Sunday, June 3, 1860, was like any other day across eastern Iowa and northwest Illinois. The heat was described as sultry, oppressive and lifeless that day. That Sunday afternoon thunderstorms began in central Iowa with hail large enough to break windows.
At Fort Dodge and Webster City the hail was reported to be up to two inches in diameter. “This suggests that these early storms quickly became supercellular, since generally rotating updrafts are needed to produce hail larger than golf ball size,” according to the weather service.
The 1860 storm moved across Iowa causing damage to many farms. There were 20 fatalities in Clinton County. At 6:30 p.m. the tornado entered Camanche, Iowa, with its full fury as the wind was said to be so loud it blotted out all other sound. The “Lyons City Advocate” reported Camanche was literally blown to pieces. Hardly a building was left standing as the center of town took a direct hit.
After striking Camanche, it swept east dumping debris and homes into the Mississippi River and drowning their occupants. A passing raft on the river was hit. Out of 26 men on the raft, three survived.
The tornado then continued across the river to Albany. Since the town was on a bluff, there was an unobstructed view of the onrushing storm coming from the west. Most people there were able to take cover but the storm claimed more than 10 lives.
Also destroyed near Albany were barns and outhouses. Horses and cattle were killed. The personal property of most inhabitants was swept away amounting to thousands of dollars in losses. A majority of the 900 inhabitants were left in utter destitution. People crowded into partially repaired buildings. Some homes now had three families in them. Some people lived in boarded shanties. It was said to be the worst disaster in the history of the country.
The tornado continued eastward. It killed four people near Morrison. Its path went through Como, near Sterling and south of Dixon, killing at least eight more people. It tracked through Harmon and Marion Townships; passed two miles north of Amboy and likely dissipated near Shabbona.
In summary, according to the NWS Quad Cities forecast office, the most devastating part of the supercell tracked over 200 miles from New Providence, Iowa, to near Shabbona. It had a forward speed of around 50 mph. The rapid movement of the tornado and lack of organized weather reporting system resulted in a catastrophe for those downstream of the initial touchdown.
The tornadoes claimed near 140 lives and injured about 300. Until the Tri-State tornado, The Great Tornado of the Northwest claimed more farmers than any other tornado in history. It is not possible to assign a rating, but it is likely it was EF-2+, according to the National Weather Service. The rating would mean there would have been 111-135 mph three-second wind gusts.
To this day the Camanche tornado ranks as one of the worst tornado disasters this country has ever seen.