Damage of the courthouse after the 1886 tornado. Courtesy Missouri Valley Special Collections

When a devastating cyclone hit in 1886

It happened quite quickly. On May 11, 1886, the sun had been shining until until 10:30 a.m. when darkness enveloped the land block by block. A curious tinge in the atmosphere colored the sky a murky green.

The Devastating Cyclone of 1886 Claims Dozens of Lives

By Diane Euston

No one could anticipate the destruction that would rumble within the sky and wreak havoc on blossoming Kansas City. When people prepared to go to work and school that day, there was only the slightest risk of rain; the clouds had opened up to a pure blue sky with a light wind.

 By mid-morning, there was a change rumbling in the distance– a change most couldn’t have ever predicted. By 10:30 a.m. on May 11, 1886, there was cause for concern. It happened quite quickly; the sun had been shining until darkness enveloped the land block by block. A curious tinge in the atmosphere colored the sky into a murky green.

Tornado damage at 4th and Main, 1886

 People could sense the calamity. They began rushing in from the streets and crowding inside stores, homes, and office buildings. Within minutes, this peaceful spring day was replaced by death and destruction throughout the heart of the city, the worst being the loss of 15 children.

The Jackson County Courthouse

 As the sky became densely clouded, the Jackson County Courthouse at 2nd and Main was business as usual. The building was originally constructed as the Nelson Hotel. Forming somewhere over the south bank of the Missouri River, the swirling storm quickly transformed into a full-blown tornado. So much water was collected from the river that some at the time called this event “a hurricane.”

 Without much warning, the tornado made it onto land and into a direct path toward the courthouse. The Kansas City Star reported, “The force of the wind seemed to be confined to a limited district, and it sought, with almost human intelligence, the weakest buildings for its work of death.”

 Because the building wasn’t built as a government building, it was said that many beams and supporting structures were removed to make for larger spaces. The courthouse was no match for the winds that barreled through at 2nd and Main. Within seconds, the top two floors of the courthouse were blown into unrecognizable pieces. Two victims were claimed in its fury: deputy sheriff Henry Dougherty and deputy recorder William Hedges.

 Ironically trapped within the basement were five prisoners held in the courthouse. All escaped the wreckage and all but one returned later that night. Amazed at their survival and honesty, Kansas Citians brought cigars and fruit to them to congratulate them for their escape and return.

 Thousands of residents visited the wrecked building and to get a glimpse of what this powerful tornado had torn through in her glory.

 The courthouse had $10,000 in “cyclone insurance” that was used to build their next courthouse at 5th and Oak in 1892.

Smith & Moffatt’s, taken in 1885 before the tornado destroyed it.

Smith & Moffatt’s Coffee and Spice Company

 Directly across the street from the courthouse was Smith & Moffatt’s. As the cyclone steamed forward in its southwestern path, it smashed directly into the coffee and spice company owned by Frank O. Smith and Edwin Moffatt. As the winds ripped through the building, water poured within in.

 Smith was killed when a lead pencil drove directly through his heart, thrust there in the power of the gusts. A total of three people died at Smith & Moffatt’s. One worker, John Miller, was buried in the rubble for 45 minutes.

 William Roome watched from the confines of the courthouse jail as the tornado tore down its southwestern path.  Roome had been an employee of Smith & Moffatt’s, tasked with being a debt collector. In 1885, Roome was charged with embezzlement when he got drunk one night and spent some of the money he had collected for the company. When he was unable to pay it back, Moffatt threw the book at him. He was sentenced to six months in jail.

 On the day of the tornado, Roome had two months left to serve. As he was able to get free from the rubble,  Roome ran straight for the debris of his former employer and saw men struggling to get free. Without much thought, Roome began digging out men whose cries he could hear. The first man he was able to set free was none other than Moffatt.

 The following day, Moffatt went to the jail and asked for  Roome, his embezzler-turned-hero, to be set free. With tears in his eyes, Moffatt was able to return the favor of his life with a shortened prison sentence.

Haar Overall Factory

 As rain and hail were followed with gusts of wind over 85 miles per hour, the tornado made its way toward the overall factory at 110 W. 3rd St. The three story building housed Graham Paper Co. on the first and second floors while the overall factory occupied the top floor.

