NEW RICHMOND, Wis. -- Some call them “acts of God” while others attribute them to Mother Nature. Whatever your persuasion, in all of these tragedies there is an inherent human element that is repeated over and over again.
Whether it is the current COVID-19 pandemic forcing us to reconcile ourselves to a new world or the New Richmond cyclone of 1899, these tragedies remind us in the starkest of terms that we are not at the top of the food chain, not the center of universal attention, but rather that we are a part, a small part of the big picture, of life on this planet, that we are mortal and that our time is short, but a blink in an epic story.
Tragedies also draw out of us the qualities that make us most human, our empathy and compassion for one another, in face of a catastrophe, to be at our best for one another when it matters most.
“After the space of deathly silence following the deafening noise of the tornado people awoke from their stupor, and those that were able climbed out of the cellars and places of refuge, their faces blackened and hair, eyes and clothing filled with slimy mud, and many streaming with blood. They looked about them, and saw their homes and places of business, a mass of splintered ruins; acres of ground once occupied by business and residence blocks now presented a confusion of timbers, broken machinery and dead and dying animals. For the width of about a half a mile, extending the greatest length of the city, not a building was left standing.”
That was how Anna Epley, teacher, wife to New Richmond physician Frank P. Epley, mother of five and author of “The New Richmond Tornado of 1899: A Modern Herculaneum,” described the scene following the destruction caused by the deadliest tornado in Wisconsin history.
Despite the lack of any kind of weather watch/warning system, the facts of the June 12, 1899, tornado are well documented with many firsthand observations.
A muggy day
Reports confirmed that Monday, June 12, 1899, was unseasonably warm and muggy. By mid-afternoon, clouds began gathering in the west gradually darkening and becoming more turbulent. About 4:30 p.m., a heavy rain ensued with sporadic small hail for about 20 minutes.
Following the rain, the sky appeared to clear somewhat to the southwest leaving a high but hazy white sky. Against that white sky formed an unusual cloud, so unusual that many people remembered seeing it and shared what they had seen after the fact.
Dr. O.F. Thomas was on a ferry boat on the St. Croix River with several friends.
“Lowering and dark, it had a well-defined margin at the base, but with the upper part less distinct, as it had some other dark clouds for a background … . But what appeared the most peculiar were two protuberances, or inverted cones, which hung from its eastern end. It is difficult to describe them, but imagine two cones suspended, base upward … .
“‘That looks very much like a cyclone,’ said one of a group standing near me. So we were not surprised to see the westward cone suddenly lengthen out to 3 or 4 times its original length and stay in that position for 6 or 8 seconds then suddenly draw back, while the rest of the cloud seemed in violent commotion.”
The tornado initially formed just west of Lake St. Croix. It first touched down on the lake around 5:30 p.m. Water could be seen rising from the surface up into the cloud. The funnel cloud continued to grow in strength as it moved rapidly northward directly up the lake for nearly a mile at which point it turned suddenly eastward and crossed up the bank of the river.
The funnel briefly turned north again, traveling behind the bluffs east of Lake St. Croix bypassing the city of Hudson. The tornado then adjusted course northeasterly toward the communities of Burkhardt and Boardman.
Following a path parallel to the Willow River and Omaha Railroad, the tornado ripped into the southwest corner of New Richmond shortly after 6 p.m.
Ripping up downtown
History showed the city suffered the full brunt of the devastating tornado.
In likely less than 10 minutes, the tornado leveled the downtown business district destroying the post office, power station, waterworks, public library, numerous churches, and the iron bridge connecting the north to the south side of the city. The city’s water tower was carried away and hundreds of feet of lumber from the mill yard were scattered for miles over the neighboring countryside.
What remained was a barren landscape of twisted barkless tees devoid of any landmarks, littered with carcasses of dead and dying livestock, burning piles of debris, twisted iron machinery cast chaotically across the horizon; a heart-wrenching sense that all was lost.
The tornado had downed the telegraph lines into New Richmond and even so, the telegraph was not an adequate means to alert a whole city in just minutes.
Don’t say the word
At the time, the Weather Bureau was prohibited from issuing tornado forecasts or warnings or even using the word tornado in a public release. The reason was two-fold; that the mention of a tornado would cause people to panic and the bureau lacked the basic science to make an accurate prediction. The prohibition was not rescinded until 1938.
