Elgin, MN Tornado, Jul 1883


Elgin, Wabashaw County, suffered worse than any other place. A special says: "Every business building in town is down or unroofed. Mrs. Thayer, an estimable lady, is killed and two or three other persons are badly injured. The church and school-house, both substantial structures, are flat on the ground. A good many private dwellings are also in ruins. The storm seemed to take the centre of the town and moved with terrific force and velocity. William Bower had a fractured hip and thinks the injuries were caused by his being caught in the ruins of his house. The elevators are partly damaged and the station building is almost a complete wreck. We have brought all the aid and physicians possible to assist from Plainview. The width of the cyclone belt was about two miles. The injured are: Miss Edith Delton, fractured skull, serious; Mrs. Frank Kessler, fractured skull; John Townsend, spine injured. A number of people were hurt slightly, but the above list embraces all serious casualties by missiles. Nearly every tree in town was blown down. A German blacksmith was working when the wind took the entire shop and carried it off, and not trace of it is left. All the stores are almost a complete wreck. The office of Sufferer's Hotel was carried away some distance. The inmates, including Emanuel Wiel, a shoe salesman of Milwaukee, all escaped by hurriedly going down in the cellar. The storm was accompanied by all the phenomena that mark a genuine cyclone.

The movement was rotary and the shape of the ruins corresponds to this movement. The dismay of citizens while ruin was being wrought was past description. Most of the suffering residents are persons of small means, and many of them will be unable to rally from their misfortune without some assistance. This state of affairs is aggravated by the fact that the crops of many of these same people, on farms lying within the storm limits, are destroyed or greatly damaged. The area of injury to crops is not extensive, as the storm seems to have been, so far as can be learned here, largely local.

The New York Times, New York, NY 23 Jul 1883


Elgin MN July 21, 1883 Cyclone

Chapter 12
Pages 69 ~ 90

From the book
Compiled by Franklyn Curtiss-Wedge and Others
Published Winona, MN by H. C. Cooper, Jr., & Co., 1920

The Elgin Cyclone of July 21, 1883, was an event never to be forgotten in this vicinity. Contemporaneous accounts of the event in the newspapers of the time, give a complete description of the devastation wrought.

No warning of the catastrophe was given. For some days the weather had been unsettled with light rains. The morning of Saturday, July 21, was somewhat cloudy. Nothing untoward happened in the forenoon, and at noon the people betook themselves to dinner. About this time the skies commenced to darken, the rain to fall, the wind to rise and the thunder to roll, and people began to quicken their steps in order to seek shelter from what they imagined would prove to be an ordinary midsummer thunder and rainstorm. Fortunate for them it was that they did so; fortunately it was that the school was closed; providential it was that the devastating wind struck the village at a time when nearly all the people had reached their homes, and together with their wives and children, had been afforded a few seconds' time in which to fly for refuge to their cellars.

At about 12:10 the furious wind burst upon the village; with the pent-up force of whirlwind and tornado, hurricane and cyclone combined, lashed up to a degree of fury hitherto wholly unknown in this section of the country. Whirling, twisting, wrenching and tearing, it broke upon the defenseless village, and in less than two minutes' time literally blew it to atoms. So wholly unexpected was the occurrence that there was no time for the exercise of any thought save that of personal safety, and but barely time for that. In far less time than it takes to write it, the prosperous little village was a scene of dire wreck and desolation. Within the brief space of two minutes' time whole rows of buildings were leveled to the ground, some piled on top of others; houses lifted up bodily by the force of the wind, overturned, and their inmates violently thrown out and injured; other houses crushed and actually ground to pieces; acres of crops throughout the town laid waste; large trees twisted off at the trunk, five feet from the ground, leaving the roots in the soil; every business house in the place wrecked or unroofed; horses, cows and other cattle mangled and killed, and some of these, together with heavy timber from the lumberyard, parts of buildings and other weighty articles, picked up by the wind, lifted high in the air, and sent whirling through space, to come crashing to the earth at forty rods and more distant. The general line the storm took through the town was from about west to east, bearing slightly toward the north, nor was its greatest degree of force attained until it reached the village of Elgin, where it burst and scattered in different directions.

Almost immediately after the storm, the sun shone out bright and clear, but soon the clouds again appeared, and a heavy rain added to the discomfort of the people, all that day and night and the next day.

