Nothing new under the sun . . . or stormy sky

POMEROY, Iowa — This town of 700 people in northwest Iowa is surrounded by farmland, acres and acres of green corn plants just breaking the black soil in late May, forming straight lines across the endless landscape.

Wet, stormy weather meant a late planting this spring and some fields in May remained still untouched from last fall. But this county calls itself “The Golden Buckle on the Corn Belt,” and the harvest will be bountiful by fall.

The land is flat here, flat like people who haven’t seen it can’t even imagine. In every direction, the only trees are those planted as windbreaks around homes. You can look in the distance all around you and see the horizon where the black earth meets the blue sky. Roads run from one end of the county to the next with hardly a bump or a bend, so straight the only time you turn your steering wheel is to dodge a pheasant that is half-walking, half-flying, half-too-slow across the long highway.

Here and there plumes of dirt rise behind a tractor plowing a field miles away. The wind blows almost constantly, so it’s no surprise to see fields filled with big, sleek white, metal windmills spinning almost silently among the corn plants. There’s a new crop in rural Iowa: energy.

Since my wife, Jeanne, and I visited here this May there have been a large number of tornadoes and severe thunderstorms working their way through Iowa, into Illinois and Indiana, where we live. There have been storms in Missouri and Wisconsin. Lake Delton in the Wisconsin Dells, where we vacationed when we were kids, burst through its banks and is gone. A whole lake is gone! You can hardly turn on a TV news show or pick up a newspaper this month without seeing video and photos of destruction and human suffering in the wake of storms and flooding.

All news, like politics, is local, but in these days of incredible communications technology all news is also national. We can see individual county tornado and severe storm watches posted on national networks like CNN and the Weather Channel. Nothing bad happens anywhere in this country without the national news media telling us about it again and again, over and over, hour by hour.

While in Iowa, Jeanne and I stopped in Pomeroy to visit a cemetery on the outskirts of town where we found the grave sites of a number of her ancestors. Two tall monuments topped by crosses marking the final resting places of Margaret Quinlan Doyle and Patrick Doyle were of special interest, because two years ago Jeanne and I stood on farm field outside of Limerick, Ireland in the very place where Margaret’s family had lived before immigrating to the new world and a new life. Over time, the two old monuments have leaned slightly toward one another for the journey through eternity, just as I imagine Margaret and Patrick learned together through their lives.

There were many more markers from my wife’s family in this cemetery including Agnes Quinlan, her brother Edward Doyle and her infant, Michael. These three all had the same date of death inscribed on their headstones — July 6, 1893. It’s a sight that has stayed with me these past few weeks as we followed the storms rampaging through Iowa, Missouri, Wisconsin Illinois, Indiana and elsewhere.

On July 6, 1893, Pomeroy was struck by a tornado that measured F5 on the Fujita scale. F5 is a tornado with 261-380 mph winds capable of “incredible damage.” According to a website it means: “Strong frame houses lifted off foundations and carried considerable distances to disintegrate; automobile sized missiles fly through the air in excess of 100 yards; trees debarked; steel reinforced concrete structures badly damaged; incredible phenomena will occur.”

With a damage path 55 miles long, the tornado, or “cyclone” as the called it then, destroyed 80 percent of the homes in Pomeroy, killed 71 people and injured 200 more. Seventy-one deaths. That was 8 percent of the total population of Pomeroy. Almost one-third was killed or injured. No families escaped the suffering.

Among those who died were Agnes Quinlan and her baby. Her husband, Michael who is called Mike in newspaper accounts, had kidney and scalp wounds. He was 24 years old and with his loss, his emotional wounds ran far deeper.

The loss to Margaret and Patrick Doyle that day was unimaginable, but chillingly common in that storm. They lost a daughter, Agnes, a son, Edward, and a grandchild, Michael.

Here is how this “cyclone” was described in one newspaper of the day: “One of the most dreadful calamities in the history of the state visited this section last evening in the shape of a devastating cyclone. Owing to the demoralized conditions of telegraph wires it is impossible as yet to get all the details. As far as can be learned the cyclone started southwest of there at about seven o’clock last evening. It swept almost due east leveling everything in its path for a width of a thousand yards, killing and maiming the inhabitants in the towns and thickly populated farming districts. The loss of life is known to be very great, though actual details are far from full. The loss of property is beyond estimation.

