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March Mania

Wayback Wednesday: Deadly Fergus Falls "Great Cyclone" happened 100 years ago this week

A view of downtown Fergus Falls, Minn., after a deadly tornado hit the town on June 22, 1919. Wikimedia Commons / Special to The Forum

FERGUS FALLS, Minn. — Saturday, June 22, marks the 100th anniversary of one of the worst disasters in Minnesota history, the Fergus Falls "Great Cyclone" of 1919.

The tornado killed 57 people, including 34 in the elegant Grand Hotel that stood on the northeast corner of Lincoln and Vine. Lance Johnson, who wrote the 1982 book "The Great Fergus Falls, Minnesota Cyclone of June 22, 1919," says it took rescuers a week to dig out all of the bodies. In fact, two-thirds of the city was either damaged or destroyed.

"Looking south from the Regional Treatment Center (formerly called the State Hospital), the west side of Fergus looked like Hiroshima after the atomic bomb," Johnson says.

Johnson explains in his book that people in Fergus Falls were already reeling from the devastating flu epidemic the year before, which had killed 235 people in Otter Tail County alone. By mid-June 1919, Johnson says people in western Minnesota were enduring "oppressive, sultry" air. By Sunday, June 22, 1919, four funnel clouds developed — two in Fergus Falls and two south of Carlisle. (While a cyclone is technically different than a tornado, defined as any circular windstorm while a tornado is defined as a violent windstorm characterized by a funnel cloud, people in 1919 used the words interchangeably.)

Johnson says every church in town was destroyed except one baptist church, and the destruction around town was massive.

"You could walk across Lake Alice without touching water because of the debris," he says.

While insurance only covered about 5 percent of the damage, Johnson says Fergus Falls city leaders, including Mayor George Frankberg, helped chart the course for the future, showing "tremendous courage" to get their city back.

"They refused to give up, but instead rebuilt with an all-consuming passion and constructed monumental public buildings and churches far beyond what they could afford," he says.