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April 15, 1886: St. Cloud, Sauk Rapids in ruins

Posted by: Ben Welter under Minnesota History, Newspapers Updated: May 6, 2013 - 3:51 PM

Minneapolis Tribune copy editors of 1886 faced a challenge beyond anything we encounter in today’s newsrooms. Day in, day out, the big story on page one required a half-dozen or more subheadlines. Let’s give it up for the anonymous craftsman who managed to write 13 dramatic and informative subheds for the story below. At the same time, he could have done a better job editing the story, which is filled with overwrought prose, tangled syntax and contradictory assertions. My favorite is the writer’s habit of saying a scene is impossible or “too piteous” to describe — and then describing it in great detail. Must be an 1880s thing.

Which is not to say that the tornado that hit St. Cloud and Sauk Rapids on April 14, 1886, was anything but a disaster of historic proportions. It is the deadliest tornado in Minnesota history. More than 70 people were killed, and Sauk Rapids was all but blown off the map.

[Originally posted June 16, 2008. I'm reposting in connection with a presentation I'm giving at 9 a.m. Wednesday at the Stearns County Historical Society in St. Cloud. Free to members; $5 for nonmembers. Details here.]

 

Unroofed: The first house struck by the tornado in St. Cloud. (Photo courtesy mnhs.org)
 

IN RUINS!

St. Cloud and Sauk Rapids Swept by a Tornado.


Thirty People Killed and A Hundred or More Wounded.


Many of the Injured Will Not Recover From Their Wounds.


Three Hundred Buildings Destroyed and Railroad Bridges Torn to Pieces.


The Storm Clears a Path 600 Feet Wide Through the Town of St. Cloud.


And the Strongest and Finest Buildings Crumble at Its Touch.


The Village of Sauk Rapids Almost Blotted Out of Existence.


Men, Women and Children Crushed in the Ruins Dead and Dying.


A Scene of Desolation Never Before Witnessed in the North West.


Private Houses and Hotels Doing Sad Service as Hospitals.


A Well-Known Citizen of St. Paul Killed – Incidents of the Storm.


Sketches of the Two Wrecked Towns – Plan of St. Cloud – The News Here.


Many Miraculous Escapes From Instant Death Reported at Other Points.


[SPECIAL DISPATCH TO THE TRIBUNE]

St. Cloud, April 14 – This place was today the scene of the most terrible calamity that has ever visited the Northwest. It is impossible yet to say entirely how terrible it is.

 

St. Cloud’s rail yard did not fare well. (Photo courtesy mnhs.org)

The morning was stormy. Last night a severe thunderstorm passed over us, and during the forenoon there were frequent showers with occasional flashes of lightning and the noise of distant thunder. Soon after noon the storm grew heavier and became severe at 2 o’clock, but seemed to have again passed off by 2:30. Shortly before 4, however, the air darkened again, and sharp gusts of wind, bringing sudden showers of rain and hail, shook the city. Nothing of any moment, however, occurred until about 4:30. The air was then dark and thick, and growing momentarily darker. Suddenly the sky toward the southwest deepened from dark to absolute black. The air was close and sultry; but still no one seemed to fear anything more than an ordinarily severe thunderstorm.

Your correspondent was standing with a knot of men in the shelter of a doorway looking at the blackening sky. Some one jestingly suggested a cyclone. Then the talk turned lightly on former cyclones – these at Rochester, New Ulm, Highmore; and reminiscences of the ruin caused by the storms went round. Meanwhile the wind had dropped and the rain ceased. Everything was still and close. Your correspondent walked up the street – his back toward the threatening quarter. Suddenly a cry arose, and people rushed from door to door. Simultaneously came another fierce, sudden burst of rain-laden wind. Fiercer and fiercer it blew. Turning to the southwest your correspondent saw

 
  More of the devastation in Sauk Rapids. (Photo courtesy mnhs.org)

A Solid Mass of Cloud,

dense black except where it was tinged with a strange greenish color, sweeping apparently towards the city. The lower end of the cloud appeared to rest on the ground, being narrow. Thence it broadened upwards until the top of the funnel – or inverted pyramid – covered half the sky. But there was not much time to study it. The wind, already a gale, grew momentarily worse; first a tempest, then a tornado. Above the wind one could hear the crash of houses, the breaking of timbers and the shock of falling walls. It was probably only a few seconds while the storm was passing; but they were terrible seconds – utter blackness and an inconceivable din of crashing buildings and roaring storm. Then came the rain again – not in drops, or bucketfuls, but sheets – driving before the gale like vertical sections of solid waves of water. Then the air slowly lightened. The sky towards the southwest had grown gray again, and the terrible, black mass blotted out the northeastern horizon. The cyclone had passed.

