Stats from Thomas Grazulis in Significant Tornadoes

Path length: 25 miles

Width:  1500 yards

Fatalities: 37

Injuries:  200

Rating:  F5

County:  Dodge, Olmsted

Foreword

The measurements given throughout this summary are not official; they were taken by writer Nelson Tucker based on his analysis of the event. He did his best to refrain from including any report that he believed to be suspect so as to present as factual a narrative as is possible 137 years later.

Main Summary

On August 21, 1883, at least three significant tornadoes struck the Upper Midwest; one of these came to be known as the Rochester tornado. Tornadoes are naturally destructive, and that is typically a focus when discussing any such event. Yet when the infamous Rochester tornado is brought up, it is nearly always relating to the opposite; the creation of something wonderful. For out of the death and ruin of a torn apart Minnesota town, resolve was forged. Resolve, not just to recover, which Rochester did, but to be better the next time. And better, not in the self interest of any one person but for the welfare of others. We know what came out of the tornado: the Mayo Clinic. We also know what that organization is today – it has changed the world. Far less explored is the story of the tornado. This summary focuses on remembering those who suffered in this terrible disaster and how the Mayo Clinic was born from the wreckage of Rochester.

At 5:25 PM CDT, the tornado formed about four and a half miles to the northwest of Hayfield in far northeastern Westfield township. Here, the property of Wm. Slow was the first to be struck. All buildings on the farm were demolished and the wife of Wm. Slow was injured. Several more farms were damaged as the tornado moved northeast, passing within mere miles of areas struck exactly a month earlier by another deadly tornado known as the Elgin Cyclone. Van Frank’s large frame house was demolished and his mother severely injured after being buried under a collapsed cellar wall. The most notable loss of life in the county was approximately six miles after the starting point. Frank Helmbrecht Sr. and his wife were caught by surprise as they were walking from the harvest field to the house when the tornado struck. Mr. Helmbrecht was severely injured, and his wife was torn from his grasp by the winds. The body of Mrs. Helmbrecht was not found until the next morning in a neighboring cornfield. She was stated to have been “terribly mutilated,” with one part of her leg and an arm “blown entirely away.” Two and a half miles to the east was the farm of Mr. Molda, where every building was wiped out. In addition, Mr. Molda’s 80-year-old mother-in-law was killed while his wife was critically injured. The tornado was over two thirds of a mile wide at this point. A mile and a half northeast of the Molda property was the house of Chris Oleson. His wife and child took shelter in the cellar but even there, they were both killed. The last farm to be totally destroyed in the county was owned by Ole Berg near the Dodge/Olmsted County border, two and a quarter miles east-northeast of the Olesons. His losses included a large frame barn with 100 tons of hay inside and his stone house. 26 properties in total were found to have sustained some form of damage from this storm within Dodge County.

The tornado crossed into Olmsted County and moved through Salem Township, where several more farms were swept away. Here, we have determined that the tornado reached a maximum width well beyond one and a half miles. After crossing into Rochester Township, it gradually began to shrink to slightly over a mile wide. The tornado was likely in a gradual weakening trend as it moved through Rochester Township. Several more homes were said to be destroyed, but the ferocity of the destruction to those farmsteads and the immediate area around them was not of the magnitude exhibited earlier in the track. A grove of timber was reportedly destroyed “for a width of a mile.” One farmer on the northern edge of the path in Cascade Township (just west of Rochester) had a very close call as the outer circulation passed through the southern end of his property, tearing up several trees. On approach to Rochester, the tornado was described as a black cone shaped funnel from which smaller cones originated, showing the multi-vortex structure of the storm.

The tornado was roughly 2/3rds of a mile in width as it entered the town of Rochester proper and traversed the business center, weaker than it had previously been but still devastating. Many brick store buildings were severely damaged and largely destroyed. The dome and part of the roof of the courthouse were blown off. 35 children were sheltering inside the Congregational Church. The steeple was blown off but fortunately missed the children. The spires of the German Lutheran, Congregational, and Methodist churches were also removed, the roof and one of the walls of the Methodist church being heavily damaged. The upper story of the Catholic parsonage and a frame store building were demolished, and numerous other structures in this area were damaged or destroyed.

