the lungs and died in a few hours. Even in the community that has been stricken to heavily, the loss of Dr. Godfrey is felt with particular keenness by his old friends and neighbors.
Albert Barnes, the fifth dead man lived on the John Kibby farm, eight miles south west of Towanda. Barnes was formally of Wichita. His house completely collapsed and the grinding timbers crushed the breath and life out of him.
THE HURT AND WOUNDED
The few houses that stood the strain of the wind were at once turned into hospitals. There are five of three places, and they were all crowded. Two in every bed and lying on blankets on the floor. They were some potable scenes; but the poor creatures were only too glad to have the doctors dress their wounds for the little relief it afforded them. Over in one corner on an improvised cot of two chairs, laid a little baby with its leg broken in two places; crying with its terrible pain; on the floor lay a little boy with his skull crushed in on his brain, smiling bravely a the doctor's anxiety for his relief; on the bed, a woman in the full bloom of life, with a hole through her lungs and another her stomach. Everywhere pictures of misery and resignation. The doctors say several cannot live. The list of the wounded contains:
Miss Annie Robbins, 35 years old, compound fracture of high arm, perforating wood under the collar bone piercing the lungs, bowls also pierced; may die. Miss Robbins was postmistress.
Miss. Fern Maxwell, 8 years, fracture of the skull; will probably die.
C.L. Wescote, 78 years, coal dealer, two scalp wounds, contusion of the back, bleeding at the lungs. Some hopes.
Miss Lucy Poorbaugh, 25 years, hips crushed, crippled for life.
Mrs. Hall's baby, leg fractured.
M.H. Gibbs, three ribs broken.
Effie Keer, gash in the head.
Mrs. Cary, three ribs fractured.
Mrs. Walter Mooney, fractured clavicle.
Walter Mooney, gash in the side; scalp wound.
Eddie Mooney, scalp wound.
Mrs. J.P. Keer, back and shoulder bruised; injured internally, will probably die.
Elmer Hall, badly bruised about the head.
Mrs. George Cornelius, three ribs broken.
William Mitchell, hurt internally.
Mrs. William Mitchell, collar bone broken; injured in back of head.
Sherwin Cupp, bruised about the head.
Mrs. Sorter, badly burned and hurt internally.
Mrs. Chanelle, badly bruised.
Mrs. Blake, internally injured.
Harry Roach, two ribs broken.
Mrs. Harry Roach, burnt and injured about the head.
Mr. and Mrs. Tedow and aged couple, both badly hurt.
Will Hagen, hurt on the side.
Mr. T.W. Sorter, shoulder crushed.
Scores of others were injured. Nearly every man, woman and child in the little town received a bruise of some kind and black eyes and bandaged heads were a common sight in the solemn little group that stood on the corner of what was once Main street and talked over their terrible trouble in lowered voices.
There was another peculiarity about the condition of the wounded which would appear strange to one who hadn't not hear other action of the elements. Most of the wounded are covered from head to foot with mud, and this, getting into the woulds, increased the aggravation of the suffering, until the medical corps could arrive. Dr. Russell, the only practicing physician in Towanda, was in the country with a patient at the time of the storm. Doctors Siegler, McGinnis, Koogler, Armstrong and Hunt of El Dorado, arrived about midnight from El Dorado. Yesterday morning they were reinforced by Doctors Van Nuys, McClees, Purdue, L. J. Jones, St. John, Minnick, Wilson and Taylor, who responded to the call from Mayor Carey, and were carried over to the scene of the disaster in Superintendent Russell Harding's special car, which he kindly tendered.
Most of the wounded are in their night clothes; only a few have on their every day dress, and most of the citizens who are unhurt are but scantily robed and in case of change to colder weather would no doubt bring much suffering. Nearly all personal property is destroyed or blown out of sight and the town will undoubtedly need aid and that quickly.
