by Steve Heriot, photo by Otter Tail County Historical Society
Cyclone, a colloquial term for a tornado, was coined in the late-1700s. Its more technical meteorological definition refers to either a typhoon or hurricane. However, the tornado that struck Fergus Falls on June 22, 1919, is still known and referred to locally as ‘The Cyclone.’ There is a good reason why a century-old storm would still be remembered in Fergus Falls, as it was the second deadliest tornado to ever strike Minnesota, killing nearly 60 people and injuring hundreds of others.
The tornado hit at 4:46 on a very humid Sunday afternoon. Witnesses describe seeing a “black funnel-shaped, twisting
cloud.” Some saw three funnel clouds, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) experts who have studied photos of the wreckage surmise that the storm was an F5 on the Fujita Tornado Damage Scale. Less than one percent of all tornadoes reach that level of destructive power, with winds estimated at between 261 and 318 mph.
The multiple vortex tornado was on the ground for 20 miles and was estimated to be a quarter mile wide. The power of the storm was so great that debris was found 60 miles east of Fergus Falls. Damage was also reported in nearby towns, and bridges were washed out by heavy rain in many places.
The tornado tore through the northern part of town, leveling 44 city blocks (including the business district), completely destroying 159 homes and damaging 250 more. The power of the tornado was awesome, ripping entire buildings off their foundations and turning them upside down. The twister reduced steel bridges to piles of scrap iron. Of the nearly 60 people who died, at least 35 of them were in the Grand Hotel, a three-story, 100 room establishment that was completely flattened in the tragedy. The tornado also destroyed the Otter Tail County courthouse, the county jail, four churches, and multiple other businesses. The Northern Pacific rail depot was completely destroyed and swept away. Trees in town were uprooted and debarked, and railroad tracks were reportedly pulled from the ground at one location.
The Great Northern 11-car passenger train, the “Oriental Limited,” was hit by the twister when it was six miles east of Fergus Falls. It was thrown into the air and off the tracks by the tornado, but none of the 250 passengers on the train were seriously injured.
At Lake Alice and One Mile Lake, summer homes were swept into the water along with their occupants, resulting in several fatalities. Old photos show the lake nearly covered by wooden debris from the storm.
After all of this destruction, the city ran short on food, lost power and all its communications. Martial law was declared and the town was put under the military control of the Minnesota National Guard. Clean-up efforts involved both civilian volunteers and military personnel, who picked through the rubble looking for survivors and victims. Then came the massive project of cleaning up, removing debris and rebuilding the city. A memorial to the people who lost their lives is in place on the northeast side of Lake Alice.
The story of the 1919 Cyclone is undoubtedly one of utter destruction. However, there are also many stories of the resolute steadfastness of the victims, and of the many unselfish acts performed by people helping neighbors to recover and rebuild. To commemorate this historic event several activities are planned this year including a new exhibit at the Otter Tail County Historical Museum and Cyclone Days June 20-23.
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