Archive for Saturday, March 8, 2014

The Tonganoxie Split: Myth lacks scientific backing but remains intriguing mystery

March 8, 2014


A tornado touches down southwest of Wichita, Kan. near the town of Viola on Sunday, May 19, 2013. The tornado was part of a line of storms that passed through the central plains. (AP Photo/The Wichita Eagle, Travis Heying)

A tornado touches down southwest of Wichita, Kan. near the town of Viola on Sunday, May 19, 2013. The tornado was part of a line of storms that passed through the central plains. (AP Photo/The Wichita Eagle, Travis Heying)

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Take a look at our severe weather guide for more weather myths, plus safety tips and history on damaging tornadoes in Douglas County history.

If many people ever truly believed in the Tonganoxie Split, it’s a good bet that number dropped on May 11, 2000.

That’s when — instead of being waylaid by any natural terrain or old Indian curses — a tornado twisted through the little Leavenworth County town, causing $2.1 million in damage to more than 200 homes and nine businesses. Anymore, the Split is generally accepted as folklore instead of a weather phenomenon, if residents have heard of it at all.

“A lot of newer people in the community probably aren’t familiar with the term,” said longtime Tonganoxie resident Art Hancock. “You still hear it come up in conversations about the weather sometimes.”

The Tonganoxie Split is a vaporous local legend that “purports the mystical power of the hills” to divert severe weather away from the Kansas City metropolitan area, according to a list of “Fun Facts” from the Tonganoxie Chamber of Commerce. It’s been described as doing the same for Lawrence and, of course, Tonganoxie itself.

Hancock says he remembers talk of the phenomenon from his childhood but thinks a Kansas City TV weatherman actually coined the catchy phrase for it years later.

Brian Barjenbruch, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service's Topeka office, said maps indicate there’s no difference in frequency of severe weather around Tonganoxie than anywhere else.

“I would certainly call it a myth, or maybe more of a misconception,” he said. “It seems like almost every community has something like this.”

In Topeka, for example, some believed Burnett’s Mound, a high point in the southwest part of the city, was impossible for tornadoes to jump. In 1966, a massive F-5 twister came directly over that mound and into the city.

Beliefs that tornadoes can’t cross rivers or form at high altitudes are also false, Barjenbruch said.

“The takeaway point is, really, whatever you do, don’t have a false sense of security based on where you live,” Barjenbruch said. “Always have a plan in case that tornado comes rolling in to town.”

Jim Moore, of Shawnee, likely first heard the term Tonganoxie Split from the same weatherman Hancock did.

In 1991 Moore had just moved to the Kansas City area and was working at a TV station where the weather team liked to joke about the mysterious phenomenon that some think stemmed from a decree by Delaware Indian Chief Tonganoxie himself that there would be no more storms. 
“If they missed a forecast they would blame it on the Tonganoxie Split,” Moore said. “It intrigued me.”

Years later — after researching Chief Tonganoxie and the area’s history — Moore used the Tonganoixe Split in the title of a novel where the myth plays a key role in the fictional plot. He published “The Tonganoxie Split Mystery: Echoes from a Ghostly Past,” in 2012.

Based on his research, Moore guesses people mistakenly took Chief Tonganoxie literally.

“I believe he did say there would never be any more storms in the area, but I don’t think he was talking about the weather,” Moore said. “I think what he was saying was, ‘We’re not going to fight anymore.’”

So does Moore believe in the power of the Tonganoxie Split? No, he laughs. But the mysterious story makes for great book fodder.

“It’s a myth, it’s a legend, and at the end of my book I keep that legend,” Moore said. “I leave it out there hanging.”


Ron Holzwarth 4 years, 3 months ago

"In Topeka, for example, some believed Burnett’s Mound, a high point in the southwest part of the city, was impossible for tornadoes to jump. In 1966, a massive F-5 twister came directly over that mound and into the city."

Decades ago, I was told that there were Indian legends from centuries ago about how Burnett's Mount would divert tornadoes up and over Topeka, and how that had occurred in exactly that way in the past on a few occasions. And so, the Natives considered that area to be a safe place to be in case of a tornado.

But then, a massive water tower was built by the city of Topeka that disrupted the airflow on the downside (northeast) of Burnett's Mound. At the time it was built, some said that it would divert the airflow, and that Topeka would no longer be protected from tornadoes.

A few years later, in 1966, an F-5 tornado went up and over the mound, but the airflow was now redirected by the water tower, it landed squarely on Topeka, and it did a horrific amount of damage. Entire city blocks were leveled.

