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The St. Cloud Tornado Horror page 2


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As at St. Cloud, the air was filled at Sauk Rapids with a hurricane of death in the shape of flying shingles, planks and brickbats, and scarcely a soul escaped serious injury, if nothing worse, the few who did escape being those who just had time to flee to the cellars on the approach of the howling demon. The same scenes of panic and paralysis were repeated all over again - the same stunned inability to think or raise a hand in self-defence until the black terror, forsaking the river valley, had gone moaning away into the distance over a hill behind the village. Once across this obstruction, the two spinning cones were seen to reunite, and then the tornado gradually passed out of sight, still headed for the north-east. Out in the open country it committed indescribable ravages, ploughing up the earth in its passage so violently that it might have been imagined there had been some strange linear eruption of volcanic forces.

This was a bad season for tornadoes in other parts of America as well. At Coon Rapids one wrecked more than forty buildings, including two churches and a brand-new schoolhouse and did damage estimated at $100,000, not to mention blowing a freight-train of seventeen cars off the track of the Milwaukee Railroad. In Audubon county a tornado swept twenty farmhouses and two schools out of existence, and then came the turn of Exira, where one wrecked the homes of Mr. William Bintner, former First Assistant Doorkeeper of the Iowa Senate, and of Messrs. Milt Donnell, Reynolds, James Patterson and Nicholas Martin and Virginia Smith. "Enormous trees," related an Exira eyewitness, "were twisted round in the ground wrenched out, and carried off as if they had been wisps of straw."

At Jamestown, Dakota, a number of buildings were blown to smithereens and all the sidewalks torn up, while Gasol and Kulewatz's brewery was wrecked and the home of Mr. Kulewatz himself destroyed. Terrible, too, was the devastation wrought in Burr Oak Grove, some twenty miles to the south-west of Maryville, Missouri. Here were killed the wife of Mr. Hugh Sportsman, two children of Mr. Moses Sloper, two more belonging to Mr. Theodore Pifer, and an old man and woman who were carried through the air for a mile before being dashed to death.

Nowhere, however, was the tragedy left in the tornadoes' wake wrought with quite such profound pathos as marked the destruction of a farmhouse near Rice's Station, some twenty-eight miles north of Sauk Rapids. Here was assembled a party of thirty people to celebrate the marriage of Mamie Schultz, the favourite daughter of the widowed proprietress of the farm, to a young man named Henry Friday. The ceremony had been performed at about i p.m. by the Rev. Gustavus Smith, the Lutheran pastor of the country church, and the afternoon had been spent in social enjoyment. Now, at a little after 4 o'clock, the company sat down to the wedding-breakfast.

So intent were they all upon the festivities that none seem to have noticed the approach of the tornado until the very moment when it howled down and grappled with the buildings. Within a minute or two the house was disrupted and scattered in bits all over the farm. Out of the whole party only a boy of twelve was left unhurt. The officiating clergyman and fifteen others were killed instantaneously; the bridegroom was carried thirty yards and smashed to death against a tree, the bride received fatal hurts about the breast, and all the others were so terribly injured that they, too, succumbed soon afterwards. When the pitiful remains of what had been a happy wedding-party earlier in the afternoon were brought to Rice's Station that evening and laid out in the waiting-room, the scene could not have failed to touch the most callous.

This cruel piece of savagery marked almost the end of the tornado's activities in this district. For nine miles more it marched grimly onward, tearing to pieces the farmsteads in its path. Then, quite abruptly, the whirling column soared up high above the tree-tops, grew lighter in composition, and finally drifted off right and left into angry-looking but harmless clouds.

Strange indeed was the aspect of the prairie-land after this terrible visitation. The tornado had moved on a course from south-west to north-east throughout, forming a perfect geometric cycloid, with a double one where it had passed through Sauk Rapids; every foot of its progression was easily traceable by the torn and tumbled earth. But the wreckage borne aloft by its insuperable power had been scattered over the land far and wide. Farmers in the north-west reported finding fragments of buildings on their property twenty miles or more from St. Cloud and Sauk Rapids, and bits of organs, pianos and other household gear were picked up from where they had been flung to almost incredible distances. For miles to the northwest of the tornado's track the prairie was studded with bits of plank driven a foot or more into the earth, while many buildings had their walls pierced through by heavy splinters which had been hurled at them with the force of projectiles. The sign "Sauk Rapids" from the Manitoba Railroad Company's depot at that place was found, together with a basketful of books, in Rye Station, fifteen miles distant.

At St. Cloud and Sauk Rapids the sad task of searching for the dead and wounded went on all through the night. But the inhabitants of both places were still semi-paralysed with horror at the awful thing which had come to pass, too stunned as yet to organise any proper relief work, while every hour brought to light some fresh evidence of the terrible work of the elements. To add to their miseries, severe wind and rain storms began during the evening and continued all night without cessation. After dark the scene was impressive, but heartrending. Hundreds of men wandered to and fro among the wreckage with glimmering lanterns, calling out names of dear ones who would never answer again. Women thronged the streets, heedless of the drenching downpour, moaning and sobbing in their fright.

