Fergus Falls F5 Tornado of June 22, 1919

On the evening of June 22, 1919, an F5 tornado struck the city of Fergus Falls, MN around 446 pm, killing 57 and injuring 200. About 400 buildings were destroyed, including 228 homes, and lumber was carried for 10 miles.  A blank check was found 60 miles away with Lake Alice filled with lumber and debris.

This tornado was the second deadliest in Minnesota history, and the most deadly tornado to occur in the Grand Forks National Weather Service (NWS) County Warning Area (CWA). The tornado tore at least a 20 mile path of destruction, and was 400 yards wide. There were numerous reports of extreme damage, such as train tracks being pulled out of the ground. This type of destruction is only seen with EF5(F5) tornadoes, but indicates that these tornadoes can occur in our area.  

While limited meteorological data was available during 1919, it appears evident that a classic tornado environment was in place for the Fergus Falls F5 tornado. A surface map (pictured below) indicates low pressure was around the Fargo area during the time the tornado touched down. Personal accounts indicate the temperatures were in the mid to upper 80s, and it was oppressive with dewpoints likely around 72 degrees. The upper level flow was from the west since the storm tracked from the west/northwest to east/southeast through Fergus Falls. The tornado occurred just north of a surface warm front where shear was likely maximized, leading to an F5 tornado.

Below is a summary of the tornado based on accounts included in the book "The Great Fergus Falls, Minnesota Cyclone of June 22, 1919" by Lance E. Johnson, who was born and raised in Fergus Falls.

 Sunday, June 22, 1919 

3:00-4:30 p.m. - In Fergus Falls, it's hot (85-88º) and humid. A cold front is moving in from the northwest, colliding with a "stubborn warm front," and creating a line of black, grumbling clouds in the distance.
 
Barometric pressure is dropping. The rumbling grows louder and louder. Unlike regular thunder, it's a continuous rumble "like many steel drums rolling across the floor of a distant palace."
 
There's an eerie stillness--no wind at all. ("Even the dogs stopped barking.") The clouds are churning/boiling with flashes of lightning inside. It's becoming so dark that people turn on the lights.

4:30-4:40 p.m. - The train from Fergus Falls to Fargo is about two miles northwest of FF, coming up to the Pelican River bridge. Passengers spot a small rope-shaped waterspout moving along the Pelican River nearby. As they're watching it, it suddenly gets very dark in the train, and a second small rope-like tornado, "writhing like a snake," slams into the middle of the train. Five cars derail onto an embankment--the last two cars and the engine stay on the tracks. 

A few minutes later, a downpour starts that quickly becomes a torrent. Just as the passengers have climbed out of the cars, they scramble back in again when another small rope-like tornado comes and takes its turn at the derailed cars--then chews up some nearby farm buildings. Fortunately there were no deaths--just some injuries.
 
4:40 p.m. - In FF there is almost total darkness and loud continuous thundering. Rain begins to fall in drops "big as [silver] dollars."
 
4:42 p.m. - As the downpour continues, a sudden freak hailstorm drops chunks of ice as large as baseballs in scattered sections [of the city]. Some children run out into their yards and gather them in order to make ice cream.
 

"Farmers stood in their yards outside the city watching as the boiling, black clouds continued their journey and descent into Fergus Falls. It looked to them like smoke from a hundred oilwell fires as the formation was constantly rolling and billowing with what looked like 'tufts of cotton' forming around its edges. Looking straight up, one saw what appeared to be a patchwork quilt with the yarn-ties being pulled out one by one. By now, the roar was so loud that people knew it was not a freight train they heard."  

4:46 p.m. - "Suddenly and without warning, the sky dropped..." A large funnel drops in the vicinity of Vine & Summit and moves northeast through residential sections towards Lake Alice where it becomes a waterspout briefly. It continues its destruction on the other side for a few blocks before retreating back into the clouds. In about 20 seconds it has traveled slightly more than a half mile.
 
4:50 p.m. - A monster funnel drops to the ground on the north side of FF a few blocks south of the State Hospital. Starting at ca. 800 ft in diameter, it soon grows to over 1200 ft, stretching 3 blocks from the west side of Lake Alice west to Vine St. (It ran over the first third of the path of the first funnel). "As if guided by some remote control to do the most damage imagineable, ..." it proceeds south through the center of town through residential sections, then veers ESE into the business district, then east through more residences and out of town. By then it's lost most of its diameter and become another small rope-like funnel. It turns SSE and travels another one and a half miles before dissipating.
 
Also, "The gushing rain turned the streets into angry rivers." but by 5 p.m. it had turned into a light drizzle. According to another source, 3.5" of rain fell in that 20-minute period, adding to the destruction in every building still standing that had all or part of its roof torn off.
 

Below is a damage track map from the Johnson book:

 Damage Track

 

 

Below are pictures from the Monthly Weather Review in 1919:

 Surface Map

Surface Map 2 hours after tornado struck 

 

Damage picture 1

 

Damage picture 2

 

 

If anyone has pictures or stories pertaining to the Fergus Falls F5 tornado, please send an email to David.Kellenbenz@noaa.gov.

References:

Johnson, L.E., 1982 and 1996: The Great Fergus Falls, Minnesota Cyclone of June 22, 1919.

Brooks, C.F., 1919: Tornado at Fergus Falls, MN., June 22, 1919. Mon. Wea. Rev., 47, 392–393.

Grazulis, T.P., 1993: Significant Tornadoes 1680-1991.

 


USA.gov is the U.S. government's official web portal to all federal, state and local government web resources and services.