Nothing Up My Sleeve

Jon Gallagher

Weather or Not…. (part 2)


Last week, I wrote about how it is to live in a town that serves as the guinea pig for the weather warning system for Peoria.

It got me curious as to just how many times Galesburg and the surrounding area has been hit with tornadoes.  It seems like it was an awful lot, at least when I was growing up.

There’s an old wives’ tale about how Galesburg is protected from tornadoes because one of the Catholic Churches is the repository for the remains of Saint Crescent.  Another story tells how Galesburg is built on a natural “knob” in the topography of West Central Illinois.

I checked with the National Weather Service who was able to provide me with the dates of known tornadoes in Knox County since 1950.  Surprisingly, there are only 21 confirmed tornadoes over the past 59 years.  There has not been one death attributed to a tornado in Knox County during that time and only 14 people have been reported injured from these 21 storms.

I thought we’d take a look at some of these storms.

During the early evening hours of Sunday, May 14, 1961, storm warnings were posted all around the Midwest.  Around 7PM, an F-3 tornado touched down in eastern Knox County just outside of Rapatee, winding its way northeast toward the village of Douglas.  Eight people were injured, 19 homes and two businesses were damaged, as the twister caused two and a half million dollars worth of damage.  Five of those injured were in the basement of a home that collapsed in the village of Douglas.  The path of the twister was more than 15 miles long.  A total of eight homes were destroyed.

Later that same year, on July 21, a Friday afternoon, an F-1 tornado touched down outside of St. Augustine at the southern edge of the county.  It hop scotched south, touching down intermittently for the next fifty miles, but doing little damage.

Galesburg’s first and only official tornado (thus disproving the safety provided by St. Crescent) came on a Sunday evening, May 7, 1967.  Around 8:15, the F-1 funnel cloud formed over the Westport subdivision west of town.  Witnesses say that it touched down and took dead aim at the relatively new Galesburg Municipal Airport.  Four planes were destroyed, and five other aircraft were damaged.  The twister continued southeast, skipping along and damaging homes on Emery, McClure, Lancaster and Lyman streets were damaged.  A barn on Accommodation Avenue where a high school student kept animals for a 4-H project was flattened by the storm.

Perhaps the largest tornado in Knox County history occurred seven years later.  It was a hot, humid Friday on June 14, 1974, and conditions were prime for severe weather.  Late in the afternoon, three funnel clouds descended on the town of Abingdon, tearing a path of destruction four blocks wide almost straight down Route 41 in the center of town.  The F-3 tornado damaged more than 200 homes and caused more than 2 million dollars in damage.  Miraculously, only one injury was reported.

On the south side of town, Winkler’s Sporting Goods lost the upper story on their building where the family resided.  They had several boats for sale outside the building and those were found scattered over a quarter-mile stretch. 

A dog that had been chained to its doghouse outside an Abingdon home was found a block away, still chained to his doghouse with the chain wrapped around a telephone pole.

The city was closed off to anyone who didn’t live there as residents began to dig out from the rubble.  Galesburg sent city crews and neighboring towns lent off duty police officers to help control sightseers. 

It took years for Abingdon to recover from the devastating storm.  In fact, the last time I took a private plane over Abingdon, the path of the tornado was still visible as newer housing and trees stretched from the northwest corner, all the way through and south of town.

Six days later, four confirmed touchdowns were reported the first coming at 5:45 PM.  Between 7:15 and 8:20, the other three would touch down.  None of the four ranged above an F-1 rating, and only $3000 of damage was reported.  The touchdown sites were between Rio and Oneida, near Victoria, East Galesburg, and north of St. Augustine.

An elderly couple were hospitalized as the result of their home being destroyed on March 23, 1975 just southwest of Altona. Mr. and Mrs. Louis Johnson had lived in the home for more than 50 years when the tornado struck, and destroyed the home.  The rubble somehow caught fire and the couple were rescued from the exposed basement.  The storm was estimated to be an F-2 tornado.

A year later on March 3, 1976, a funnel touched down in Victoria, damaging eight buildings and destroying a metal shed.  The  F-2 storm caused $25,000 in damage.

Things were quiet then, for more than ten years.  The next twister touched down just south of Dahinda, on July 6, 1987, close to where County Road 19 meets Interstate 74.  The F-1 storm damaged a grain bin around 4:15 in the afternoon, staying on the ground for just a brief period.

There was little warning on May 13, 1995 when an F-2 tornado wreaked havoc across the southern part of the county.  The funnel dropped just north of St. Augustine and travelled northeast for about 15 miles.  A newly planted orchard with 1200 new trees just north of Hermon was completely destroyed.  Eighteen homes were either destroyed or damaged along with several outbuildings.  Farm implements were twisted balls of metal in the storm’s wake and the roof of the Maquon Fire Station was taken off. 

Three tornadoes would be confirmed in 1997.  The first on April 30, started in northeast Fulton County around Fairview.  Its intensity was estimated at an F-0, but it still managed to do considerable damage to buildings south of Yates City.  The path through Knox County was minimal and most of the damage occurred in Fulton and Peoria Counties.

Three weeks later on May 18, another tornado touched down the Yates City area, this one about eight miles southwest of the village.  It caused no damage.

On August 3, another F-0 tornado touched down outside of Victoria in the Lake Calhoun area.  Although it ripped out about 30 trees, no other property damage was reported.  All three of the 1997 tornadoes were F-0 storms.

On either 6/29 or 4/29 1998, an F-1 tornado touched down at 3:20 PM just outside of Williamsfield.  The twister moved on the ground for about four miles, damaging several homes and destroying a few farm buildings.  Two million dollars in damage was reported.

On April 22, 1999, the last tornado of the 20th century was reported outside of Appleton.  The storm came at 9:27 PM, the latest a tornado has ever touched down in the county.  No damage was reported.

September 11, 2000, an F-0 tornado cut a one mile path just north of St. Augustine.  No damage was reported.

Another F-0 was confirmed on April 30, 2003 about 6 miles northeast of Victoria.  Again, there was no damage to report.

Almost a year later on April 20, 2004, another storm came within a few miles of the previous year’s, touching down northeast of Victoria.  This one, however, destroyed one farm building and left a few others with damage. 

Part of an outbuilding was damaged on June 8, 2005 south of Henderson.  This F-0 tornado was only on the ground for a short time before dissipating.