Described as a violent, boiling mass consuming every dark cloud it encountered, illuminated by constant lightning, the tornado was obscured from most people’s view by trees and tall buildings until moments before it was upon them. For 117 people, it would be the last thing they would see.
The tornado’s destruction was hellishly indiscriminate, taking the lives of men, women and children, individuals and whole families, rich and poor, healthy and handicapped.
The tornado's timing could not have been more deadly, striking just as people were leaving work, filling the streets and heading home for dinner, The Gollmar Brothers Circus was in town, drawing even more visitors into the community and businesses along Main Street.
In many of the cases where people died, the manner of death was particularly gruesome given the force of the winds, chaotic storm of airborne debris and the crushing impact of collapsing brick buildings. For many of those not killed under the weight of the debris but unable to escape, fire spelled their end:
“The rain came down as if the flood gates of the heavens were opened, yet women were seen to kneel in the streets, in a sea of mud, and offer thanks to Almighty God when a member of their family was found. Still, the fires burned and crept along from heap to heap, ever finding something to feed on underneath.”
According to Epley, of the 117 killed, 26 were children, the youngest being 2-old- old Marion McGrath.
The ninth deadliest tornado in U.S. history injured another 125 people and left hundreds homeless and most without livelihoods. The city of 1,500 residents lost 58 city blocks of businesses and residences covering 175 acres -- “28 so completely demolished as to make the debris fit only for kindling wood.”
Tallies of how much was lost in property and other assets vary from $350,000 to more than $700,000 -- or more than $21 million in today’s dollars.
One of the characteristics unique to many of the accounts is the very personal nature of the reporting. A number of books including Epley's’ were written by residents who lived through the experience. The stories of what happened in the course of those life-changing minutes are told in very intimate and often heart-breaking detail.
“Mr. Arthur Smith found himself in the basement, supporting the bricks of a disrupted chimney with his shoulders, and was so deeply covered that he could not see out. His arms were free, or sufficiently so to permit him to free them. He was bent nearly double. There was very little space to work, and he did not know at which moment the pile of bricks might settle down over him. But he set his teeth together until they broke and carefully working and feeling his way, he drew out bricks and piled them under his feet until he succeeded in getting out. He turned his efforts at once to the freeing of others, until the smoke became so dense that he was obliged to leave. The bruises on his own back and shoulders would have been sufficient burden for him to bear at any other time, but men noticed only great things that night. Obliged to abandon the task, the thought of the ones who were undoubtedly in there yet was like an unspeakable nightmare.”
Although accounts like Epley’s and others at the time estimated the width of the tornado to be 300 to 500 yards and the path of destruction to be 50 to 60 miles, scientists examining the historical record have revised the width to 100 yards and path to 45 miles. They attribute the much wider physical destruction to flying debris, the fact that tornadoes can change in size, and the extreme violence of this particular tornado.
Scientists have rated the 1899 New Richmond Tornado an F4 on the Fujita Scale, meaning that it would have had winds as high as 207-260 mph. and resulted in “expected damage” classified as “devastating” by today’s alert standards.
Black-and-white photographs taken on the scene look all the more desolate because the long exposure required at the time erased any detail in the sky leaving a lifeless white horizon.
In the face of overwhelming adversity and unimaginable grief, the community of New Richmond did find the strength and determination to rebuild but not without help.
“We offer heartfelt thanks to the friends who came to us in our time of distress, and regarded us worthy of the best they called their own; not as paupers, though we were poor indeed, but, being made so through no fault of our own, an opportunity was thus given others to show what manner of men they were. Hungry and athirst, unclothed and homeless, they found us and shared with us, not according to their abundance, but according to the loving kindness in their hearts.” -- Anna P. Epley
Special thanks to Paul Rose, assistant curator New Richmond Heritage Center.
“The New Richmond Tornado: A Modern Herculaneum” by Anna P. Epley
“They Built Their City Twice: A History of New Richmond Wisconsin” by Mary A. Sather
“History of the New Richmond Cyclone of June 12th, 1899” by Mrs. A. G. Boehm
The New Richmond Heritage Center, 1100 Heritage Drive, www.nrheritagecenter.org, 715-246-3276