The arrival of the 1 P.M. train going north to Plainview was the first means the inhabitants of Elgin had of communicating the terrible news of the disaster to the outside world, the telegraph poles and wires being blown down for the distance of about a mile and a half, and the electrical elements having affected the wires as far north as Plainview. At about 1:30 P.M., E. T. Rollins, who was then telegraph operator at the Elgin office, in the railroad depot, by going along the track to about a mile south of the village, managed to make connections with the broken wires and telegraph the fact of the occurrence to Eyota, and by these means was the news first made known. The response was as generously and promptly made as it was needed; money, clothing, food, merchandise and lumber from different parts of the northwest was sent in by kind hearts, to be received by willing and thankful hands. The afternoon train from Plainview brought at least two hundred persons from that place to the scene of the disaster, eager to render all the immediate assistance so needful, while from all portions of the adjoining country people began to pour into the unfortunate village and help in the work of clearing away the wreck and aid in providing means of shelter for the homeless. The injured received all the attention and care possible from a big-hearted, whole-souled people, and before night arrived there were none but who had at least been temporarily provided for. As soon as some of the leading citizens could be assembled together a relief committee was organized, composed of Elijah Ordway, Alex. Scott, H. G. Richardson, Dr. W. T. Adams and Dorr Dickerman.

The people of Plainview and neighboring towns entered into the good work with remarkable generosity and enterprise, and at a meeting held in the Methodist Episcopal church at Plainview that night upward of $200 in cash was raised for immediate use. Early next morning a large delegation of men volunteered their services, came to Elgin and labored all day in the rain in the work of providing shelter for the houseless, and helping to save much of the perishable goods that stood exposed to the weather.

The only person killed was Mrs. Z. S. Thayer, about thirty-five years of age, and a native of Elgin. She kept a millinery store on Park street, adjoining the drug store occupied by A. L. Kimber. Mrs. Thayer was found lying partly across the counter, crushed beneath the roof. Her little girl, Maud, was found in the ruins, under a counter, unharmed. Edith Dillon, aged about twenty, had her skull fractured; William Bowen, seventy-six years of age, had a thigh broken, and John Townsend's child, about eight years old, was injured about the spine. R. W. Chapman, A. L. Kimber, and a few others, were more or less injured.

A detailed description of the damage wrought by the storm gives something of a picture of the development that had been reached in Elgin and vicinity up to that time.

On Park street, the principal business street, which runs east and west, across the railroad track, stood a large two-story frame building, owned by E. O. Morton, the first floor of which was occupied by Frank Ressler as a meat market and F. A. Amaden as a harness-shop, and the second by R. W. Chapman as a dwelling. Here, no doubt, was the most miraculous escape in the whole disaster. The building was completely wrecked, and yet four persons, Mr. and Mrs. Chapman and Edith and Hattie Dillon, were thrown out with the wreck and escaped with their lives; two of the four only, Edith Dillon and R. W. Chapman, being injured, as before stated. On the same side of the street were two one-story frame buildings, one belonging to and occupied as a dwelling by Frank Ressler, and the other owned by A. Y. Felton, of Plainview, and occupied by Thomas C. Udell as an agricultural machinery warehouse. The front of Ressler's dwelling was thrown ten or twelve feet off the foundation and the building partly unroofed, while Felton's was racked nearly to pieces. On the other side of the street the storm played similar havoc. The two- story frame building belonging to George Bryant, the lower part of which was occupied by Mrs. Z. S. Thayer as a millinery store, and the upper floor by John M. Townsend and family as a dwelling, was left a total wreck, as was also the other two-story frame building next door, owned by Richardson Bros., and occupied by A. L Kimber as a drug store and dwelling. Mrs. Kimber saved herself and child by seeking the security of the cellar; but Mr. Kimber and John M. Townsend's family escaped by mere chance. Mr. Kimber was caught between the two buildings, which stood not over two feet apart, and it was with difficulty that he was extricated from the debris unharmed.

