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Postcards: Call it a cyclone or a tornado, but the 1878 event left a swath of destruction in just three minutes

By Linda Emley

On Saturday June 1, 1878, a cyclone hit Richmond and it made national news. It was on the front page of the Chicago paper and other newspapers across the country .
So when did a cyclone become a tornado? I’m not really sure, but in 1939 when Dorothy went off to see the Wizard, it was a cyclone.
The 1881 Ray County History Book has a nine-page story about our cyclone. Only three years had passed, so I think it is safe to say the memories were still very vivid in their minds.
It reads like this: “For several days previous the weather had been unusually warm and sultry. The morning of June 1st was bright and tranquil, but later in the day clouds gathered, and early in the afternoon the wind, accompanied by a slight fall of hail, began gently blowing from the southwest. Within twenty to thirty minutes after the falling of the hail, the clouds in the southwest seemed to be falling apart for a moment or two, presenting ragged edges; then suddenly, streams began to shoot out from the margins of the clouds, and to mingle together by a twirling, intertwining motion.”
One newspaper wrote: “Eyewitnesses of the cyclone describe it as the color of steam, and add that at times a funnel shaped whirling cloud would open in places and emit what appeared like black smoke, then gather together again and with increased force continue on its march of destruction.”
It is estimated that it took the cyclone three minutes to pass through Richmond. The total property damage was $200,000 and one third of the town was destroyed.
We can’t help but compare this to the tornado that hit Greensburg, Kan. in 2007. The Richmond cyclone killed 20 people and wounded 50. The population of Richmond was 1,400. Greensburg’s population was 1,500 and 11 people were killed. It was classified as a EF5 tornado.
The Richmond cyclone was estimated to be an EF4 and maybe even an EF5. The difference between EF4 and EF5 is 166-200 mph instead of 200 mph. I doubt we could tell the difference, so let’s just say it was a very windy day in Richmond.
This is one of Milford Wyss’s best stories because he has used it to entertain the Rotary and other groups around town for many years. He said he did not know where his notes were, but we still talked for over an hour.
Here are two of his stories: The post office was where our 911 office is today. It was completely destroyed and a bundle of mail was found up north by Cowgill. At a house on Main Street, there was a former slave lady who was ironing clothes in her kitchen. She had a baby sitting on the kitchen table beside her. After the cyclone, the house was gone. The unharmed baby and table were sitting in the middle of Main street but the lady was never found.
If you’d like to hear more stories, you can go to the Ray County Library or the Ray County Museum and read the 1881 history book. There is another way to get the whole story and it is a lot more fun, and that is to go ask Milford .
Now we need a happy ending. According to the 1881 book, “Those who escaped threw open their doors, taking in the wounded and homeless. Everyone did all in his power to relieve the unfortunate sufferers. People from all parts of the country gathered in Richmond, eager to lend a helping hand.” There are two pages of city council minutes related to the cyclone. In four days, the council held five meetings, passed eight resolutions, formed two committees and made three motions and several appointments.
It is good to know that politics has not changed in 136 years.
NOTE: The Ray County Museum has a set of Stereoscope cards that show actual pictures of Richmond after the cyclone. The 1973 Ray County History Book has four pictures, but very little detail on the events.

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