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|The Great Natchez Tornado of 1840 -- Part 1|
THE DAY 'DARKNESS' OVERSPREAD THE HEAVENS AT NATCHEZ; EYEWITNESS ACCOUNTS OF THE SECOND DEADLIEST TORNADO IN U.S. HISTORY
(First of a two-part series)
On the morning of Thursday, May 7, 1840, Timothy Flint and his son James, were among the guests lodging at the Steamboat Hotel, located under-the-hill at Natchez.
Flint, a Harvard grad, retired minister and a successful writer of novels and nonfiction, was on a long journey to his childhood home in Massachusetts and waiting for a northern-bound steamboat to arrive. His son, who lived in Natchitoches, had accompanied Flint down the Red River and up the Mississippi to Natchez where he planned to bid his ailing 60-year-old father good-bye.
Elsewhere in Natchez, Dr. Henry Tooley, a 68-year-old former preacher himself and still a dutiful Methodist, was busy at home. Active in city government, a Mason, an advocate of temperance, Tooley was a meteorologist and he noticed the heavy feel of the air on this spring morning.
Across the river at Vidalia, Concordia Parish Judge George Keeton was going about his normal routine. He had been on the bench since 1836 and was known as a "noble and esteemed man," according to the Natchez Free-Trader. He and attorney David Stacy were sitting down for a bite to eat.
Concordia historian Robert Dabney Calhoun said Stacy was "one of the foremost lawyers in Louisiana in his day, and was one of the wealthiest planters and business men in this section of the country." Stacy was one-half of the most famous law firm in the parish during the 19th Century -- Stacy & Sparrow (Edward Sparrow).
Three steamboats were docked under-the-hill -- the Hinds, the St. Lawrence, and the Prairie, which had just arrived from St. Louis. Also docked was the Mississippian, a vessel which served as both a hotel and a grocery. As far as the eye could see were flatboats, at least 60, most filled with "upland produce," and manned by scores of men.
Some of the flatboats had recently been moved down from Vicksburg by their owners to avoid a special tax placed on "trading flatboats," according to Floyd's "Steamboat Directory." Because of that, the number of vessels at Natchez "was much larger than usual, and at that time it (Natchez) was the great center of flatboats anyway."
Timothy Flint said the morning "had been excessively sultry. The sky was overcast...with a sort of dusty haze (and) thick clouds -- and the sky from 9 to 1 was a continual rumble of a hundred low thunders all melting into each other..." The temperature was in the mid-60s.
Flint said that at "half after one, there sat at the hotel table, I suppose, fifty guests. The thunder had within a few minutes become severe, and the darkness so great as to require candles." But storm clouds, no matter how menacing, rarely changed routines in those days and nobody was especially concerned.
"I finished a hasty dinner and went through a reading room, and a beautiful bar-room to the front door looking up the street, for it was Natchez under the hill," said Flint. Though he was looking out to see the bustling activity at the wharves along the shoreline, instead he saw a monster cloud rushing up the river enshrouding everything in its wake in blackness.
PITCH DARKNESS, A ROARING ABOVE
There were many who witnessed this fierce act of nature.
As the tornado approached, in another part of town, Dr. Tooley noticed that the barometer began to fall rapidly. He quickly opened the windows and doors in his home. His previous studies had lead him to believe that in cases where houses were demolished by tornadoes that it was due to the "sudden expansion of air within, caused by instantaneous rarefaction of the eternal atmosphere."
At 1:45 p.m., Tooley said the upper clouds took on "an almost pitch darkness, curling, rushing, roaring above" while lower clouds turned a "lurid yellow, dashing upward." As the storm approached town "a blackness of darkness overspread the heavens," and the wind suddenly veered to the southeast "attended with such crashing thunder as shook the solid earth."
Throughout town, despite the intermittent rain, most of the time heavy, people continued about their living. The steam-powered Vidalia ferry was loaded with passengers and horses and crossing the Mississippi.
"At 2:10 p.m.," recalled Dr. Tooley, "the tornado burst upon the city, dashing diagonally through it, attended with such darkness, roaring and crashing, that the citizens saw not, heard not, knew not the wide wasting destruction around them."
"I saw a terrific looking black cloud," said Timothy Flint, "as though a well defined belt of black broad cloth, seeming a mile and a half wide, shooting up the river bluff with fearful velocity. At the end it poured out dark wreaths, resembling those of the steam-boat pipe."
Flint instinctively turned and ran to the reading room of the Steamboat Hotel where he had last seen his son James. What no one knew was that the second deadliest tornado in the history of the United States had arrived.
The Natchez Free-Trader reported that there had been a "continuous roaring of thunder to the southward, at which point hung masses of black clouds, some of them stationary, and others whirling along with undercurrents, but all driving a little east of north. And there was evidently much lighting, the continual roar of growling thunder, although noticed and spoken of by many, created no particular alarm."
TWISTER ROARED OUT OF CONCORDIA
"The first traces of the tornado," said the newspaper, were seen 10 miles below Natchez, coming out of Concordia Parish where it swept across Natchez Island, crossing at a point below the plantations of Peter M. Lapice, who owned both Arnolia and Whitehall.
