OREALD.COM - An Old Electronic Library
eng: a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z

The St. Cloud Tornado Horror

Pages: <1> 2

There is always a strong element of drama about a tornado. Unlike other types of storm, the thing itself is visible, as apart from its results - a raging black devil incarnate, whirling across the face of the earth and dealing out wholesale destruction like some living creature in the grip of an insane rage. The speed with which it works, too, makes for drama: it suddenly materialises from nowhere, there ensue a few minutes filled with incredible violence and panic, and then it is all over again as abruptly as it began. Again, tornadoes are amazingly freakish: they will batter one house to matchwood and leave its neighbour unscathed, while a third one may be whirled up into the air and then either dropped with a crash or deposited on terra firma with a gentleness that would seem almost deliberate. "In the case of the Irving Tornado," states Mr. William Ferrel in his interesting book, A Treatise on the Winds, "the house of a man called Robert Reed, 16 feet by 24 feet, and one and a half storeys high, was lifted up as easily as a feather, and without at first cracking the timber. So quickly was it done that before Mr. Reed, who was within, knew his danger, the building had risen to a height of 25 feet or more. The house being then enveloped in darkness, and not knowing what had happened he started for the door, thinking it time to make good his escape, when, instead of stepping out upon the ground, as he expected, he fell the above distance, injuring himself severely."

As a good deal of popular misconception exists as to the exact nature of tornadoes and their scientific explanation, I cannot do better than quote Mr. Ferrel again in that connection. "The principal condition of a tornado," we are told, "is the unstable state of the atmosphere, from which, with very slight disturbance, arises a bursting up of the air of the lower strata of the atmosphere through those above, over one or more small spots, somewhat as the vapour of boiling water, which is generated mostly at the bottom of the containing vessel, bursts up through the water above and comes to the surface. But this initial start in the tornado having once taken place, the condition of unstable equilibrium tends to continue the initial motions as long as this state continues.... The start being once made the interior part where the air ascends is kept warmer than the surrounding parts, and... a vertical circulation is maintained, the air ascending in the interior, flowing out in all directions above and in from all directions from below to supply the ascending current."

The tornado which on April 14, 1886, devastated the pretty little town of St. Cloud, situated on the west bank of the Mississippi River, 75 miles to the north of St. Paul, Minnesota, and the neighbouring village of Sauk Rapids, and then travelled on to carry death and destruction into the country beyond, was quite local in its origin, and expended its principal force within a space of less than 30 miles in length and 20 rods in width; the casualties, comparatively speaking, were not great. Yet for the suddenness of its visitation and the appalling spectacle it presented while venting its fury on that helpless countryside, it would surely be hard to beat. Moreover, it was an interesting occurrence from a scientific point of view, for probably nowhere in meteorological annals would any other tornado be found which, occurring so early in spring and in so high a latitude, yet developed such irresistible energy.

The day of the storm, though there were frequent showers of rain, was signalised by a remarkably high temperature for the season, the mercury rising as high as 80 degrees, while the air was extremely sultry and oppressive. Some people who had been hunting in the immediate vicinity described a stratum of hot and motionless air that settled on them with stifling force. This oppressiveness at that early time of the year was the most fatal of all storm-premonitions, and another bad sign was that the sky was abnormally clear.

Weather-wise from long experience, the inhabitants of St. Cloud did not fail to read and interpret these ominous portents. Towards 4 p.m. they saw with immense misgiving an intensely black cloud banking up in the south-west and overhanging a ridge which in ancient times had marked the limit of the river. "Suddenly," says an eyewitness, "the clouds began to revolve, while sharp points shot downwards, until a whirling funnel-shaped mass was formed above a basin amid the hills, that seems to have furnished the cradle for the ensuing tornado." Another observer says that at its start the whirling was 20 to 30 feet above ground, but that as it sucked up earth, dust, leaves and grasses, it settled lower, grew darker and denser, and whirled more rapidly. "The cloud hung low and rolled over and over like smoke over a battlefield," is the vivid description given by a third witness; "it was funnel-shaped, and the point dragged along the ground like a tail of a huge aerial beast." One ardent local journalist, quite carried away, evidently, by his theme, tells us that the cloud, "progressing rapidly from mere masses of vicious vapour to a mass of nimbus in concentric revolution, evolved the terrible engineery of heaven," and I certainly think his own terminological engineery merits perpetuation.