Mr. Townsend's family, like Mr. Chapman's across the way, were indoors at the time the house was struck. They were not thrown out, however, but came down with the wreck, and with the exception of the one child mentioned landed safe and sound. Mrs. Thayer, who was in the store below, met her death as already stated. A little farther west, on the same street, stood E. Ordway's new two-story frame building, the lower part of which was used by Ordway, Dickerman & Co., as a storeroom, and the upper floor as the lodge-room of Elgin Lodge, No. 115, A. F. & A. M. This entire building was destroyed. Ordway, Dickerman & Co.'s hardware store was unroofed, and the second story of Frank Kiernan's saloon and billiard-room blown off, while Bryant Bros. & Johnson's large store, which had but lately been occupied by A. Ludke, was badly racked, and the second story partly blown down. The railroad station depot received but slight damages. The north end of J. W. Bryant & Co.'s grain elevator was demolished, and the structure racked. Richardson Bros.' grain elevator was slightly damaged, their lumber office and sheds were all down, and much of the lumber in the sheds picked up by the wind and scattered in every direction. Van Dusen & Co.'s coal-sheds near the depot were a total wreck, and E. Meilke's Northwestern Hotel, west of the station, was partly unroofed ad badly used up. Fred. Meyer's blacksmith shop on Grain street, and Henry Claussen's house and barn on Van Dusen street were completely destroyed. H. G. Richardson & Co.'s house, occupied by A. Meilke, had the front torn off and was otherwise damaged, while Henry Claussen's shoeshop was not greatly injured. Capt. J. B. Norton's house opposite was racked, chimney down, stable and outbuildings leveled to the ground, hay lost and buggy broken to pieces.

This includes all of the buildings on Park street, and those north of Park street and west of the railroad track. Another street about as greatly devastated as Park street was Main street, which is in the eastern part of the village, running north and south. Commencing on this street where it is crossed by Dry creek, the bridge over which was torn to pieces, the first house, that of David Houghton, which was somewhat damaged, and a fine barn completely demolished. The next place is that of Benjamin H. Gould, which fared somewhat better, but was racked, a post from David Houghton's barn crashing through its north side. Mark Richardson's outhouses, sheds and stables were all demolished. At w. B. Porter's and W. H. Gilman's, trees two and a half feet through were broken off near the ground and thrown in all directions. The houses were not greatly damaged. Mr. Porter's barn was completely ruined, and a corner of Mr. Gilman's house was badly broken from the fall of a large tree. The corner of Main and Center streets, where stood William Bowen's house and barn, was swept clean. A few pieces of boards and a few sections of roofing scattered pell-mell, together with a few broken articles of furniture, was all that was left to indicate that a dwelling once stood on the gaping cellar. Mr. Bowen was alone in the house when the storm struck it. He was picked up unconscious on the road, covered with mud and sand. Further southward on Main street is the residence of John M. Houghton; the house was partly unroofed and badly racked, barn unroofed and outbuildings completely destroyed. On the corner of Main and Mill streets stands the store of H. G. Richardson & Co., where the post-office is also situated. The new main part of this building was unroofed, and the back part badly racked, and the barn back of it completely demolished. Mrs. Woodward's dwelling across the way, owned by H. G. Richardson & Co., escaped as free from injuries, probably, as any house in town, as did also the blacksmith- shop south of it owned by Richardson Bros., and occupied by Mercer Bros.; but the next building, which was also the property of Richardson Bros., and occupied as a wagon-shop by Alex. Scott, was unroofed and several new carriages badly damaged. The residences of Charles S. Richardson, E. O. Morton and Mrs. Seeley, then occupied by William Baker, on Mill street, were comparatively uninjured. John Graham's house escaped very fortunately. The trees were so badly broken, that at first one had to cut his way to it with an ax, but the house was all right. George Farrar's old house, occupied by Fred. Westover, was unroofed, and the second story partly torn down, and D. W. T. Adams, south of this had his barn and outbuildings completely demolished and his house slightly racked. Opposite were E. W. Westover, whose house was pushed back six or eight feet from the foundation, and F. A. Amsden, living in a house belonging to Richardson Bros., which was unroofed and had one corner blown off.