Presently, however, help came to the poor creatures from without. Frantic calls had been sent over the telegraph wires to Brainerd, St. Paul and Minneapolis, and immediately a special train started for the scene from Brainerd, carrying twelve surgeons and a little army of lay helpers, while the other two cities responded with a train bearing twenty-three doctors and surgeons. As these messengers of mercy hastened to the stricken area, they passed through terrible thunderstorms, forming a fitting introduction to the scenes they must anticipate at the end of their journey. The skies were piled up with inky clouds, in which zig-zagging streaks of lightning tore lurid rifts. Torrents of rain and hail beat against the railway carriage windows; the streams had burst over their banks, covering the prairies with a waste of angry waters.

The relief workers got in at about 8.30 p.m. They found everything in the wildest confusion on their arrival, but immediately set to work with the methodical efficiency of their training. The drug stores having been completely wrecked, they had to carry on under the disadvantage of having no splints or medicaments. But for splints, at any rate, they did not have to look far - shingles served the purpose admirably, and with those the ground was strewn for miles around. All night long the doctors and other helpers, heartsick and horror-stricken, groped among the ruins of houses and the tangled heaps of fallen trees, smashed vehicles and other debris, in search for dead and injured, and as the bodies came to light they were laid out in an empty building near the railroad track, while the wounded were hurried off to the hospital and committed to the tender care of the Sisters of St. Benedict. At daybreak hundreds of volunteers were Lard at work at Sauk Rapids, where the destruction had been greatest, and many of them were golden-hearted folk of St. Cloud, who, despite their sore affliction had unhesitatingly harnessed up their horses and set out for the scene of a disaster even greater than their own.

By morning light the extent of the davastion was more apparent than on the night before. In the demolished area of St. Cloud only one house remained on its original site, and that solitary dwelling had been whirled about, end for end, and replaced on its foundations in a hopelessly wrecked condition. At Sauk Rapids just enough houses were left to form a fringe around the village limits; what had been the centre of the town was covered with mounds of timber, doors, broken furniture and other miscellaneous rubbish; only the "City Hotel" remained intact. The financial loss at St. Cloud was estimated at $70,000, that at Sauk Rapids at $280,000, and the damage sustained by the railroads at 20,000. As instances of the awful strength of the tornado may be mentioned that the door was wrenched off a safe in the Post Office and carried for some distance, while a church bell weighing 1,500 lbs. was found in a heap of debris 400 feet away from any building. In some cases panels of doors had been tugged from their settings and blown away while the doors themselves stood firm.

The damage to life and limb, taking into consideration the comparative smallness of the communities, had been nothing short of appalling. There was scarcely a home in either of the two towns that had not at least one member among the dead or the injured, and casualties were pouring in from the outlying districts. There were many heartrending cases: mothers deprived at one stroke of fate of all their children, little ones left fatherless and motherless. The injuries, too, were often of a peculiarly terrible nature; the hospital was receiving a constant stream of men, women and children with blackened, grimy faces, their arms and legs broken, their scalps torn, and their bodies hideously lacerated. In one family called Kelly there were three youngsters with internal injuries, and there was a man named Thomas Van Elton who had been whirled through the air for 400 feet, although he weighed 250 lbs., and had almost every bone in his body fractured.

In an engine-house at St. Cloud which had been requisitioned to serve the purpose of a temporary morgue the scene on the first night was so dreadful that it sickened the most hardened of the relief workers. The following description furnished by one of these, is included here not for any morbid reason, but merely because it conveys some approach to an adequate notion of the savage violence of the tornado. "Eighteen lifeless bodies," the report states, "were stretched on the floor in two rows, draped in sheets and blankets, while around and among them men moved with lanterns, uncovering faces, trying to recognise in the distorted features some familiar line in which they might trace relationship. The bodies presented a terrible spectacle. Their clothes were torn into shreds; their faces were black with dirt and gravel ground into their cheeks; their scalps were torn; blood covered the floor. Skulls were crushed, eyes torn from their sockets and tongues protruded from between lips that were cruelly cut and mutilated."

The curtain was rung down on this tragic drama of the western prairies a couple of days later, when two thousand sympathisers from the surrounding countryside came thronging into St. Cloud to attend the funeral of the victims. At the cathedral a solemn requiem mass was conducted by Father Stemper, while Fathers Gross and Casper held a similar service in the Church of the Immaculate Conception, following which the bodies were committed to the earth in two vast common graves, one for adults, the other for the little ones. And then, with their sorrow locked away in their hearts, the survivors turned back with sublime courage to the Herculine task of reconstruction, even as their forerunners, the pioneers, had ever sternly subordinated despair and grief to an unwavering faith in the future.

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