This is a line drawing of the original St. Vincent's Catholic Church, built in Cape Girardeau in 1838. The stone edifice was destroyed by a tornado in 1850. (Southeast Missourian archive)
I heard a comic once refer to mobile home parks as "tornado magnets." In the winter of 1850, however, it must have seemed to Cape Girardeau residents as if Mother Nature had it in for religious institutions.
On N0v. 27, 1850, a tornado reached out and destroyed St. Vincent Catholic Church and a Methodist church and damaged St. Vincent's College and St. Vincent's Young Ladies Academy. In addition, it did more damage in downtown Cape Girardeau, before crossing the river into Illinois. At least one man was killed at the college.
Judith Ann Crow, longtime librarian at the Missourian, noted the centennial of the tornado's devastation in a story published in the Southeast Missourian on Nov. 25, 1950.
FIRST TORNADO HIT CAPE 100 YEARS AGO
By JUDY CROW
Cape Girardeau, protected as it is by the foothills of the Ozark mountains, is not usually a blustery point, yet it is in a storm region. It has experienced first hand all the myriad varieties of weather which it seems were invented especially for the vast Mississippi Valley.
Just 100 years ago Monday, Nov. 27, 1850 the tiny river village was nearly devastated by a tornado, the first of which we have an appreciable record. Miss Winifred Johnson, for many years an instructor at State College, collected information about this disaster from old records and from local inhabitants who remembered the occasion. Her account was printed in the Educational Outlook, a magazine issued for a time by the College, and was subsequently published in The Missourian.
It was hot and humid that afternoon a century ago, with a strangely summer heat for November. Heavy clouds scurried across the sky, pushed hither and thither by a frantic wind. Girardeans prepared for a heavy rain, but before the rain came, the howling, terrifying wind was upon them in what seemed like a hurricane.
Area Hardest Hit
Lasting only a short while, the storm was most devastating in the area from South Lorimier Street eastward to the river, thence northward some distance past Broadway (then known as Harmony Street). There was an old school house where Lorimier School now stands (now Cape Girardeau City Hall on Independence Street - Sharon); its pupils narrowly escaped death when the roof was blown away.
St. Vincent's College, the roof was carried away completely, walls were demolished, and chimneys broken down. The Methodist meeting house, opposite the college on the corner of Spanish and Morgan Oak streets, was totally destroyed.
Undamaged in the tornado were the Baptist Church on Lorimier Street north of Independence, the Common Pleas Courthouse (then only a few years old), and numerous houses which were out of the path of the storm. Even some of these were damaged by the high winds, and many trees were broken and uprooted. The storm then moved across the river into Illinois.
Of Tornado Type
Between 1850 and 1950, there are records of at least 20 storms of the tornado type in this immediate area; of these, eight have hit Cape Girardeau itself. Apparently the most severe of these were the one of 1850, another in March 1924, still another on Nov. 4, 1938, and the latest one of May 21, 1949. Most extensive damage was done at that time; more important, more lives were lost then than at any other time.
Despite the damage wreaked by storms and floods, Cape Girardeau is known as one of the loveliest and most serene small cities in Missouri, and its people are nothing daunted by the possible whimsy of what we half-laughingly call "this crazy Southeast Missouri weather."
I find it curious that Judy didn't mention the destruction of St. Vincent's Church and the damage done to St. Vincent's Convent. Our files contain several accounts of the tornado giving more details.
Courtesy of Frank Nickell, there's this brief story published in The Illustrated London News on Saturday, Dec. 21, 1850:
AN AMERICAN TORNADO
A destructive tornado took place on the Mississippi River and the adjacent country on the 30th ult., causing more damage than has occurred on the great Western Valley from a similar cause for many years. In the town of Cape Girardeau, Mobile, just below St. Louis, 70 or 80 buildings were destroyed, comprising some of the largest warehouses in the place. A Catholic convent and the Baptist and Catholic churches were leveled to the ground. Two large electric telegraph masts were snapped off like pipe stems. The loss of life is not yet ascertained, but it is supposed to be very large, as numbers must have been buried beneath the ruins of the fallen buildings. Many were injured and had narrow escapes of their lives.
Thankfully, the death toll predicted by the London News did not materialize. The article has several errors, including the placement of the city of Cape Girardeau in Mobile, rather than Missouri, and the razing of a Baptist church, rather than a Methodist house of worship. I believe the "70 to 80 buildings" destroyed was also a vast exaggeration.
Here's an account of the storm published in the Trenton, New Jersey, State Gazette on Thursday, Dec. 12, 1850. I am responsible for the some of the paragraph breaks, in an effort to make reading easier.
A telegraph dispatch, published a few days since, mentioned the occurrence of a violent hurricane at Cape Girardeau, on the Mississippi River. We find in the St. Louis Republican (newspaper) the following letter form the clerk of the steamboat Saranac, communicating the particulars of this fearful visitation:
CAPE GIRARDEAU, Nov. 27.
Dear Sirs: About 4 o'clock this evening we landed at this place with the Saranac, bound for New Orleans, for the purpose of taking on board some passengers who had hailed the boat. Just after she had landed and made fast, the clouds assumed the appearance of a storm, and as we were comparatively safe, we thought best to hold on for a few minutes until it was passed.
The storm struck the stern (blowing up stream at the time,) and in less than five minutes the whole entire cabin, fixtures and furniture, chimenys, pipes, and in fact everything above the main deck, was blown to pieces. There were some two hundred plows on the roof, which were blown for hundreds of yards from the boat; part of the railing was carried on the top of the hill, one mile from the boat.
The wharf-boat Champlain was also blown to pieces.