At first the tornado moved at no great pace; one who watched its advance says that for the first mile he could have driven his team as fast as the upright circling cloud travelled. "Its first condition," says Mr. Hover, who saw it also, "was undoubtedly that of a simple whirlwind, having a diameter of about 1,000 feet, which uprooted or twisted off nearly every tree in its circle, overturned the monuments in the adjoining Masonic cemetery, and tore up the boulders from the ground. Thence it moved slowly and majestically along at the rate of about 12 or 15 miles per hour, but with an inconceivably rapid rotary motion upon its vertical axis, confining itself for some distance to a path hardly more than 150 feet wide. Hundreds of people took timely warning and got out of the road of the moving column of cloud, whose general trend was towards the north-east."

The unfortunate inhabitants of St. Cloud, for the most part, do not seem to have realised until too late the deadly character of that revolving black pillar, and perhaps they were deceived by the leisurely rate of its progression. It is more than possible, also, that they were lulled into a false security by the circumstance that it did not appear to be heading directly for the town, though actually it was making its way thither, relentless as fate, along the course of the little valley in which it had been generated. At all events, only a few timid families did the sensible thing by taking immediate refuge in their cellars; the majority stood about in their door-yards watching the storm's approach and commenting on the swiftness with which the great cloud-cone had taken shape.

To their ears now came, though, the tornado's terrible voice - that eerie moaning, whistling sound in the air which invariably accompanies such storms. As the whirling devil came gradually closer, the noise deepened and intensified into a full-throated roar which some of the hearers have likened to the sound of a great conflagration, others to the booming of thunder or the rumble of the rollers on a skating-rink, while some described it as resembling the harsh clamour of a train emerging from a tunnel.

At this stage the tornado was just getting into the full momentum of its spin, imparting to every object within the radius of its terrific suction a circular motion from left to right which increased in velocity every second. Bushes, trees and big rocks were snatched out of the earth and went flying aloft to be flung contemptuously aside, miles from their original situation, like the discarded toys of a malicious Titan. Then, when the storm-demon had covered just over a mile, it struck the first building in its path, the Catholic Church on Calvary Hill. The structure was torn asunder as easily as though a charge of dynamite had been exploded inside, its timbers and other materials went whirling up to join the mad dance of uprooted trees and boulders in the vortex of the tornado. Two and a half miles away at St. Cloud, one of the chandeliers which had hung from the roof-beams of the church suddenly crashed down into a yard out of the sky, giving the first startling indication that something more serious was afoot than a merely heavy storm. Having finished with the church, the tornado swept grandly on, battering a few farms out of existence; another few moments and it was on St. Cloud itself.

It made its primary assault on the quarter where the foreign population of labourers employed on the railroads - a considerable element, as might be gathered from the town's very name, taken from that of the famous Parisian suburb - lived scattered along the slope of the river bank. Their light-built frame houses were like egg-crates in the grip of the howling monster. It picked them up and tossed them aloft, it tore them into a thousand pieces and scattered them far and wide, leaving only their gaping cellars to show where they had stood. Straight through the district it swirled, cutting a path a quarter of a mile in width and as clean as marks the reaping machine's passage through a field of corn. The air was filled with a storm of flying fragments, which beat down every living thing with merciless fury. Taken entirely by surprise, the wretched inmates fled screaming from their frail dwellings and rushed about aimlessly in the midst of the dark cloud of dust and the avalanche of boards and brick. Men lost their presence of mind completely; instead of plunging into the cellars they remained in the open, stupidly incapable of thought or action, until the raining debris struck them to earth. In two minutes twenty people had been killed and forty injured; then the black devil was gone as suddenly as it had come, leaving behind it the smashed wreckage, the dead and the maimed, and a curious, powerful smell of ozone in the air....