Along the way, said the New Orleans Bee, the storm sucked trees out of the ground, stripped others of limbs and branches, ripped out fences on many plantations and leveled cabins, plantation homes and crops.
Fifteen miles below Natchez, the steamer Maid of Orleans, which departed town a short time earlier, had just made the bend above Ellis Cliffs when the twister cruised by just to the north. So severe was the storm, a traveler onboard said "we landed and lay all night near the cliffs."
According Floyd's Steamboat Directory, the passenger said the "storm seemed to have struck the foot of Natchez Island first, which was then covered with a heavy growth of young cotton wood, from three to six inches in diameter. They were cut off 8 or 10 feet from the ground as clean and as evenly as could have been done with an ax, and at a little distance resembled a big field of corn, with the fodder just cut, much more than a young forest of cottonwood prostrated...The uniformity of which the whole island was swept was the principal novelty."
Jim Barnett, in his book on the Natchez Indians said Natchez Island, "a familiar landmark on some 18th and 19th century maps of the Mississippi...has become fused with the west bank and is no longer an island." Located across the river is Carthage Point in Mississippi.
The twister raced upriver, shredding timber on both shores, and first struck Natchez a mile and a half to the south, not far from the Briers, which suffered only minor damage, before leveling Charles B. Green's mansion, Bellevue, and the "the ancient forest in which it was embosomed..."
By this time, the monster tornado was two miles wide, slamming Vidalia and Natchez at the exact moment. When it hit, reported the Natchez Free-Trader, the Mississippi "swelled instantly" by a "height of six or eight feet."
At the Steamboat Hotel, Timothy Flint shouted for James, while Mrs. Alexander, the wife of the hotel's owner, embraced her two children tightly in her arms. The hotel was their home.
"James, take my arms, son," shouted Timothy Flint. The two, like many others, were trying to get out of the hotel and onto the street as the building began to shake. Just as they arrived at the front door, the windows and doors blew in. In the chaos, Flint noticed that the boats in the river were being tossed about like corks "and the air was black and full of flying fragments."
The Free-Trader said that the "dinner bells in large hotels had rung and most citizens were sitting at their tables." But soon, said the newspaper, "the air was black with whirling eddies of walls, roofs, chimneys and huge timbers from distant ruins...all shot through the air as if thrown from a mighty catapult." The paper said the tornado destroyed everything in its path with the "explosive force of gunpowder."
GREAT PANIC AT MOMENT OF IMPACT
People in the hotel began to panic as they rushed for the front door. Almost immediately, the passageway became jammed and, said Flint, "kicking, fighting, and cursing ensued." Some were "trampled under foot," while others, like the Flints, were thrown "over their heads" to a position "where we were destined to be saved. It was between the bar room and the reading room."
Flint felt one of the building's pillars and wrapped his arms around it thinking that he was saved. But the "next moment every thing came down with a crash like the blow of a hammer, and the whole pile, chimneys and all, were packed as closely as if they had been taken down and piled. Water poured upon us like a torrent, and we were as dark as Egypt.
"I found myself alive though much bruised and crushed, and a nail had gone through my hat and grazed my temple, so as to cause some bleeding. My first word was for 'James! James! are you alive?'
There came a quick reply: "I am. Are you living, Father?"
For an half an hour they lay in the rubble, having been saved "by the arching of two or three beams, that resisted all that came upon them." With a space of four inches above their bodies, James "crawled through the mud" to the sound of his father's voice. The two held hands in the blackness until help arrived.
As they waited for rescue, they heard the screams and pleadings for help from throughout the rubble of the hotel. When they were pulled to safety, Flint realized that he and his son were among the lucky ones. James' injury was almost identical to his father's. The "crown of his hat was cut from his head, just grazing the top of his skull."
Across the river, Concordia Judge James Keeton lay dead in the ruins. Attorney David Stacy crawled from the rubble shaken but alive.
In Natchez, Dr. Tooley survived the storm as did his house.
The Flints watched as efforts began immediately to locate the injured and dying who were screaming for help from beneath the rubble. Timothy Flint said the "whole spectacle was one of sickening horror."
In the "ruins" of the hotel, the owner, Mr. Alexander, and the bartender were among the few "dug out alive," said the Free-Trader. So was Mrs. Alexander, who was severely injured. As the terrified woman was uncovered, rescuers had to wrestle from her arms her two precious children, both dead.
Flint stood outside in the drenching rain covered with mud. He was hours away from finding dry clothes or a warm shelter. All about was utter chaos. Those unable to assist in rescue efforts walked about in a daze.
Mothers called out for their children.
Children cried for their mothers.
One boy, according to an account of the storm in a Philadelphia newspaper, "was hurled up into the air, and after being taken half a mile was lodged in a tree."
In this disaster, a rare thing occurred -- the dead, which reached into the hundreds, outnumbered the wounded. The devastation caused people to fall to their knees in shock and disbelief. In a few hours, even before all of the screams of the trapped were hushed, the smell of death began to rise from the debris.
(Next week: The aftermath of this catastrophe.)
|Frank Morris Murder Series|