125 years ago today, Grand Forks was blown awayGRAND FORKS — A hundred twenty-five years ago today, a tornado ripped through the heart of Grand Forks and East Grand Forks.
By: TJ Jerke, The Dickinson Press
GRAND FORKS — A hundred twenty-five years ago today, a tornado ripped through the heart of Grand Forks and East Grand Forks.
It killed eight, injured 100 and caused an estimated $60,000 in property damage, or about $1.6 million in today’s dollars.
Yet it has been largely lost to the collective memory of area residents. No plaques remember its victims. No history books attested to its destructive power.
That’s where Vince and Nancy Godon, of Grand Forks, and Kelly Kramlich, of Aberdeen, S.D., come in.
In 2006, the Godons, both meteorologists for the National Weather Service office here, were researching climate data in University of North Dakota’s Chester Fritz Library when they stumbled across a photo of damage done to Old Main, once the university’s first building.
The photo read in light pencil, “University after tornado, 1887.”
“We never heard of it, so it sparked our interest,” Vince Godon said.
Five years and countless hours of research later, their book, “Reshaping the Tornado Belt,” was published.
The book was aimed to debunk the theory that tornados cannot develop, “above the tornado belt,” an imaginary line where tornados supposedly could not form north of. The line was drawn at the border of North and South Dakota and cuts Minnesota in half.
It also tells the story of the area’s history that was lost over time, Nancy Godon said.
“The book isn’t just about the tornado, it’s about the history of our town and families, and how we responded,” she said. “There was a lot of damage and deaths after the tornado.”
Had the Enhanced Fujita Scale been in use at the time, the Godons and Kramlich estimated the 1887 tornado would’ve been categorized as an EF3, possibly and EF4, one of the most powerful tornadoes with winds reaching 148 to 210 mph.
It formed southwest of Grand Forks, traveled 20 miles in roughly a straight line — unusual for any tornado — and dissipated northeast of East Grand Forks, according to Vince Godon.
The tornado first touched down near 12th Avenue Northeast on Henry Hallick’s farmstead, now owned by David Burkland.
Burkland, 63, said he found the book in Ferguson Books and Media in Grand Forks, and read it in about four hours. He said the book’s history of the farmstead and description of the railroad intrigued him.
“There is a lot of information out about Grand Forks, and this is one of the few books that addresses it,” he said. “Fortunately, there are people out there that have the interest and willing to do the research; that means a lot.”
A first-hand account by the Minnesota Signal Service, the early National Weather Service, said the storm had “destructive wind and deluging rain.”
The Service estimated the tornado did $60,000 in damage. Old Main, St. Michael’s Catholic Church and the St. Paul, Minneapolis and Manitoba Railroad repair sheds suffered more than $500 in damage.
The winds that accompanied the tornado also proved enormously powerful. Six miles north of Grand Forks, a passenger train consisting of two coaches, one baggage car and a smoker was blown about 50 feet from the track, injuring about 15.
Why has such a great storm been forgotten?
The Godons think many area residents didn’t want to believe it was a tornado.
With pioneers heading west in the 1880s, Vince Godon said Grand Forks and Fargo competed against each other in hopes of attracting new settlers. Grand Forks pitched itself as a safe community that did not have tornadoes, he said
“People say they never knew this happened,” he said. “It seemed like they were trying to cover it up — think it wasn’t called a tornado because, if it occurred here, they couldn’t advertise that they didn’t have tornadoes.”
Many newspaper accounts labeled it as a “strong wind,” he said, but research suggested it was more than that.
The accounts described debris from buildings ending up far enough away and in a circular pattern to indicate a tornado.
“Every time we found a location, with the direction of the winds, you could see the circulation,” said Kramlich. “It’s something that wasn’t what we would normally expect from a straight wind.”
Kramlich was a senior at UND studying atmospheric science when the research began. She was interning at the National Weather Service working with Nancy Godon at the time.
She said the whole event was “downplayed.”
“Anytime you are destroying homes and buildings, it’s time and money put in to rebuild,” said Kramlich, now herself a meteorologist with the National Weather Service office in Aberdeen, S.D. “We don’t know the full extent of it based off newspaper reports, but I do believe it had an impact on the city.”
The extensive research and eventual book turned out to be Kramlich’s senior project.
Kramlich’s main role was to help confirm the tornado’s path by utilizing the newspaper descriptions of the damage.