June 18, 1939 started out as a hot muggy day across most of Minnesota.  The US Weather Bureau recorded temperatures above 80 across southern and central MN.  Sometime around noon, thunderstorms developed along a cold front and tracked across east-central Minnesota producing heavy rainfall, damaging winds and hail.  Around 3:00 PM, one of these severe thunderstorms produced one of the most violent tornadoes to visit the Twin Cities area in recorded history.

The Anoka-Champlin tornado started somewhere south of Corcoran and moved northeastward at a speed of 30 mph.  Shortly after touchdown, the tornado struck an automobile containing 4 people and tossed it 333 yards, killing all of its occupants.  In the area where the car was struck, a row of 4 farms along the road were leveled and debris was scattered over the countryside.  The tornado then moved through the community of Maple Grove where it caused severe damage to multiple farmhouses in the area.

Four miles later, the tornado slammed into the southside of Champlin where it debarked trees, wrapped cars around trees and swept away homes.  As the tornado crossed the river into Anoka, multiple eyewitnesses reported that it momentarily exposed the riverbed of the Mississippi.

As the tornado advanced into Anoka, it grew to a width of nearly 300 yards though slightly decreased in intensity.  Homes were leveled in the residential areas of town and it flattened most of the Anoka armory.  A piece of sheet metal from the armory was carried four blocks.  The Mission Lutheran church in Anoka was demolished and left as a pile of large debris.

The tornado began to intensify again as it left the downtown area and was able to severely damage 10 homes north of Anoka.   After traveling through rural areas, the tornado hit the small village of Cedar where several homes, a creamery and a school were demolished.  After exiting Cedar, the tornado dissipated over a rural area.  The entire path length was estimated at 25 miles.  Paper from Anoka was found up to 70 miles away after the tornado lifted.

In total:  9 people were killed, 222 injured and 340 homes were damaged or destroyed.  $221,343,021 (2020 USD) dollars worth in damage was done making it one of the costliest tornadoes in Minnesota history.

Here are the names of those killed in this tragic event per hometownsource.com

Edward Morrissette (Anoka), Ernest Syring (Anoka), Hannibal Groat (Anoka), Keo Kidd (Osseo), Fred Zimerman (Champlin), Anna Freeman (Minneapolis), Ellen Freeman (Minneapolis), Mr. and Mrs. James Bradley (Minneapolis).

Tornado Path

Estimated coordinates from maps for the tornado track: 

Start: 45.05323 / -93.56584  

Intermediate point:  45.19883  /  93.38156

End:  45.34487 / -93.29147    

Note:  Exact tornado path may not be straight and/or continuous.

Images from the Anoka County Historical Society

Many thanks to the Anoka Historical Society for sending us the following photographs.  From Audra Hilse, “We have many more photos than this, but I tried to pick ones that matched locations mentioned in your article, or that showed a bit more of the personal side of things.” 

The Anoka Armory

The west section of the National Guard armory destroyed by the June 18, 1939 tornado. This photograph was taken looking south from Main Stree and 4th Avenue. There were people in the building when the tornado struck, but they had gone into the basement. The armory was located at 408 East Main St. Anoka, Minnesota. (ACHS Object ID# P974.3.12)
Damage to the Anoka Armory from the 1939 tornado. Photo undated, but c. June 18, 1939. (ACHS Object ID# P2061.5.10)

Universalist Church

This is the only church listed as “Destroyed” in the June 21, 1939 edition of the local newspaper, the Anoka Union, which published a list of all the properties destroyed or damaged by the storm.

Church pews with the church itself blown away by the June 1939 tornado, Anoka. This was the Universalist Church, located at Jackson Street and 4th Avenue. St. Stephen's Catholic Church is visible in the background. Photographer: Edward M. Berntson. (ACHS Object ID# 2932.3.84)

Harrington Family

Harvey and Opal (Walton) Harrington lived at 636 Johnson Street in Anoka with their three children, Philip, Warren, and Bessie Lou. Their home was one of those completely destroyed by the 1939 tornado. The children were about eleven, nine, and six years old, respectively, when the storm hit. After the storm, the children spent some time living at the former Kline Sanitarium (a National Register property and apartment building today), which the Kline family offered as housing for those whose homes had been damaged too badly for habitation.

Destroyed Harrington home at 636 Johnson Street in Anoka, looking west from 7th Avenue. Photographer: Ruth Flynn. (ACHS Object ID# 2017.1804.005)
Harvey Harrington and his son Warren in the ruins of their 636 Johnson Street home after the 1939 Tornado in Anoka. They are examining the remains of a bicycle. (ACHS Object ID# 1030.3.14)
Opal (Walton) Harrington and her daughter Bessie Lou Harrington in the remains of their 636 Johnson Street home after the June 18, 1939 Anoka tornado. They are looking at a sewing machine, and seem to be checking whether or not it still works. (ACHS Object ID# P1029.3.15)

Other Damage

A few other photos of damage or things of interest in Anoka following the storm. Some have places/buildings identified, others do not.

A large tree broken off about 3 or 4 feet above the ground by the 1939 tornado in Anoka, MN. Photographer: Edward M. Berntson. (ACHS Object ID# 2932.3.54)
Window of the Emergency Headquarters for the 1939 tornado in Anoka, MN. The building is currently unidentified. Photographer: Edward M. Berntson. (ACHS Object ID# 2932.3.86)
Men removing furniture from a house destroyed by the 1939 tornado. Photographer: Edward M. Berntson. (ACHS Object ID# 2932.3.83)
Copy of a barometric pressure chart covering the time of the 1939 tornado. Photographer: Edward M. Berntson. (ACHS Object ID# 2932.3.82)
The remains of George A. McCauley's home on 3rd Avenue in Anoka, with a piano in the foreground. The house was destroyed by the 1939 tornado; another damaged home is visible in the background. (ACHS Object ID# P2061.5.14)
Knodt's Grocery located at 7th Avenue and North Street, severely damaged by the 1939 tornado. (ACHS Object ID# P2061.5.17)

Misc Images

1939 Post Card

Videos

This footage was taken by Robert A. Peterson of Anoka, who was on his way back from Minneapolis with a brand new movie camera when he encountered the aftermath of the storm. That camera, and the other equipment that he used to create and edit this film, are all artifacts at ACHS.

Here is the record for the camera: https://mncollections.org/Detail/objects/51580
Records for the related artifacts, including a photograph of Peterson: https://mncollections.org/MultiSearch/Index?search=2018.0844

Newspaper Clippings

Discrepancies:

We gathered information for this event from the NCDC Database, the June 1939 Monthly Weather Review (MWR) and Thomas Grazulis in Significant Tornadoes and found the following differences:

Path Width:

  • NCDC has a width of 400 yards.
  • MWR lists a 300 yard width.
  • Grazulis has a width of 250 yards.

Rating:

  • NCDC has an F5 rating.
  • Grazulis records an F4 rating.

      Sources:

      June 1939 Monthly Weather Review

      1998-1999 Tornadoes and a Long-Term U.S. Tornado Climatology

      Anoka County Historical Society

      Maple Grove Magazine

      newspapers.com

      Grazulis, Thomas P. (1993). Significant Tornadoes 1680-1991: A Chronology and Analysis of Events. St. Johnsbury, VT: The Tornado Project of Environmental Films. Page 885.

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