The 1896 Iowa-Illinois “cyclone” map

Starting late Sunday night, May 24, 1896, and into the next morning, a massive tornado churned across northeast Iowa and into northern Illinois, from near Des Moines to Chicago. The storm caused the death of over 40 people, injured scores, killed horses, hogs, and cattle, and left extensive damage to homes, barns, railroads, bridges, fences, fruit orchards, windmills, and more.

The Chicago Chronicle (available to subscribers) of Tuesday May 26 ran two full pages of detailed stories of the storm’s passage through the region, including lurid descriptions of deaths and injuries. The account of the twister itself reads like a disaster movie script. In Iowa, for example:

“Here it came with such awful force that people who saw it say that the great black funnel hanging down from a blacker heaven tore across the prairie at a great speed than the fastest train. It is believed it moved at this time about a mile a minute, the great funnel of wind and rain and lightning seething and roaring and scattering ruins in its wake. Nothing was left in its path.”

 “The storm,” continued this account, “made a track nearly a mile wide, sweeping everything from the earth, even the bark from trees.”

As the gale approached Chicago, the paper described it in martial terms:

“The sheets of electric flame were accompanied by the crashing of thunder. One followed another with the rapidity, the deafening tumult and jarring concussion of a firmament of artillery in the heat of action.”

The paper ran a hand-drawn map showing the tornado’s wave-like track (along with hand-drawn renderings of destroyed homes and barns), traveling the 330-mile distance from Des Moines to Chicago.

Chicago Chronicle, May 26, 1896, p. 2, via

The hash marks denoting the storm’s path are drawn to suggest or exaggerate the cyclone’s enormous width. A separate circle of marks covers the town of North McGregor, Iowa, where a cloudburst seemingly unrelated to the tornado itself triggered flooding that killed 16 more people.

The towns marked on the map under the storm’s path are detailed in the article, relating the deaths (some horrific), the injuries, and losses to property. The map is a guidebook to a tremendous force of nature. Where the storm’s path peters out just west of Chicago is the city of Elgin, Illinois, which in 1900 had a population of about 22,000, and was rapidly growing. It was here that the storm entered the lives of my relatives, a 3x great-uncle named Albert Marckhoff and his family (I previously told the immigration story of Albert, his siblings, and his parents).

In 1896, Albert became the first superintendent of the Bluff City Cemetery, which in 1889 became Elgin’s new municipal resting ground, replacing the older city cemetery. He held this post until his death 1914. He lived in a sexton’s home on the grounds with his second wife Bertha (Long), and their three children: Frank (18 when the tornado hit), Bertha (about 15), and Mabel (7). Frank and Bertha’s mother—Bertha Schuneman—had died in 1885.

“When the storm reached this city [Elgin] shortly after 1 o’clock this morning,” the Chicago Chronicle reported, “it had all the fury of a cyclone. Its greatest force was experienced along the southern edge of the city. In its mad passage from the insane asylum, at the southwest corner of Elgin, to the bicycle factory at the southeast corner, which it wrecked, it killed one man, injured over a scores of persons and wreaked damage to property aggregating over $150,000.”

The tornado hit the cemetery directly.

Chicago Chronicle, May 26, 1896, p. 2, via

The house also took a direct hit, and a frightening scene was described:

Chicago Chronicle, May 26, 1896, p. 2, via

In the accounting of Elgin’s death and destruction, Bertha Marckhoff, the teenaged daughter, was described as “bruised by falling timbers and was unconscious for some time; may recover.” She did recover, and a few years later went to New Mexico, where she worked for many years as an employee of the U.S. Forestry Service and married an Irishman named John Kerr, who was at the time a notable person in the Forestry Service.

Bertha’s brother Frank went on to become a machinist at the Elgin National Watch Company and died at the old age of 93, married but having no children. Their younger half-sister Mabel, also lived a long life, dying in 1973 at the age of 84, mother of two daughters and at least eight grandchildren. At this time, it is not known when Bertha died, but as of 1945, she was still in Albuquerque, and left no heirs.

— Fred Dews

This post is for Amy Johnson Crow’s “52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks” challenge on week six’s theme, “Maps.”

2 thoughts on “The 1896 Iowa-Illinois “cyclone” map

  1. What an amazing experience this family had, with no warning of an approaching storm I can only imagine the panic that would ensue. I wonder if they ever spoke of the night they spent in that burial vault. Thanks for sharing.


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