The tornado began to narrow and dramatically intensify as it moved past the business district and towards the Zumbro River. Schools were destroyed and warehouses leveled. Becoming ever stronger, it sharply curved from an east-northeast movement to tracking directly north. This movement had the center paralleling the western bank of the river. A large steel railroad bridge that crossed over the water was crumpled like a soda can, barely left attached to its stone pier anchoring and mashed as a twisted wreck north into the river. Nearby railcars were blown from the tracks. Agricultural buildings were destroyed, including a grain elevator that was split in two. On the other side of the river, some of the gravestones in the Oakwood Cemetery were knocked over. One of the survivors of this tornado, Charles H. Mayo, witnessed the tornado as it was tearing through Rochester: A terrible wind began to blow and just as we got across the bridge on North Broadway, the bridge tumbled down. A little farther we saw two elevators fall. We got to the old Cook corner in time to see the cornice of the building blow off; part of it struck our horse; he got loose from the buggy and ran up Broadway and into a stone blacksmith shop. Doctor Will and I reached there just as its tin roof was blown off…we kept close to the stone wall and watched the storm…A little later when we were going up College Street, we heard there had been people injured so we went back to see what we could do for them.

The tornado moved into North Rochester near maximum intensity. This part of the area consisted of poorer, working-class neighborhoods. It is where all of the fatalities directly within the town occurred as a narrow swath of probable F5 damage tore the community apart. The extent of the damage in North Rochester was carefully analyzed, and it has been found that the damage here was agonizingly enhanced because this tornado completed what is called a trochoidal loop. In this case, the tornado curved further to the northwest and looped over itself in North Rochester, not only increasing the extent but also the duration of the most devastating winds in that area. Dozens of homes were swept clean and ground into tiny pieces with the remains uniformly strewn for long distances. Per the Star Tribune Newspaper on the dead in North Rochester about three days after the event, “The injuries were mainly about the heads of the victims, which were begrimed as if the bodies had been dragged… Many agonizing scenes were witnessed as bodies were brought to light. Several children who could not be identified were found.” A description of the vegetation damage in this area is quoted by Mr. Bell from the Winona Daily Republican. Any shade trees that were still remaining were “stripped of leaves and bark, perfectly smooth, and on the southeast side covered with a deposit of mud, the ground swept bare of vegetation, and in places plowed with boards and timber, fence posts blown out of the ground, potatoes with the tops blown away and literally dug and lying exposed on the surface.” Outside of the core and on the other side of the river, a several story stone and wood mill was damaged with some upper story walls blown in and the roof torn off. The owner of the mill, John Cole, was exiting the mill when he was struck by timber and hurled. His body was found in a street, and “not a bone in his body was left unbroken.” A reporter from the Iowa County Democrat also stated that “Animals were dashed against stone walls, and their backs and bones crushed to powder. The roar of the fierce surge was like nothing ever heard before.” A two and a half-inch wide oak board was driven through a poplar tree only four and a half inches in diameter. A 100 dollar certificate of deposit from one of the homes was found 110 miles away.

Four photographs taken from Cole’s Mill were manually stitched together by Nelson Tucker to give a panoramic view of the damage in North Rochester. The center of the image is facing due west. All the images that were combined here are from the Minnesota Historical Society.

Mercifully, the tornado completed its trochoidal loop and moved east northeast, finally crossing the Zumbro River. Having drastically narrowed to an estimated width of about a third of a mile, the tornado continued, perhaps at maximum intensity, from North Rochester through Haverfield and much of Viola Township. Eventually, the tornado widened again to a width of well over three-quarters of a mile wide. More extreme damage incidents occurred in these townships as gravel ballast from a railroad was reportedly scooped out “cleaner than man could do it.” One 100 acre cornfield was “laid flat and every leaf stripped from the stalk.” Along the track, there were several reports of cornfields swept clean, with even the stubble blown away. Homes too were wiped clean, some without any trace left behind near the foundations and the pieces scattered for miles. One of the farms struck belonged to Henry Stanchfield in Viola Township. Mrs. Stanchfield was about to step down into their cellar when the house was lifted and thrown from its foundation. Reportedly, she fell through the opening for the cellar stairs and between the foundation walls, grabbing onto a lilac bush bending into the house from the wind. Mrs. Stanchfield suffered severe bruising but she and her children, who were also in the cellar, survived otherwise unharmed.

Several miles down the road was Mr. Richardson’s farm, where an even more remarkable story of survival happened. His son, Henry, was heading into a barn when the tornado struck. The barn was thoroughly wiped away by the tornado. Henry grabbed onto a post but the tornado ripped the post out of the ground throwing them both a small distance. Henry then “clung to the ground and grass, and all of the time realized his situation. His back is pounded almost to a jelly and both shoulder blades are more or less injured… Had he sustained the same blows upon the front of his body that he did upon his back death would undoubtedly have ensued.”

By the time the tornado entered Quincy Township, it was less than a half-mile in width but still intense enough to sweep away several more houses and level farms. The last farm to be destroyed by this tornado was the Welles farm. Here, the farmhouse was completely swept away and the unattached stone blocks making up the foundation were thrown as much as 80 yards away. The tornado then crossed into the Whitewater River Valley before ending four and a quarter miles south-southeast of Plainview, possibly moving into extreme southern Wabasha County before dissipation.