HOW THE STORM CAME
Most of the citizens of Towanda had gone to bed at the time. A steady gale was blowing from the south, but as that is not unusual at this time of the year, no great fear was felt by most of the inhabitants and many retired with no thought of how close, death and destruction were lurking. At 9:30 those who were up an awake, noticed that the wind all at once lulled and there was perfect quiet. Two or three old-timers knew the sign and went to their cellars. Then there was a distant roar, increasing every moment and coming nearer. Down it came growling whistling, roaring wild. "It sounded just like a sawmill," said one man. Telegraph poles were twisted out of the ground, the depot was lifted and carried eighteen feet and dropped. Farther up the town houses were lifted, twisted, crushed and blown away. Everybody in the storm agree on their point: the houses were picked up, then twisted and then crushed like cockie shells. The storm struck Towanda from the southwest, and went straight through the town. The greatest force of the storm seems to have been on the northwest part of town, as every house in that portion of the village is completely demolished and the remaining few which stood the tempest beat were in the southeast portion. The creamery was saved because it was full of ice. Granaries with corn on the ear withstood the gale well, but yellow piles of grain in the other places showed all that was left of granaries.
There are probably seventy-five or eighty buildings in Towanda, there are only a dozen left standing and they are in badly dilapidated condition. Main street, which was the business thoreughfare of the town has on each side two rows of frame business building totally destroyed.
The site of the livery stable is only marked by a pile of broken buggies and a dead horse or two in the pile of broken and split timber.
The office of the Towanda Herald was shown to have once existed by the conglomeration of type, a hand-press, a Bible and a few agricultural reports. An organ which had, by some strange freak, stayed into a print-shop, was also scattered about among the ruins.
The forge of Andy Johnson's blacksmith shop, as that of Jim Reid's, is the only indication that they ever existed.
A little farther down the street, an office is literally turned upside down and remains in that position.
The lumber yard is only a memory, and a stranger would never suspect that is was ever such, as there is not a board in sight. The fence posts were twisted out of the ground here and two thrashing machines were turned upside down, their wheels sticking up in the air.
A residence near this is entirely swept away and the maple trees, of good size, stripped of every limb and twig.
Two hotels present the very worst appearance. The are both two story buildings. Once was called the National and was run by Mr. and Mrs. Hager. It was here that James Bailey was killed and Miss Poorbaugh wounded. The house was a complete wreck.
The other is the Towanda House and was run by J. M. Sorter. The Towanda House was build over twenty years ago an dis one of the oldest frame buildings in the southwest. It, also, is totally destroyed.
Between this and the school house in the extreme northeastern portion of Towanda, not one house is left standing. Every fence, barn, tree, is leveled.
It is a singular fact, said to be characteristic of tornadoes, that the corner of the school house, in the direction of the storm, is uninjured while the opposite corner, away from the storm, is shattered badly, so much so in fact that the whole building has fallen in before this probably. The house is a large four room brick, two story building and in a heavy loss.
The whole town is almost a total loss; there being some fire insurance but with one exception, no cyclone policies. The exception is $1,000 on the National Hotel.
The village church is a total wreck.
THE FIRST NEWS
The first news of the disaster was received at El Dorado and an engine with medical relief was at once dispatched. An engine came over to Wichita and the station agent notified Mr. A. H. Webb of the Missouri Pacific who immediately repaired to the scene. "It was terrible," said Mr. Webb to the Eagle reporter, "The town was in ruins. The rain and hail came down in torrents. Women were running about the streets in their bare feet and nightgowns; lost children, all but naked, wandering about crying for help and those missing were thought to be dead and this was cause for fresh grief. Its was a scene of the wildest and most heart rendering confusion. I have never seen anything like it, and I can tell you I never want to again."
The hail was larger at Towanda than Wichita and the rain came down in sheets. Every flue in town was down and no fires could be built, and neither the bed clothing , which was wet, could be dried or the wounded who were soaked could be warmed. Its as indeed a precarious outlook.
J. M. Sorter, proprietor of the Towanda House, had a thrilling experience. He is a stalwart man of 62 and his story to the Eagle man: I feared trouble and was sitting up; when I heard the roar, I ran to my granddaughters' room and seized one of the 14 years, the other of 12, under each arm and rushed for the door. I felt the hotel raised up, twisted and then it went to pieces like a castle of cards. When I extricated myself from the rubbish, I found that my shoulder was crushed. I still had the two girls and seeing by the lighting that only thing about that was not moving was a refrigerator, I put them behind it, and covered them with a blanket to protect them from the rain and hail, which was dreadful. Just then I hear my wife calling me. She had just gained consciousness, and by digging in the rubbish I soon discovered that she was pinned down by the red hot stove!"