South Street runs east and west along the southern boundary of the village plat. On the north side of the street, and just west of the railroad track, stood the large barn owned by George Bryant, which was almost entirely demolished. The residence in front of it escaped with but slight damages, as did also Miss Mary Ann Bryant's residence; but her other house, occupied by Fred Meyers, was left half unroofed. Dorr Dickerman's new house, just enclosed, was laid flat on the ground, but the Congregational parsonage, which he occupied, received no material damage. The Methodist church, a beautiful little edifice which cost about four thousand dollars, was a total ruin, hardly a stick left standing, but the parsonage on the lot adjoining, occupied by Ref. J. W. Stebbins, escaped with partial damages. George Farrar's fine barn and his house weathered the storm very well. N. H. Moody's house escaped comparatively uninjured, but the handsome and commodious schoolhouse south of it, at the head of School street, was a complete wreck. E. Ordway's residence was but little damaged, but the Eureka house, north of it on School street, owned by Thomas Mathieson and managed by M. H. Safford, was considerably racked. The southern portion of the building was shoved back twelve feet from the foundation, and the barn leveled to the earth. Farther east on South street, on the bank of the Whitewater, lay the wreck of Charles S. Richardson's barn and windmill, and just east of this, on the north side of the street, was a most remarkable example of the unparalleled force of the wind. Alex Scott's residence, a strong story- and-a-half frame building, on a stone foundation, was built here on rising land overlooking the village. It was taken up bodily from its foundation by the wind, turned upside down and hurled through the air with tremendous force a distance of several rods, when it was dashed to the earth, and, together with all its contents, was reduced almost to splinters. Mr. Scott, who, with his wife and child, had sought refuge in the cellar, suddenly found themselves exposed to the beating rain, their house having been lifted off their heads with as much ease as if it had been made of paper.

These details of the ruin in the village give but a partial view of the real devastation. Trees were mangled and twisted in all sorts of shapes and felled to the ground, window-panes shattered, shutters broken, shingles torn off and scattered, the chimneys all down, fences laid low, plank walks torn up, and all along the streets and on the vacant lots the ground strewn with broken lumber, shingles, pillows, bed quilts, household utensils, clothing, fragments of furniture, in fact a mixed assortment of anything and everything.

The one-story house occupied by Mrs. Proctor and owned by Charles S. Richardson, east of the village, was unroofed and about half a story torn off. The house of Lucien Metcalf was half wrecked, his barn and cribs unroofed, his hay-sheds all torn to pieces and the place mangled up generally. Walter Dunn's house was racked and his barns unroofed. The hay-sheds and windmills of O. V. and I. W. Rollins, Joseph and H. G. Richardson were all more or less damaged, and Abner Smith's granary, sheds and corn-cribs were down flat. George Wedge's barn received some damages. H. D. Wedge lost a mile and a half of fence. J. E. Brown had his barn, granary and sheds blown over. J. R. Hunter lost his stable, and a few others suffered to a greater or less extent as far as Jacob Haessig's farm.