Back in Rochester, the rescue work began at once. The stars had come out within an hour, and “there was calm and silence save as broken by the groans of the wounded and the dying.” The scene was particularly horrific in the poorer northern residential areas, considered by several sources as unable to be described with words. The carcasses of animals and humans alike littered the area. Houses were swept clean with bits and pieces scattered in all directions. Grass and shrubs were ripped out of the ground and shredded, with blades of grass and other debris embedded in denuded and debarked trees. Some wounded had dirt and powdered stone forced into cuts. Several sources purportedly claim that two mothers whose children were taken by the tornado when shown the recovered bodies could not identify if they were their own or not.

The town had no hospital, no permanent set place to treat the wounded. The best they had was the Convent of the Sisters of St. Francis – overseen by Mother Alfred – along with three medical professionals who lived in the town. Those three would be Doctor William W. Mayo and his sons Doctor William J. Mayo and medical student Charles H. Mayo. Forty injured were laid down on the parlor floor of the convent until cots could be found. The rest of the injured that night were stored in various homes and offices. Bodies that were recovered were laid out in a hotel.

The next day most of the injured were transferred to an improvised hospital in a dance hall. Over the next few days, many were given to friends and treated at private houses. However, even with the aid of the sisters, there was not enough help. Volunteers were willing but had homes and families themselves to look after. The conditions of some of the impacted families were heartbreaking, an example of one being shown below.

This clipping from the Winona Daily Times newspaper of August 24, 1883, shows one example of how families were ripped apart by the tornado. “Carl Quigg” is believed to be a misspelling of “Charles Quick.”

Rochester pushed through the disaster. People rebuilt, and life was said to have seemingly returned to normal. However, this crisis had sparked an idea in the mind of Mother Alfred. Per the book The Sisters’ Story: Saint Marys Hospital-Mayo Clinic, 1889 to 1939, “Characteristically, after the tornado, she assessed how she and others in the Rochester community might have better served the sick and injured. It was imperative, she concluded, that Rochester has a hospital, and for Mother Alfred, ‘to think was to do’.”

After bringing the idea to Dr. Mayo and obtaining his approval, Mother Alfred spent the next four years undertaking a rigorous campaign raising money for the hospital. Once that portion was completed, Dr. Mayo and his sons pooled their knowledge to plan out the construction of the building, Dr. Mayo stating “the hospital must be the best and most modern that means allowed.” Finally, the hospital (originally called Saint Mary’s) opened on September 30, 1889 – a little over six years after the disaster.

A photo of Saint Mary's Hospital taken in 1898. Later, the building would be renamed the Mayo Clinic Hospital. The photograph is featured courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

Today, the Mayo Clinic is one of the leading innovators in medical science. Currently ranked as of this writing in 2020 by U.S. News & World Report as the number one honor roll hospital in the United States, their work has changed the world. There would not be so much as a scale for grading cancer without the Mayo Clinic. And it all began with a tornado in a small Minnesota town in the summer of 1883.

A photo taken of the Mayo Clinic Hospital on Saint Mary’s Campus in 2005. There are now more than 30 Mayo Clinic buildings alone in Rochester. Photograph courtesy of Wikipedia.

In Loving Memory

This is a list compiled from various sources of all dead that could be reasonably confirmed and was created by Nelson Tucker. A few names that are believed to have been incorrectly identified as killed have not been included. The three available reliable sources on this matter all dispute the toll, and ours matches none of them. See the statement below for our count.

List of the dead:

In Dodge County:

Mrs. F. Helmbrecht

Mrs. Ole Mulda

Mrs. Chris Olson

Mrs. Chris Olson’s infant

Ole Johnson

Mrs. Knut Christopherson

Between Dodge/Olmsted County border and Rochester:

Johnson Lillo

Johnson Lillo’s father

In the town of Rochester:

John M. Cole

Mrs. McQuillen

Mrs. Steele

Mrs. Maria Zierath

August Zierath

Mr. Osborne

Mr. Osborne’s infant daughter

Mrs. Fred Clough

Mrs. D. Wetherby

Mrs. Wetherby

Jacob Hetzel

William Higgins

Mrs. Quick

Mrs. Quick’s child

Mr. Charles Quick

Miss Mahala McCormick

Mrs. Parker

Mrs. Schultz

Mrs. Charles Rothke

Mrs. McMasters

Mr. Hanson

Mrs. Seth Gordy

Beyond Rochester to the end of the path near the Olmsted/Wabasha County border:

Mr. Canty

Mr. Hamlin

In total, our death toll sits at 39. At least six were killed in Dodge County, and it is unknown if any others died of injuries in that area after the storm. Between the Dodge/Olmsted County border two were killed. In the town of Rochester, 22 named victims were killed, and seven more remain unidentified. Four of those were buried bodies that were never identified, and three were taken by friends or family before a name could be requested. Two people in Rochester were never found, though those are not included in our death toll. Finally, two more were killed from immediately beyond Rochester to the end of the path.

