Natural disasters affected our ancestors in so many ways just as they do us in present day. Finding out more about what was going on before, during, and after a natural disaster occurred in the area our ancestor was living at the time of the disaster can add much to our own family story. Listen in as Jeff Satterly and Robert Muhlahauser from HistoricNaturalDisasters.com share with us about James Dahlman and the Omaha Tornado. ~Caroline
James Dahlman and the Omaha Tornado
By Jeff Satterly and Roberth Muhlhauser
On March 23, 1913, the city of Omaha was enjoying a relaxing day of church services and Easter celebrations. The skies slowly grew dark, but the unsuspecting people of Omaha weren’t concerned. It was too early in the year for a tornado. And besides, common knowledge was that Omaha was tornado-proof, since most storms that did form broke apart by the time they reached the bluffs surrounding the city.
For this reason, it came as a complete and utter shock when, at 6 o’clock that evening, the earliest twister in national history tore through the city of Omaha. The tornado killed more than 100 people, injured more than 300, razed 2,000 houses and displaced 7,000 people before it passed Omaha. However, the city credited as being the Gateway to the West wasn’t about to give up. Led by Mayor James Dahlman, Omahans forged on the rebuild their beloved city.
James Charles Dahlman was born on December 15, 1856 in Yorktown, Texas. He grew up in DeWitt County, Texas where he gained attention as a champion horse rider by the age of 17. In 1878 at the age of 22, Dahlman killed his brother-in-law during a fight, which led to him fleeing the state for Nebraska (the killing was later ruled self-defense). It was in Nebraska where Dahlman’s political career would begin, first as the Sheriff of Dawes County. Following that, in 1885, Dahlman began his first of two terms as the Mayor of Chadron, Nebraska. He followed this with stints as the Chairman of the Nebraska Democratic Party and a run with the Union Stock Yards Company of Omaha.
In 1906, Dahlman was elected Mayor of Omaha. He became notorious in Omaha for his flouting of state laws, such as the 1908 law forbidding saloons to remain open after dusk, and his personal dealings with the mob boss Tom Dennison. Dahlman was roundly criticized by his more conservative opponents, whose dissent reached its peak following his poor handling of the Easter Day Tornado of 1913. The tornado ravaged Omaha, killing more than 100 and displacing thousands more. Dahlman quite publicly refused any government aid, his reasoning being that Omaha was self-sufficient. Though eventually requiring and allowing the city to accept aid, Dahlman lost the 1918 Mayoral election as a result. He was elected Mayor once again in 1921, remaining in office until his death. Dahlman passed away on January 21st, 1930, and was buried in Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Omaha.
After the storm passed through Omaha, the mayhem continued as natural gas leaks and live electrical wires the tornado’s wrath had exposed led to extensive fires that burned down entire blocks. On Decatur and Franklin streets, the line of homes on fire stretched up to length ¾ of a mile.
The storm that spawned the tornado wasn’t done spreading destruction. As the system moved east into Ohio, it contributed to the massive rainfall that would result in the Great Dayton Flood on March 25, 1913.
Thanks so much to Caroline Pointer for letting us share a piece of this historical project on 4YourFamilyStory.com. We’re humbled by the interest in this project, and we really hope you enjoyed this snippet of history!
We’d also like to thank some of the great archives and archivists who have done so much to work to help preserve the amazing history of the 1913 flood, including the Dayton Metro Library and historian Trudy Bell. The amount of history compiled at these two websites is truly amazing. Lastly, thanks to Jason from InsuranceTown.com, who lent us some of the resources we used to help prepare content for the web and publish our blog, and inspired our Mapping History Contest.
Don’t forget to check out HistoricNaturalDisasters.com for more images, and for information on our Mapping History Contest – help us figure out the locations pictured in historic photos from 1913 and you could win $100!
5/1/2013 04:38:08 pm
I really enjoyed this astounding story, which I have never heard about before. Dahlman sounds like quite a character, in fact, sort of a tornado himself. Such destruction. We here in Connecticut know all about the claim of being "tornado-proof." We've learned that we are not. Bad luck to make such a claim! Thanks for this tale from the past.
5/2/2013 10:40:38 am
Mariann, I found the story amazing! And I agree with you, Dahlman sounds like quite a character.
5/2/2013 12:20:59 am
Wow.... I was just reading through (again) some documents last night about my family in Delaware, Ohio. There is a very dramatic story about the same flood on the same day in Delaware, Ohio. Two of my 2nd great uncles were affected...one died, and one survived by standing on a bridge support for 36 hours.
5/2/2013 10:42:35 am
Caroline, it's genealogy serendipity! It is amazing what a small world it is. I'm glad that this story was able to give you a little more background to your family stories and family tree.
5/12/2022 06:17:15 am
James is a brilliant character. I've always enjoyed reading history. Thank you for your excellent writing!
5/27/2022 12:32:09 pm
The skies slowly grew dark, but the unsuspecting people of Omaha weren’t concerned. I truly appreciate your great post!
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