The hill side was literally covered with the wreckage of the boats. But, strange to say, no one on board was killed, though nearly all were injured. Joseph McCoy, pilot at the wheel when we landed, was blown out of the pilot-house and fell through the cabin near the wheel-house; his ribs were broken and his shoulders cut, but we think he may recover. Samuel Hill, engineer was blown out of his room, and fell between the boats, badly injured.
Mr. Bailey, passenger, was thrown on a log chain, and also severely injured, though the physician thinks they will all get over it. Many others were slightly injured.
Not one of the crew or passengers in the cabin, but has lost some of their clothes, and some lost all they had in the world. One lady had her trunk and everything she had blown overboard and lost.
Almost all of the cargo above deck was blown overboard -- even barrels of flour. The bell weighing 300 pounds was blown 150 feet from its place, but not broken. The stoves in the cabin were blown ashore, after the cabin and chimneys went to pieces.
The steam and smoke instantly caused the alarm of fire, which created the greatest excitement among all on board; but those of the officers and crew who were not injured promptly extinguished every particle of fire on board, and then relieved those who were helpless and confined by parts of the cabin lying on them. The groans of the injured soon brought others who were not to their aid.
Notwithstanding the calamity was great the scene no tongue can describe. The danger was threatening, but not one of the officers or crew left the scene or faltered from his duty. Every man stood to his post until either blown away or the timbers knocked him down.
But I have still a more painful scene to describe, and that is the destruction of the town. St. Vincent College and the beautiful mansion of B.M. Horrell are in ruins! The Convent is gone; the Catholic Church and all the buildings around it are gone; the Methodist Church and every building from that to the bridge are more or less injured. Mr. Giboney's warehouse unroofed; the wooden bridge torn up; Mr. Tompkin's new brick house at the bridge literally a wreck; Messrs Byrne & Sloan's new three-story building on the corner of Main and Themis streets unroofed entirely, and the zinc with which it was overed was thrown for some hundreds of yards.
Mr. Surrell's three-story house, 30 feet by 50 feet, the upper story a hall for the Sons of Temperance, dedicated yesterday, now lies a shapeless mass of ruins. Capt. Surrell, wife and child, were in it when it fell, but were not killed, though badly injured.
The Cassily warehouse, the Lacy buildings, roofs off and walls shattered. Mr. Penny's new three-story house, gable blown in, roof damaged. Some 20 more houses, names not recollected, injured -- badly injured.
The telegraph poles and wires all blown down. The people are still running about town, and some mothers, with children in their arms, may bee seen seeking places of shelter from the storm and rain. I can find no language to describe this awful scene -- the heart-rending cries of the distressed mothers and children were agonizing in the extreme.
TEN O'CLOCK. -- Have just heard the sorrowful intelligence that one man was killed at the college, and one lady (Mrs. King) down town. Rumor says six deaths. As yet, only certain of three -- 15 badly injured -- some will die -- 10 or 12 slightly injured.
JOHN L. HARPER,
Clerk, Steamer Saranac, No. 1.
Finally, a description of the tornado's destruction at St. Vincent's Young Ladies Academy was given in a Daily Republican article dated June 15, 1914, on the occasion of the academy's diamond jubilee.
St. Vincent's Young Ladies Academy was damaged Nov. 27, 1850, when a tornado struck Cape Girardeau. This photo was published May 18, 1905, in the Drummers Supplement. (Southeast Missourian archive)
Mrs. M.E. Howard of New Madrid read a paper giving reminiscences of her school days in 1849 and 1850 (at the academy), telling of the fearful tornado of the latter year. Mrs. Howard, despite her 80-odd years, is vigorous and led the procession of old students onto the stage with grace and a clear voice and splendid enunciation.
Mrs. Howard's Paper
Dear Mother Superior, Sisters and Friends: You scarcely expect an address from one of my age and really, I am not quite equal to the occasion, and merely will from memory give some reminiscences of the past, at the earnest solicitation of the Reverend, Mother and the Sisters. Briefly, I was a student at St. Vincent's Academy in the years 1849 and 1850, a merry, light-hearted girl...
It falls on me to mention the tornado of 1850, though my lips fail to do justice to the subject, inasmuch as I was so frightened that during the fury of the storm my memory seems blurred as to minor incidents. It was at 3 o'clock in the afternoon, the hour at which we usually had a few minutes' recreation. We saw, and watched the approach of the storm, the strange appearance of the surrounding atmosphere, the fearful darkness of the clouds, and its rapid transit, as it bore down on us, and when it struck the building, I felt it tremble. We all, seemingly with one thought for safety, rushed for the west door. It was locked. Fanny Ivers tried the bolt, but fortunately for us, it did not yield. Almost immediately the great porch with its timbers and roof fell with a loud crash. Had we gotten out, probably all of us would have met death on the spot.
Added to this, the windows were blown in, broken glass flying in every direction; falling from the walls and dust and lime filling the air. The Sisters frightened and the girls terrified, confusion reigned supreme. I think in that hour I lost my sense of being. I can't recall what was said or done -- only the tinkle of a little bell that Sister Lucy rang to quiet us.
Most of the Sisters were in the chapel at that hour and had a frightful experience in the wreckage of that portion of the building. After the storm had spent its fury, friends and relatives hurried in to see if any were hurt. Thanks to kind Providence we were saved, and the most exciting and memorable event in the history of St. Vincent's Academy, is an incident of the past. I will add that Mr. Edward Garrahty came to our aid and generously offered the Sisters the use of a large house, until they could rebuild and repair, and this building is still standing, a memory to a noble, good man..."