 On any given day, the overall factory employed 25 women. Like many of the buildings that booming Kansas City built in haste, this three-story building was not built for durability. Forewoman Ina Bowes was crushed to death along with four other female employees. One man was killed as the overall factory tumbled to the ground.

Upon examination after the storm of the overall factory, mortar between the brick was deemed “absolutely useless” and “ the bricks might as well have been piled up without mortar.”

As the storm moved on, the muddy streets of Kansas City turned into small rivers as hail pelted the devastation below. The tornado continued on toward its deadliest intersection.

Lathrop School

 Fourteen-year-old Frank Askew was in charge of ringing the bell at recess for Lathrop School at 8thand May St. The three-story school had been in operation for 16 years, serving the elite Quality Hill community. Just a few years’ earlier. it had been under examination for not being structurally sound. The school ignored the warnings and classes continued amidst speculation.

 Askew rang the bell for students to come back in from recess, the changing skies foreshadowing what was about to begin. Some students ran home while others sought shelter with their teachers inside the building. When they huddled inside their classrooms, it was so dark they couldn’t see across the room.

 Younger children were taken to the first floor as they noticed the bell tower above had begun to sway. Some young students ran from the room–a morbid mistake.  On the second floor, Askew and two others were hiding under desks when a teacher screamed, “Jump boys, jump!” The ceiling bulged down and the floor gave way as Askew jumped into the lower level classroom amidst debris. Children fell into the basement as the middle section of the school was a bullseye for the tornado, crashing the bell tower and center roof down upon screaming children.

 On the 50th anniversary of the 1886 tornado,  Askew recalled, “I have awful recollection of those children throwing up their hands and starting for the door when that whole mass from the upper room fell through and enveloped them.”

 Fifteen children were crushed and killed at Lathrop School, a tragedy striking the hearts of some of Kansas City’s leading families. Over 20 children who survived the tumbling building were trapped under tons of timbers and the belfry that once stood proudly in the center of the school. The bell itself was found 20 yards away from where it had chimed just minutes earlier.

 In true Kansas City fashion, people from all backgrounds emerged from their hiding places and ran to assist firemen and doctors as they advanced to Lathrop School to dig out the screaming children.

 The night before this devastating tornado, two best friends, Josie Mastin and Bessie Inscho had spent the night together. They were said to be inseparable friends, and when the 11 year olds were found in the rubble, they were in “a loving embrace.” Because of their connection, the families decided to bury the two little girls in the same grave at Union Cemetery.

The Aftermath of Destruction

 The school board denied reports that Lathrop School had been condemned, and they claimed that they made efforts to reinforce the tower. Regardless, because of this devastating event, all bell towers at schools across Kansas City were removed.

A portion of the Hannibal Bridge was destroyed.

 In addition to the death toll of at least 25, numerous houses were destroyed in this tornado’s rage. A portion of the Hannibal Bridge was destroyed, virtually cutting Kansas City off from railroad business. Telegraph lines were severed in two, therefore eliminating communication from cities far and wide.  One business, Parker’s Gallery, decided to make some money off the tragedy. They sold photographs of the ruins of the courthouse, Lathrop School, overall factory and spice factory for 25 cents apiece within days of the destruction.

 This tornado remains as one of the deadliest tornadoes in the area’s history even though it was far from the most powerful. Just three years earlier, a cyclone swept a large path of damage through the new metropolis yet the loss of life was minimal. Because this tornado seemed to have an eye on the weakest structures standing and its unforgiving route targeted helpless children, May 11, 1886 went down in the books as one of the worst natural disasters of the city’s short history.

 Those who experienced the terrors of the tornado told of seeing parts of buggies, signs and building parts flying through the air like straws, carrying death and destruction in its path. The Kansas City Star reported that it “leveled buildings as though they were only eggshells.”

 In 1886, the only warning people had of impending weather was by keeping one eye at the sky. Sirens, advanced warnings and tornado drills in schools were far from creation. But this horrific event snatched dozens of lives from the growing population of Kansas City and lived on as a vivid memory for all who were a part of this fateful day.

Diane writes a blog on the history of the area. To read more of the stories, go to www.newsantafetrailer.blogspot.com

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