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
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.
"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."
Below is a damage track map from the Johnson book:
Below are pictures from the Monthly Weather Review in 1919:
Surface Map 2 hours after tornado struck
If anyone has pictures or stories pertaining to the Fergus Falls F5 tornado, please send an email to David.Kellenbenz@noaa.gov.
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.