Half a mile west of the village is the farm of Curtis Bryant. He lost a large barn, together with corn-cribs and other buildings, while four of his horses and two colts were killed. One of the colts, a three-year-old, was taken by the wind from in front of his house and carried north about forty rods, over fences and buildings, and found dead. Col. W. H. Feller's barn was unroofed, house damaged, granary moved off the foundation, and another building down flat. Frank M. Bigelow's large barn was down to the plates and partly moved on the foundation, the house considerably damaged and windmill blown to pieces. Fred C. Hartson's house, occupied by Judson Hudson, was taken by the wind thirty feet from its foundation and utterly demolished, but Mr. Hudson, his wife, child and sister escaped from the flying debris safe and sound. A place occupied by Mrs. Amelia Drake had a stable and granary blown down, besides trees destroyed. William Tornow, tenant on William Brown's farm, suffered severely, and Mr. Brown had a barn and granary demolished, containing 400 bushels of oats, 150 bushels of wheat and 15 tons of hay, which were all destroyed. The storm made terrible havoc among his trees and timber. At this point there appeared to be a succession of storms constantly forming, which spread out nearly two miles in width. H. G. Richardson & Co.'s house west of this, Gus Warner, tenant, had the barn and granary blown down, besides trees badly damaged. Charles Dobbins had his stable, swine-house and granary blown down, house partly wrecked and partly unroofed, his stock hurt and trees badly injured. A plank 2 x 6 inches, broken from a hay-rake, was carried from about 150 feet southeast of the house and crushed a hole through the west side of the house. The granary of Harrison Rice was blown down and his stable destroyed. He lost thirty tons of hay and twelve acres of corn, and his house was partly unroofed. Henry C. Woodruff had his barn blown down, which was a great loss, as he had water-works in the barn attached to his windmill, which was also blown down. His house was partly unroofed, and his loss in timber and fruit-trees was irreparable, as it had taken him nearly twenty years to grow them. Pursuing further westward, the following damage was wrought by the relentless wind: William Cook, machine-shed and corn-crib injured, wagonhouse, henhouse and windmill down, roof on barn moved, and fine grove destroyed. William Searles, barn unroofed, corn-crib and stable partly unroofed, hay and machine sheds and windmill torn down, seventy-five tons of hay destroyed, and thirty acres of timber badly damaged. August Swanke, house badly racked and shingles torn off, barn partly unroofed, granary, shed and stable destroyed. A. B. Hart, house, machine-house and sheds blown down, and fifteen acres of timber damaged. Mrs. Hart and child escaped by going down to the cellar. E. Raymond, a tool-house, 45 x 60, and a cow-shed and stable, 25 x 200, blown down. On another place he lost two houses and a barn, seventy tons of hay and a windmill, and had forty acres of timber destroyed. A. Park, barn unroofed, sheds partly unroofed, hoghouse moved, henhouse destroyed. H. Southwick, barn unroofed, sheds down and five acres of timber destroyed. Mr. Patrick, stable blown down and house injured. M. Nash, house partly unroofed and the furniture damaged. Mr. Fitch's shade-trees down, and a number of cherry trees torn out by the roots. A. Demke, granary badly broken up, James W. Finney, on Mr. Taylor's farm, house partly unroofed and moved off the foundation, and barn, granary and corn-crib wrecked. August Barrent, on Henry Dewitz's place, lost everything he had. The house, two granaries and barn were demolished, all the furniture destroyed and clothing blown away. Mr. Barrent and family were caught up by the wind and hurled skyward with the flying debris, one of the boys being carried by the wind southeast about forty feet, then northwest about sixty fee and south twenty fee, landing him on a wood-pile; then he was seized again and carried about twenty-five feet and left in a ditch. Another boy was carried about sixty feet and dropped in a small creek. Strange to say, neither was much hurt. John Twitten, hay and sheep sheds blown down, besides a hog-house, 16 x 80, and the house partly unroofed. Thomas Brooks' farm, occupied by Joseph Hines: the house was carried from the foundation fifteen or twenty feet, where it struck a willow tree, and was hurled about six feet beyond the tree, that keeping it from entirely falling, only a part of it being blown off. The family were in the house, and the tree keeping the building from falling doubtless saved their lives, although some were quite badly hurt. The barn, sheep-shed, 30 x 40, granary and hog-house, 16 x 80, were destroyed. At another farm, owned by Thomas Brooks, a granary was blown down. The Fitch schoolhouse was laid perfectly flat, the bell alone remaining to show the site. Duane W. Searles' buildings were partly down, while F. Bennie lost his barn, granary and part of his house. W. H. White, barn blown down, granary injured, shingles torn off the house and the windmill blown down. A hired man in the barn was carried with it, being injured about the heard. A horse was hurt, fences on one side of the farm carried off, and the fruit trees nearly all destroyed. Forty tons of hay were scattered. A. B. Stacy, house racked, chimneys blown down, wagon-house, granary and hay-sheds leveled, and buggy and machinery broken, fences and thirty tons of hay blown away. Harry Dodge, fruit trees injured and hay blown away. S. Snow, house partly unroofed and kitchen blown down; barn, hay-sheds and stable entirely destroyed, machinery, wagon and cutter demolished and hay blown away. The two houses, barns, sheds, granary and machine-house of D. M. and F. G. Harvey were laid flat, not a vestige of the buildings being left. Their hay was blown away, machinery broken and crops destroyed. Fred and James Harvey's house was swept down, Mrs. Harvey being caught and held by timbers, but fortunately but little hurt. George Harvey's windmill and three sheds were blown over. On the Dieter place, occupied by E. F. Dodge, the house was carried eighty-five feet, and the L demolished. Mrs. Dodge, with her baby and girl ten years old, ran down the cellar as soon as the doors of the house blew open, and Mr. Dodge started for the same place with another little girl, but did not reach it, being carried away with the house, luckily escaping injury. After the storm was over one of his boys crept from the debris of the L unhurt.

The stone schoolhouse on the Lake City road was almost entirely demolished. Then still further, the storm continued, carrying it out of Wabasha County.

A month later the "Rochester Cyclone" swept over the country, but did no damage in Elgin and the immediate vicinity.

After the Elgin Cyclone the work of reconstruction started, and a better, larger village soon arose on the ruins.