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April 27, 2020

April 26, 1884: This Is Believed to Be the First Known Photograph of a Tornado

Stereograph view of a tornado as it passed just northwest of Garnett on April 26, 1884 in Anderson County, Kansas. According to the Kansas Historical Society, it is believed to be the first photograph of a tornado.

For three days that spring, the United States Signal Corps, an early precursor to the National Weather Service, observed a massive storm cell moving into Kansas from Colorado. At 5:30 p.m. on April 26, 1884, residents of Garnett witnessed a long rope-like funnel descend from the western sky near the tiny hamlet of Westphalia. For roughly 30 minutes, it moved on a northeasterly path. The tornado’s slow progress allowed local fruit farmer and amateur photographer A.A. Adams time to assemble his cumbersome box camera and capture this singular image. Positioned near the United Presbyterian Church in Garnett, Adams was standing just 14 miles from the cyclone.

Meteorology was still in its infancy in the 1880s. The Signal Corp could measure weather anomalies through the use of field stations, but could not issue forecasts. As a result, early settlers had no warning. Before this shot, historically the only images of them were drawings by eyewitnesses. Photographic evidence provided experts with valuable insight and proved infinitely fascinating to a general public more accustomed to legend than science.

The day after the storm, a newspaper reporter from the Anderson County Republican rode out on horseback to assess the damage. Though several residents reported having heard the sound of a locomotive often associated with tornadoes, the storm traveled roughly nine miles through open prairie and caused little damage. The funnel was reported to have “the appearance of a long rope of a purplish colored cloud.” According to Monthly Weather Review, “About three miles north of Westphalia a wagon laden with lumber was struck by the tornado. The lumber was scattered over the prairie, and the driver and horses were carried a considerable distance in the air.” The driver was identified at David Metheney, according to the Kansas Historical Society.

Adams was well aware of the value of his image. Born on a Virginia farm, he arrived in Kansas in 1857. Following a short stint in the Civil War, he settled in Lawrence, Kansas, where he established a photography studio. He sold the studio in 1867 and moved to Anderson County. Following the 1884 storm, Adams attempted to exploit his rare image by selling souvenir cabinet cards and stereographs.

A more dramatic photograph of a tornado that struck South Dakota four months later soon overshadowed his work. Now thought to have been altered, the South Dakota photograph depicted three cyclones and achieved more notoriety because the storm caused fatalities. For decades, the South Dakota image was popularly considered to be the first photographed tornado.

Photograph of a tornado in Howard, South Dakota, said to be taken on August 28, 1884 by F.N. Robinson. (NOAA)

Modern meteorologists consider Adam’s photograph to indeed be the first image, corroborated by Signal Corps weather maps and the newspaper account containing a physical description of the storm. The cabinet card bears Adams’ mark and the nearby church can be seen along the right edge. The stereograph is cropped more tightly on the twister and also was probably produced by Adams for resale. The images are held in the Library & Archives collection at the Kansas Historical Society.

(Photos: Kansas Historical Society, via Weather Nation)


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