Only those of us that have been around this area for years remember the discussion about that, and I don't know how factual those discussions were. But I do know they were believed by many, especially Native Americans.

Ken Lassman 4 years, 3 months ago

My recollection at the time of the Topeka tornado was that Burnett's Mound was protecting Topeka just fine until the city decided to violate the warning: it will protect your city as long as you don't disrespect this burial site by building anything on Burnett's mound. As soon as they city started building the water tower, those spirits walked away from their jobs, I guess. Here is a family account of the story by the Burnett family--look about 2/3 of the way down the website, beginning with the drawing of Burnett's mound:

Beator 4 years, 3 months ago

I find it interesting that some complex critical thinking people discount Christianity and God as not scientific, yet, hold relevance to "Spirits" influencing the weather.

thanks for your post about Burnett

Mike Ford 4 years, 3 months ago

Christianity was brought here to suppress indigenous religious practices tied to the territories of some 700 tribes so it is not from here. It was brought on a boat by missionaries. It was used as a societal control and judgement tool as it is still used by evangelicals for the same purpose now. It may be tied to sixteenth and seventeenth churches in places like St, Augustine, Florida, Plymoth Plantation in Massachusetts, and St. Mary's, Maryland, and Jamestown, Virginia, from American colonial times but these places are not Bear Butte in Wyoming or the Medicine Wheel in Wyoming or any of the Mississippian religious sites throughout the Midwest or Lower Mississippi River Valley area. These sites were specific to Kiowa, Comanche, Shoshone, Absoroka, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Lakota or any of the Siouan, Tunican, or Mushkeogan peoples in the Lower Mississippi River Valley that existed for centuries tied to the area these people inhabited for millennia. Tecumseh proclaimed that the earth would shake on his return to Prophetstown In Indiana in 1811-1812. The New Madrid Earthquake occurred and Reelfoot Lake was created. Indigenous people are from here. Christianity is not. There is a relevance here that people don't get. That's why they desecrate wetlands with roads that denigrate the memory of indigenous suffering at the hands of Christian overseers who changed their names and attempted to destroy their cultures as this country wished to erase the people who first lived on this land. What about your Christianity now?

Ken Lassman 4 years, 3 months ago

Mike B, I'm assuming that you are referring to my concurring with the scientific evidence out there for the reality of human-induced climate change; I was not aware that this stance was contrary to the tenants of Christianity in any way or form--please explain yourself. In fact practically every religious tradition that I'm aware of--Christian, Islam, Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish--all have expressed concern about humanity's impact on our planet in general and climate change specifically. I can provide you with quotes if you are interested; to say that believing in the evidence of human induced climate change is somehow anti-Christian is a new one for me and would certainly surprise many of my Christian friends as well.

Beator 4 years, 3 months ago

No. I was not pointing the comment to you. It was a sidebar thought. I was making a reference to the general disdain for Christianity by complex critical thinkers, and a reverence by the same, for spirits at the mound, to influence weather.

Again thanks. That was a good article you posted earlier.

Ken Lassman 4 years, 3 months ago

OK--I'm glad I checked my assumptions and found them incorrect! Am glad you enjoyed the article I linked you to--I found it quite interesting, too.

Ron Holzwarth 4 years, 3 months ago

That brings to mind another tornado phenomena that has been noted by many, but I don't know if it has any statistical basis in fact. In 1951, Bonnie Dam (Yes, I know the official name is Bonny Lake, but everyone around there calls it Bonnie Dam) was completed.

Shortly after Bonnie Dam was filled, there suddenly seemed to be about twice as many tornadoes in the general area northeast of it as there had been before. In fact, my Dad's cousin had a farm that was struck and leveled by a tornado I think three times, and I'm not aware of any problem before Bonnie Dam was filled. They needed to live in a basement home because of that.

And, the farmers that lived near Bonnie Dam swore it was true, because they had seen tornadoes forming over the lake. Of course, after forming, they head northeast, and touch ground 15 to 30 miles or so later, depending upon various factors. So, if you ever see a tornado forming, you're perfectly safe.

But, it's not terribly unbelievable that Bonnie Dam would cause an increase in tornadoes, because they require moisture in order to form. And, along the western Kansas/eastern Colorado line, there wasn't much moisture. Except above Bonnie Dam.

But, Bonny Dam has since been drained due to drought conditions, so only time will tell if tornadoes will cease to form above it.

Mike Edson 4 years, 3 months ago

If the Tonganoxie split doesn't exist, how does one explain the consistent splitting of a storm just before it gets to Lawrence coming from the southwest? It can be seen clearly on the radar almost every time.