"Hurry," she said, "for goodness' sake, hurry! Its burning me!"
"I grasped a board and pried on the stove, but I didn't not have a fulcrum, and I was crazy with my wife's appeals for help. Finally, good fortune sent a box along, which I used as a fulcrum and got my wife out. I was nearly overcome myself now, and my shoulder was paining badly. I was just fixing up a shelter for my wife when I hear a voice calling me as if it were in the distance. I listened and discovered that it was away down in the ruins of the hotel. I went to work again and dug down to where M. H. Biggs, one of my lodgers, was pinned down by a fallen ceiling. I pried this up an asked him if it relieved him. He said no, and to hurry - the he could not breathe two minutes longer I then discovered that there was another ceiling was bearing on him. When I got this away, he felt relieved at once and I soon had him out. It was awful - awful - awful," added Mr. Sorter, "and the long wait through the night in the hail and rain was not the least terrible part of it."
"My wife and I were still up when the storm struck, " said E. E. Hall. "I was undressing one of the children preparatory to putting them to bed, when the house collapsed. I grabbed two of the children and, strange to relate, that is all I know, until I found myself at the neighbors in another part of town, still holding the babies and my wife still with me. I have been told that I went to Mrs. James' house, my wife following with the other child. I positively have no recollection of this. Neither has my wife. All these wounds on my head I remember nothing of. Mrs. James said the we both looked dazed and she took us to Mrs. Nance's. An hour or two later, I came to. I absolutely knew nothing all this time. I cannot understand it. How could I carry those children and keep my feet in an unconscious condition? The baby I carried had its leg broken; oh it is terrible, terrible."
"My wife," said E. G. Thornton, "was sitting on the edge of the bed undressing the baby, when we suddenly felt the house lifted, twisted and turned over. The next thing I knew, we were all sprawled out in the mud, the rain and hail and flying missiles increasing to our periled discomfiture."
James Porter, the well-known stockman of Towanda, had gone to bed. His wife and daughter with him. The first thing he knew the roof of his house went off, followed by the second story. He tried to go down stairs but found the way blockaded. He finally was thrown off with Mrs. Porter and the daughter, but they all escaped unhurt. Mr. Porter is especially happy that he did not go to the cellar as he intended; as the foundation of the house caved in and that would have meant certain death.
THE TRACK OF THE STORM
The storm has been traced. It probably started five miles east of Wichita, destroying Mr. Winder's place. Its course is shown southwest of Towanda by the demolition of the farm houses and barns of George Sneider, Ed Corbin, John Anderson, Peter Seitergreen and Johnny Hammon. The twister struck Towanda from the southeast, and a few feet beyond the school house, turned and went north. This is shown by the fact that the hay stack a few hundred yards northeast of the school house was untouched. The storm continued on its fearful journey six miles directly north, playing with the houses of J. E. Jarton, A Leimann, Colonel Crabtree, A.J. and J. K Ralston and Banker Gillespie's barn. Six miles north of Towanda the storm turned east and struck DeGraff, a small station north of El Dorado. At the time of the storm at Towanda, the suction of the air resulting, caused the wind to blow violently from the east at El Dorado and from the west at Benton, the storm making a vortex.
HISTORY OF TOWANDA
Towanda is the oldest town in this part of the country. It was founded by Isaac Mooney in 1856. Mr. Mooney still resides in Towanda and his house was truck by lightning but not otherwise injured in Thursday nights storm. For some years, J. R. Mead of this city had an Indian trading post at Towanda and it was the headquarters of the great southwest. At the time of its destruction it probably had 200 to 250 people. It is now doubtful that is till ever be rebuilt, and may become a mere flag station, where hitherto, it has been a very prosperous village.
"It as just twenty-one year ago this 17th of June," said an old settler at Towanda, yesterday that "this country was visited by a similar storm and El Dorado suffered greatly."