Next in the path of the storm lay the freight-house and yard of the Manitoba Railroad. Fortunately the employees - the operators in the telegraph office and the men loading up cars with freight - saw the dreadful apparition bearing down on them and had just time enough to fly for refuge into the cellars. The roof of the freight-house was lifted bodily and carried for a distance of several hundred yards, the walls were burst asunder, and the goods awaiting transport were whirled away into space and scattered piecemeal over a wide area. Outside in the yard the storm played a wilder game of destruction still. Iron rails were wrenched from their ties and twisted into knots as easily as though they had been strips of tin, telegraph poles were torn up and the wires twirled into fantastic bundles. On the track were standing twenty-five loaded trucks: the tornado picked up fifteen of them and smashed them to pieces in a shapeless mass of splintered woodwork and contorted iron, while one box-car was whirled away in the grasp of the storm for a distance of three blocks and dropped into a ravine. The whole thing took far less time to happen than it has to tell; almost before the cowering railway employees had realised what was going on the tornado had passed on its way, heading now for the village of Sauk Rapids, three miles farther along the river. For a few moments after its departure, St. Cloud remained plunged in the silent inertia of its first stunned horror. Then the faculties of realisation and movement returned, and the surviving citizens made a frenzied rush for the stricken section of the town, tearing like madmen at the piles of dirt and debris from which shrieks and groans told of fellow creatures pinned down in agony. The scene was terrible - houses, trees, telegraph poles and wires and wrecked conveyances lay heaped in an inextricable tangle, the ground was strewn with dead bodies of human beings and animals.

As though the better to indulge in a grim dance of elation at the death and havoc dealt out so ruthlessly on this helpless township, the tornado now split up into two whirling cones, which moved slowly on towards Sauk Rapids in close company. One there who saw the double-columned giant as it approached tells us that "its appearance was like two steam boilers or cylinders, hundreds of feet in diameter, their height undefined, with many perforations, from which steam passed and screamed and roared as, with incredible velocity, they whirled, now close together and now farther apart." It must have been an appalling and awe-inspiring spectacle.

Majestic, stupendous and grimly unhurrying, as though knowing that they could afford to bide their own pleasure, the twin monsters swept onward till they came to the river-crossing in front of the village, and here again a striking demonstration was given of that freakish caprice which is such a common feature in the behaviour of tornadoes. Facing each other, and only a short distance apart, were a flouring-mill, with an immense warehouse attached, and a lumber-mill. The lumber-mill and its frail office were scarcely even shaken by the passage of the whirlwind; the flouring-mill and warehouse, on the other hand, were battered and crushed into a rubbish heap. Just beside them, and below the rapids, was a magnificent wrought-iron wagon bridge. Two spans of this were torn away, ripping out great blocks of granite bodily from the supporting piers; the ironwork was whirled up into the air, strung into crooked, twisted bars, and one span hurled upstream and the other in the contrary direction by the rotary motion of the blast. "Fishermen who were in full view of the crossing," says Mr. Hover, "aver that for a few moments the bed of the Mississippi was swept dry; and in corroboration of this remarkable statement they showed me a marshy spot where no water had been before this event took place."

With even fiercer violence than had been manifested at St. Cloud, the double tornado next attacked the village itself of Sauk Rapids, ploughing its quarter-mile-wide path straight through the central portion. Its terrors were irresistible and pitiless; in exactly six minutes the best part of the place was demolished. Stores, hotels, a brewery and four-fifths of the dwelling houses were scattered along the hillsides as mere rubbish, or borne away for miles through the air. A splendid new schoolhouse which had just been completed at a cost of $15,000 was smashed out of existence in a matter of seconds. Sauk Rapids being the county seat, the courthouse was located here; it was a substantial structure, but the tornadoes left nothing to mark its site beyond the vault, six iron safes and the calaboose - the latter being turned upside down. Of what had been a fine skating-rink, nothing remained afterwards but the bare floor. As for the Episcopal Church, that was so utterly pulverized and whirled away in splinters that the sole relic of it ever found was a battered communion-plate. The Northern Pacific -Railroad depot, too, was literally blown away, and a large number of the freight-cars standing there were hurled from the tracks and overturned.

>>> Next page >>>
Pages: <1> 2

Pictures for The St. Cloud Tornado Horror

Home | Privacy Policy | Copyright | About