There have been six documented tornadoes in Columbia County. The most serious, an F-5, touched down here on March 20, 1875. At the time, it was said that "never was such a tornado felt in Georgia." The face of Columbia County was changed forever, both in terms of human loss and physical damage to property.
A special correspondent of the Daily Chronicle and Sentinel in Augusta - forerunner of The Augusta Chronicle - sent to report on what he "saw and heard" of the terrible tornado, mentioned on March 24 that "there seems to have been two different cyclones, at least after they passed Milledgeville. After that point was passed they were like two well matched race horses, the southern going almost due east from west and the northern from west to a little north of east." They started about 11 a.m. and left the state around 3 p.m., traveling approximately 210 miles in three hours.
The upper, northern tornado entered Georgia at Harris County from Alabama, then "traveled in a line straight as a cannon ball or a crow would fly" through Talbot, Upton, Monroe, Jesup, Baldwin, Hancock, Warren, McDuffie and Columbia, exiting the state at Furys Ferry.
The appearance of the killer cyclones, as described to the writer, was especially sinister: "it was cylindrical in shape, ran immediately along the ground, was half a mile wide at the base, and half a mile high. In the distance, and when approaching, it looked like a vast column of black smoke arising from a forest on fire. As it approached it was dimly illuminated with a phosphorescent light, whilst in it, as one man graphically said, there appeared to be a million matches just struck.'"
The correspondent remarked that "in and around Appling the destruction of property was immense." Damages were estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Many houses were obliterated and scattered about, with "large pieces of timber," some weighing "as much as 200 pounds," torn from different buildings and thrown 300 to 400 yards.
Two of the more reliable accounts came from judges H.R. Casey and D.C. Moore. From them, we are able to learn the particular path of the storm and more about the persons affected.
Judge Casey mentioned that the tornado struck first near "the Morris place," where it blew down every house and killed an infant. Then, it came to George Dorsey's, where it destroyed every building and took the life of his mother. After that, the next place affected was George Gray's, where more buildings were leveled and his wife was injured. Other places hit included Dr. Hamilton's residence, Appling Academy, the Methodist church and the rector's house, the Hunt Place, Dr. Bailey's, Mr. James Kelley's dwelling and his hotel, the old female academy, the Court House, the Baptist church, and the Freedmen's church (destroyed).
Miss Maggie Bailey died outright at Dr. Bailey's and her sister, Lucy Malone, was seriously injured. At the old female academy, used by Mr. Kelley as a tenants' house, an African-American man was injured and his child killed. Many others, however, took shelter in the old stone jail, which saved them.
Edmund Kelly and five other boys caught outside of town while rabbit hunting were not so lucky. Master Kelly "was taken up into the air ... borne a distance of 150 yards and fell between two logs, breaking his arm midway between the shoulder and elbow," while the others boys received lesser injuries.
Judge Moore traveled to Augusta in order to obtain a coffin for Miss Bailey. When she was found, she had in her possession her Bible, hymn book, and catechism notes for the next day's service, and it was written "that she lived and died in the faith."
Going outside of town, the windstorm hit the place of A.M. Crawford, the Collins place, owned by Mr. Kelley, Mr. Benson's, Julian Lampkin's and the Waltons' Estates.
Moore also brought news of the Waltons' terrible plight with him upon his arrival: "at Mrs. Jesse Walton's place on the Petersburg road, 15 miles from Augusta, the tornado swept away everything. The [servant] quarters were completely demolished and eight or 10 [of them] killed. ... Mr. Ellis Walton's house, near that of Mrs. Jesse Walton, was picked up by the wind, carried 40 feet and set in the middle of the road. One of Mrs. Walton's children was killed."
There were also 20 to 25 servants injured, with some of the injuries sustained being of a very serious nature.
One planter, in an "Appeal to the Merchants and Cotton Factors of Augusta," gave an emotional entreaty: "The people injured by the cyclone that passed with such terrible effect over Columbia County demand prompt assistance. We appeal to you for help. ... What Columbia County has done for this town - how many thousands, nay millions of capital she has brought here to purchase the cotton raised by her citizens, you know too well. ... Now, gentlemen, we ask for a return of some of that good will assistance from you."
Readers responded to the many solicitations and raised $10,000 by early May. Besides monetary donations, other aid received included clothing and shoes, homespun cloth, sundry boxes and flour.
On March 31, Sgt. Henry Calver, a signal officer, was ordered to Georgia to "follow the track of the whirlwind and report upon its course and effects." He concluded that the storms started out west due to low barometric pressure, complicated by cold northerly winds that met warm, tropical currents from the Gulf of Mexico. Ninety-three persons died in Georgia and South Carolina, with several hundred injured. Damages were $500,000 for the former and $150,000 for the latter.
The Columbia County tornado of 1875 took the lives of both young and old and affected local area families for generations to come, having taken those who would have contributed for years to come to the rich tapestry of local Southern life, and also removed some historic sites which would never be seen again. But the area would rebuild, and with the faith that sustained many through this tragedy, life would go on.
John Roy is an IT instructor at Fort Gordon with an interest in local history.
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