Around where your correspondent was no damage was done. All the buildings still stood. It had fortunately missed the central business section in the city. As fast as possible I made my way towards the northwest part of the city, which is chiefly

Made Up of Residences.

Everybody else (those who were not still hiding, terror stricken, in cellars and corners of their houses) rushed in the same direction. Turning a sudden corner we found the road apparently barricaded halfway down the block. It was the edge of the cyclone’s path, and three houses which had been together were in ruins across the street. Climbing over the wreck were a dozen men and women. On one side a knot was gathered where a child lay stretched on the sidewalk – dead.

 

The tornado flattened much of Sauk Rapids. (Photo courtesy mnhs.org)

From there on the scene was terrible. Description is impossible. One every side lay piles of ruins, where there had lately been comfortable, happy homes. From some, strong hands were lifting the dead and insensible. From others the shrieks of persons still imprisoned were heart-rending. Block after block was desolated. Yet here and there, in the very central path of the storm, houses stood – not always the stoutest or largest, and with no other reason why they should have escaped the wreck of their neighbors than the caprice of the storm as it passed.

After the Storm,

The whole population of the city had crowded to the ruined quarter. Business men rushing to their homes, found in their stead masses of ruins. Some found the bodies of their wives and children already extricated from the wreck. Others came in time to help them out, and save their lives. Others only in time to help to lift out their corpses. Not a few had to wait for hours before they knew whether the heaps of shattered timbers in front of them covered all that they loved on earth or not.

Some of the scenes were too piteous to be described. A mother who had been down town came back only to stand by and listen to the shrieks of her buried children grow fainter and fainter, as the workers above tried to make their way to them. In another place your correspondent saw a girl carried away raving and apparently hopelessly insane as the moving of a timber disclosed her mother’s face – pale, save for the blood which had flowed from the blow that had killed her. On every side friend was calling for friend; child for parent; parent for child, and strong men sat on what had been their homes and sobbed like children over the bodies of their wives. It is too horrible!

 

The ruins of a school in Sauk Rapids. (Photo courtesy mnhs.org)

In all some thirty dwelling houses are destroyed – and not one of the thirty but in its fall either killed or horribly mutilated some of its inmates. Cutler and Webb’s brewery is completely demolished. Round this and the Manitoba freight depot (which also lies in ruins) surged the greatest crowd. It is impossible to say yet who may not lie dead in the ruins of either. The brick house of John Swartz is merely a chaotic pile – close beside it a frame house sands unroofed, but the walls still standing.

The path of the cyclone seems to have been about 600 feet wide – cut as clean as a swathe in a hay field. Sauk Rapids has also suffered badly. The bridge across the river is down. It is impossible yet to learn what the loss of life has been.

All the while that the search went on the rain descended in torrents. Now and then it clears for a space; but soon thickens again. Overhead there is a continual rumble of distant thunder, and vivid flashes of lightning ever and again throw the desolate scene into awful relief. It was some time before any organized system of working on the ruins could be arranged. Every man was doing all he could, but the confusion was hopeless. The mayor and city officials worked well, and the members of the fire department. Assistance was promptly telegraphed for to St. Paul and Minneapolis. The work of searching in the ruins was not unattended with danger, for in many places the dismantled walls still stood, rocking in the wind, and at intervals the crash of falling timber was heard over the cries of the wounded and the wailing of the bereaved. More than one person has been hurt in this way in trying to save others.

Many of the dead bodies taken from the ruins are mutilated beyond recognition. As nearly as it can be ascertained now the number of dead in the two places – for Sauk Rapids has suffered at least as badly as St. Cloud – is 30, and about a hundred more are more or less mutilated. The court house here is unroofed and the county records are exposed.

 

Sauk Rapids courthouse was reduced to a pile of rubble. (Photo courtesy mnhs.org)
Two stores once stood on this site in Sauk Rapids. (Photo courtesy mnhs.org)
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