Tornado Path

Coordinates have been determined by examination of the damage path. Using numerous damage accounts and 116 specific damaged properties that were able to be exactly georeferenced with Plat Maps (along with the input of many other less specifiable ones), it has been determined after careful consideration that Grazulis may have underestimated the path length and width of this tornado. The path length is estimated at 43 miles with a maximum width of 2900 yards. Damage believed to have resulted from strong straight-line winds was excluded from these measurements as best as possible. Damage path analysis and creation by Nelson Tucker.

SPC coordinates:  Start: 43.917922 / -92.929501  End:  44.109370 / -92.137742     

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

A zoomed-in look at the damage path with overlaid maps of Rochester in 1878. These maps are featured with permission from the Minnesota Historical Society. Created by Nelson Tucker.
The track overlaid on modern-day Rochester to show what it would look like if this happened in 2020. The tornado could be orders of magnitude more devastating if it happened today. In 1880, the population of the city was a little over 5,000. As of 2020, the population is estimated to be about 120,000. The track would go directly over all of the main Mayo Clinic hospitals in Rochester and every skyscraper in the city. The width of the tornado would encompass the entirety of downtown Rochester and strike far more residential housing. Overlaid map created by Nelson Tucker.

Damage Photographs

All photographs of the damage in Rochester below, unless otherwise stated, are present with the permission of the Minnesota Historical Society. 

Damage to Cole’s Mill.
Damage to Cole’s Mill.
Damage to Cole’s Mill.
Damage to Cole’s Mill.
Damage to Cole’s Mill.
Damage to Cole’s Mill.
The complete destruction of an iron railroad bridge that formerly ran across the Zumbro River.
Catastrophic damage to North Rochester as seen from Cole’s Mill.
Damaged homes in Rochester.
The T. P. Hall Buggy Works building lost part of its roof and side.
A mill that was heavily damaged after the tornado.
A brick business that collapsed.
A house that was leveled.
Two destroyed homes and dead livestock can be seen in this photo.
Ruins of the Baldwin's Barn.
Ruins of the Weber residence.
Ruins of C. Smith’s residence.
Ruins of the Proud residence.
Remains of the Northrop School.
Chicago & North Western Railroad yards.
Chicago & North Western Railroad yards.
Ruins of Rochester Harvester Works.
Ruins of Rochester Harvester Works.
Ruins of Rochester Harvester Works.
Ruins of a machine shop.
Damage near Cascade Park.
Rolled up tin roof from the Heaney building.
Damage to the Methodist Church.
Ruins of an unknown home.
Housing damage along Broadway Street.
Housing damage along Broadway Street.
Damage to Vedder's Farm Machinery Depot.
Damage to an unknown home in North Rochester.
Debarked trees and damage to unknown homes.
Damage to unknown homes.
A tree that was twisted near Cole’s Mill.
Damage to unknown homes.
This photograph was taken from the 1912 Windstorm and Windstorm Insurance book showing the destruction of a schoolhouse.

Photograph via Facebook

Discrepancies:

We gathered information for these discrepancies from John Finley in Tornadoes, Thomas Grazulis in Significant Tornadoes, the NCDC memorandum, the August 1883 Monthly Weather Review, and Nelson’s own analysis and found the following differences:

Rating:

  • Grazulis lists this tornado as an F5. In our opinion, the contextual damage fully supports this rating.
  • An NCDC memorandum does not include this tornado in its list of F5 tornadoes.

    Deaths:

    • Grazulis lists a death total of 37
    • Finley lists a death total of 56
    • MWR lists a death total fo 31
    • We have determined a likely death toll of 39

    Injuries:

    • Grazulis lists 200 injuries
    • Finley lists 80 injuries
    • MWR lists 100 injuries

    Path Length:

    • Grazulis lists a path length of 25 miles
    • MWR lists a path length of 18 miles
    • Plotting and examination of reported damage by Nelson Tucker shows that this tornado had a path length of approximately 43 miles. 

    Path Width:

    • Grazulis lists a width of 1500 yards
    • Plotting and examination of reported damage by Nelson Tucker shows that this tornado had a maximum width of 2900 yards.  

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