Joe Blackford II 4 years, 3 months ago

Here in Manhattan, the Department of Homeland Security has spent $million$ on the hypothesis of the Wefald split diverting a twister from the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF). To underscore this, DHS has deemed it only necessary for the NBAF to withstand an EF-3 tornado.

The existence of the Wefailed Split was documented over the KSU campus on Jun 12, 2008:

Sarah St. John 4 years, 3 months ago

If memory serves, it was Kansas City meteorologist Dan Henry who coined the term or at least popularized it.

Rich Minear 4 years, 3 months ago

That is where I heard it also. I remember watching him as a kid. the time we got our weather from an old barbershop quartet singer....or Fred "Bowling for Dollars" Broski.

Sarah St. John 4 years, 3 months ago

And let's not forget the Eudora tornado legend!

Ron Holzwarth 4 years, 3 months ago

Twice I was directly in the path of a tornado, and one was headed directly for Eudora, but both of them lifted off the ground before they headed directly for ME!

With a bit of research, I was able to locate my comment about the Eudora tornado experience, which I posted on this site on May 22, 2013. Here's a clip of it, with a correction for a factual error. That is, TWICE I have been in the direct path of a tornado, and when I wrote my comment last year, I forgot about one time. That was the tornado that resulted in a fatality, I might add. I've experienced so many tornadoes that I tend to forget about some of them, they're no big deal to me.

Here's the clip, with corrections, from this web address:

Although I've seen some tornadoes, only twice have I been in the direct path of one. Fortunately, I was driving on the Interstate one time. So, I parked my car at the bottom of a valley, and my friend that was riding with me and I ran and hid way back inside a culvert under the Interstate. It was a very long one, stretching from one side of the Interstate clear underneath the lanes going the other way, and about five feet in diameter. My friend was from New York, and had never experienced a tornado before, so he was a bit bewildered by this.

It was very eerie, the wind was whipping from left to right through the culvert for a while, then the wind stopped and it became very still for a moment. Then, the wind began to whip the other way, from right to left, after the tornado had passed overhead. A few moments later, it was safe to exit the culvert.

We went back to my car, which was undamaged. I looked up and saw the tornado. It looked like a rope way high in the sky. Only a moment later, it dissipated into nothing. As a practical matter though, we weren't in any danger because the tornado had already lifted from the ground when it passed over us, the only thing it was doing was influencing the wind direction on the ground.

Unfortunately, a culvert underneath an Interstate is not always handy. But if you can ever get inside one, you are perfectly safe from any tornado. Flooding would be the only danger that you could face.

Ken Lassman 4 years, 3 months ago

Um, I forgot. What are you referring to?

Ron Holzwarth 4 years, 3 months ago

A partial clip from:

Freshman Chelsea Carnagie believes in the legend of Chief Paschal Fish.

Carnagie, a Eudora native, knows all about the 148-year-old city she calls home. She knows the people; she knows the places. She even knows how the city of more than 11,000 people got its start – how it earned its name.

"They named the town after the Indian chief's daughter," Carnagie said.

Eudora resident Jim Harris is familiar with the legend, too. Harris, president of the Eudora Historical Society, said when Chief Paschal Fish entered into negotiation with the three.

German settlers who founded Eudora, he requested only one thing: name the town after his daughter Eudora.

"It was named after the Indian that owned most of the land here; they call him Paschal Fish," Glen Weineger, treasurer of the Eudora Historical Society, said. "His daughter was named Eudora. So that's why they named Eudora town, Eudora."

If the settlers took his daughter's name, Chief Paschal Fish said a tornado would never touch down in the city of Eudora.

"That's what he said. Whether that's myth or he actually said it, nobody knows," Harris said. "It's always been kind of a myth in Eudora."

For nearly 150 years, Chief Paschal Fish has kept his word – no tornado has ever touched down within city limits, according to

Kerry Putthoff 4 years, 3 months ago

I have lived most all of my life in or around the Tonganoxie area, contrary to the report in this paper and on channel 9, The afore mentioned tornado did not "touch down" in Tonganoxie. The reason I know this is that I lived through it. The winds and updrafts associated with the "tornadoes" that went "over Tonganoxie are what caused the damage. To my knowledge and any of the long timers here as well, the only touchdown in Tonganoxie would be from the football team. I was mere seconds ahead of the storm mentioned here, as we encountered the "dead calm" on top of Hubbel Hill. One could see the path of the twister and clearly it did not "touch down" in Tonganoxie proper. Sooo, the myth lives on in my book!

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