“As soon as the news of the disaster was learned, special trains with physicians and nurses were sent from here and Fort Dodge, and every able-bodied man in the vicinity lent a helping hand to the wounded and dying. The wounded were found lying about the streets beseeching help. It was several hours before the condition of affairs was fully known here. The town was in total darkness, the streets were filled with wrecks of homes and business houses. The scenes were appalling as the men, with lanterns, went about among the debris. In some instances entire families were wiped out, the mangled remains being found in the ruins of their homes. The work of rescue was slow and the trainloads of helpers made little headway.

“The south half of the town was completely razed to the ground. A church just outside the track of the storm, was turned into a hospital. Here the surgeons worked by the aid of lanterns and lamps. Those with broken bones were stretched upon the pews, while those less severely injured were compelled to lie on the floor and await their turns. The dead were laid out upon the ground in a vacant lot at the edge of the devastated district. Through the aisles between bodies the survivors passed, looking for loved ones.

“At the approach of the storm, which took on a greenish tint, followed by darkness and what appeared to be a column of smoke, many sought shelter in cellars. Others mounted horses to flee from the path of the destruction.”

Here is another newspaper account: “Pomeroy, Iowa, July 8 – The dead here now number forty-four. It is one of the saddest scenes ever witnessed, and even the strongest are compelled to turn away from some of the sights at City Hall hospital where the worst of the injured are. Every dwelling left standing will be termed a hospital as all have been opened to the sufferers and contain from two to eight each.

“Governor Boles is still on the ground doing all in his power for the comfort of the wounded. Physicians and nurses are needed badly. Only ten doctors are here today and calls cannot be promptly answered. The neighboring towns and cities are providing nurses liberally but more are needed.

“The work of burying the dead at Pomeroy has commenced. Seventeen were interred late yesterday and twenty more will be buried today. A number of bodies will be shipped away. The scenes are so heart rendering as relatives from a distance come to gaze upon the features of their dead. Two hundred and eight residences were swept completely from the face of the earth. Not a board was left. Hardly a residence remains untouched and the business portion is so badly wrecked it can be said with truth that Pomeroy is no more.

“The dead carcasses of horses, cattle and hogs are being taken from the ruins today and buried. Company G of the state militia, of Fort Dodge, assisted by companies from Storm Lake and Perry, are on the guard night and day. It seems as though as many fatalities resulted from going into cellars as from staying above ground. The seven churches of the town are all demolished and no services will be held tomorrow. All is sadness and gloom.”

One more account: “The awful work of the Pomeroy cyclone of last Thursday evening continues to be the principal topic of conversation and newspaper comment throughout Iowa and the continent. And well it may be, for a more terrible example of the wonderful power of warring elements is seldom witnessed.

“Where stood, shortly before 7 o’clock in the evening of July 6, a hundred or more pleasant, comfortable, and some even luxurious, homes, a few minutes later was a wilderness of broken timbers and debris, with wounded, bleeding, dying and dead humanity upon every hand. No pen could ever picture the awful terror of that night. Strong men were pinned to the earth and forced to hear the shrieks and groans of the wounded and dying while unable to lend a helping hand.

“Fathers and mothers, husbands, brothers and sisters searched in vain amid the darkness and ruins for their loved ones, and children wept for their parents lying cold in death. Searching parties were organized as speedily as possible, but no lights were at hand and but comparatively little could be done toward securing the wounded until the welcome dawn appeared.

“Then the scene which met the eyes of the uninjured, must have made the strongest feel sick at heart. But willing hands soon conveyed the wounded and dead to some of the few buildings which remained standing in the town, and people poured in from the surrounding country and neighboring towns to render much needed assistance.

“From the narratives of many who saw the storm cloud it appears that it was tornado of the compound sort — that is, it varied from the true balloon tornado in that it had four stems or funnels, instead of only one. At some places along the track of the storm it seems that one or more of these funnels simply touched the tops of the trees, while another, perhaps, would sweep the ground.”

The Pomeroy storm made news “throughout the continent,” including the New York Times, and it’s likely this was a story that went around the world, although the telling would have taken much longer 115 years ago than it would today.

There is little evidence of the tragedy in Pomeroy today. The town looks the victim of time more than anything else. As it takes fewer and fewer people to farm these thousands and thousands of acres of rich, black soil, young people have grown and left Pomeroy for other opportunities. Only a few buildings still stand in town: the grain elevator; a brick church building that is just a shell, the stained glass windows removed to be used elsewhere. A town library stands as a reminder that people here are proud of their community.

There is just one reminder of the storm that killed 71 people. It is the repeated date — July 6, 1893 — on headstones in two cemeteries at the outskirts of town.

It was a day of unimaginable devastation and human sorrow; a day like so many others, ultimately lost in the sweep of time. We shouldn’t dwell on tragedy. But we shouldn’t forget it either.

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