CITY IN RUINS
WHAT: Storm (Cyclone/Tornado)
WHEN: August 21, 1918 at approximately 9:20 p.m.
WHERE: Tyler, Minnesota
FATALITIES: 36 (with over 200 injured)
Late in the evening on August 21, 1918, an F-4 tornado with reported winds of 225-250 miles per hour tore through the small Southeastern Minnesota town of Tyler.
The storm started at around 9:20 p.m. and lasted for approximately two hours. The swath was reportedly as wide as a city block. The business district and many homes were completely destroyed. It is still the 4th largest tornado in Minnesota history.
Debris from Tyler was found up to 23 miles away. The estimated cost of the damage was over $1 million.
Due to the remote location of Tyler, 16 miles from the South Dakota border and miles away from any sizable city, early news of the storm varied wildly.
The Bemidji Daily Pioneer the next day ran a bulletin from the United Press stating that one hundred people had perished in the headlines but quotes John Erickson, who had returned from Tyler at noon, who believed 25 dead and 50 to 60 injured.
The Bismarck Tribune from next day was the most accurate and succinct in the coverage of the storm
“The tornado tore through the heart of the town sparing only one building, a motion picture theater in which 200 persons were sheltered.
Persons engaged in rescue work said that 125 injured victims was a conservative estimate. Forty residences, the hospital, electric light plant and other buildings were destroyed. The storm raged until 11:25 p.m. and dozens of persons were pinioned under debris before being rescued. The tornado came from the east. Roofs were ripped off the houses and business buildings.”
The next day, rescue and clean-up work began but with some problems. When word got on about the tornado thousands of curious citizens flocked to the area to see the destruction, hampering the relief efforts. Home guardsmen, the precursor to the National Guard, were called and they cordoned off the area to allow work to be done.
Funeral services for many of those killed by the storm were held on Friday, August 23rd. The home guardsmen escorted the funeral processions to the local cemetery.
The Tyler Relief Commission was formed a week after the disaster to assess the damage and provide Tyler with the necessary funds. Article courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society:
The commission, formed on August 31, 1918, consisted of, among others, former governor Samual R. Van Sant as chairman, E. G. Steger as secretary, Edward B. Young, and W. C. Briggs. This commission was also influential in raising funds for victims of the forest fires that occurred in northern Minnesota in that year. Consequently, T. O. F. Herzer took over the secretarial duties of the commission after Steger was sent to help out in northern Minnesota.
At its first meeting, the commission decided that Herzer would go to Tyler to ascertain the amount of damage that the tornado had inflicted upon the town. Herzer received help from the local relief committee, whose most active member was M. Glemmestad. After Herzer’s assessment, the commission determined that $190,960 of the $362,310 in damages needed to be raised from sources outside of Tyler and vicinity. The commission proceeded to ask the other counties and cities of Minnesota to raise donations for the tornado victims. Eventually the commission, with the help of the local relief committee of Tyler, raised $70,030.71. Included in the commission’s financial records are lists of towns, counties, individuals, and organizations, noting how much each donated to the Tyler relief fund.
The commission used claims submitted by people to determine where the money was to be distributed. The financial records contain lists of victims and how much money they received. Claims were sent in either by people who needed money due to damage done by the tornado or by people who had spent money helping the tornado victims. Damage done by the tornado, as seen in some of the claims issued, included broken dishes and windows, and loss on furniture and fixtures. Other claims were submitted by committee members for reimbursement for railroad trips taken to attend meetings in Tyler.
Relief for the victims of forest fires in northern Minnesota had siphoned off a great portion of the money that otherwise might have gone to Tyler. When the legislature and Governor realized this, they appointed a new commission in March, 1919, and appropriated $35,000 from state funds for the commission to distribute (Laws 1919 c62). (Laws 1919 c4 legalized all prior appropriations of public funds by local governments for Tyler tornado relief.) The second commission included many of the same members as the first, and thus the two groups worked jointly and filed their records together. The two commissions disbanded in August of 1921 after submitting a report to Governor J. A. O. Preus that outlined how and to whom their funds were distributed.
[Tyler Relief Commission (Minn.). Tyler Tornado Relief Records. Minnesota Historical Society.]
The state of Minnesota, local communities and the Red Cross worked hard to raise funds for Tyler.
The town was eventually rebuilt over the next few years but never fully thrived. The population of Tyler as of the 2010 Consensus was around 1,100 people, very close to that of Tyler before the cyclone.