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Cool Things - First Tornado Photo

The first known photograph of a tornado was taken in Anderson County, Kansas. First photograph of a tornado, taken in Anderson County, Kansas, in 1884

Tornadoes have threatened lives on the Great Plains for centuries, but until the late 1800s most Americans had never actually seen one. That changed on April 26, 1884, when unique circumstances allowed a farmer in Anderson County, Kansas, to capture the first known photograph of a tornado.

For three days that spring, the United States Signal Corps (precursor to the National Weather Service) observed a massive storm cell moving into Kansas from Colorado. At 5:30 p.m. on April 26, 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.

Weather map showing intense low pressure system over Kansas on the day of the Anderson County tornado (courtesy of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration).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 forecast. As a result, early settlers had no warning.  Tornadoes primarily afflict the Plains states of North America, and historically the only images of them were drawings by eyewitnesses. Even today, tornadoes remain elusive and random, and are typically measured by the damage they leave behind. 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 only injury was to a man who was tossed several feet along with his lumber wagon. 

Stereograph of first tornado photograph, Anderson County, 1884Adams 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. Unfortunately, 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.

Modern meteorologists consider Adam’s April 26th photograph to indeed be the first image, corroborated by Signal Corps weather maps and a 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. Today, both images are held in the Library & Archives collection at the Kansas Historical Society.  View Adam's tornado images on Kansas Memory.

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Entry: Cool Things - First Tornado Photo

Author: Rebecca Martin

Date Created: July 2011

Date Modified: December 2014

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.