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Clouds Warned Town of Epic Tornado

June 7, 1999

MILWAUKEE (AP) _ Battered by flying debris and soaked by rain, survivors of tornado that had torn apart their town and killed 117 people hopped on horses and rode 10 miles to summon help _ by telegraph.

The first doctors and rescue supplies arrived at midnight _ by train.

A century ago, disaster was unforeseeable and relief was, by today’s standards, primitive.

``There was no CNN, C-SPAN, no Red Cross, no federal or state aid,″ said Lynn Regnier, executive director of the New Richmond Preservation Society. ``The telegraph and telephone went out, so people had to get on horseback and ride.″

The twister that struck the small farming community of New Richmond late on the sultry afternoon of June 12, 1899, caused the eighth greatest recorded loss of life by a single tornado in the United States. It remains the deadliest ever in Wisconsin.

In six to seven minutes, the cyclone decimated the town about 300 miles northwest of Milwaukee. It flattened many Victorian neighborhoods and reduced New Richmond’s business district to rubble, sweeping away a cigar factory, several saloons, the livery, three churches and more than 200 other structures.

It killed 400 animals, including some from the Gollmar Brothers’ two-ring circus, whose attractions had swollen the town’s population of 2,000 with visitors. At least 150 people were injured.

``It essentially cut out the heart of the town and left a few tattered corners,″ said Mary Sather, curator of the New Richmond Heritage Center.

Blanche M. Powers, a 2-year-old toddler when the twister hit, is one of two known living survivors.

``One of my uncles came running over and took my brother and sister’s hands and took them to grandfather’s cellar,″ Powers said. ``My mother picked me up and followed.″

Powers, now 102, still remembers stories she was told, mainly by her mother, about huddling in the cellar with 16 family members and several passersby.

``Nobody got killed, except my grandfather was very tall and he got hit by a couch leg flying through the air,″ she said. ``My grandmother took her white underskirt off and made bandages. His head bled.″

On Saturday, on the tornado’s 100th anniversary, New Richmond will pause to dedicate its new Cyclone Memorial Park, with 117 trees, and read aloud the victims’ names as church bells toll. The Preservation Society is offering a weekend full of events to commemorate the centennial.

Tornadoes today aren’t likely to take as many lives because of advance warning capabilities.

``Back then they didn’t have weather radars, organized spotters,″ said Rusty Kapela, a National Weather Service forecaster. ``People didn’t know what was coming other than with their eyes.″

One who spotted trouble coming was Margaret Walsh, who was heading home from the circus with her 4-year-old son, Charles, when she stopped at a corner to chat with a friend.

``They saw the storm approaching. They saw black clouds and thought they better hurry home,″ said Walsh’s daughter, 100-year-old Bernadette E. Byrne, the other known survivor, who was then 10 months old.

The pair made it home as rain, then hail, provided a brief respite from the sultry day. But Walsh later learned that the friend she’d stopped to talk with died in the cyclone, along with that woman’s husband and child.

An eyewitness said two funnel clouds merged to form a huge, twisting column over Lake St. Croix. It turned northeast, hugging the ground and gaining force as it took aim at New Richmond, according to ``A Modern Herculaneum,″ a 1900 history of the tornado’s wrath by schoolteacher Anna P. Epley.

``The noise increased and the darkness became deeper and denser,″ Epley wrote. ``One after another each building was wrenched and twisted, lifted from its foundation, crushed and scattered by a restless and venomous force.″

People huddled together in terror wherever they could find a place, Sather said.

``After they came out, they were stunned and in shock,″ she said. ``It was a feeling of unreal. One of the survivors said the air was so thick and the pressure was so terrible they could hardly breathe.″

Survivors searched for loved ones among ruins of homes, some of which were burning after the tornado toppled their kerosene lamps and wood stoves stoked for supper.

``They were wandering around with just the clothes on their backs,″ Regnier said. ``The dead and injured were taken to several churches. There were people trapped in the fires. Even though it was raining, it wasn’t putting out the fires because they were so low underneath the rubble.″

At Byrne’s house, the winds ripped off windows and doors but left the building standing. Her mother told of the many victims who came to their door.

``That evening people kept coming to our house looking for dry clothing,″ Byrne said. ``People were going through our closets and dresser drawers. Some of the people she knew, and some she didn’t.″

Relief supplies arrived from towns throughout Wisconsin and Minnesota. Sixteen states gave money, according to historical accounts.

Four of the 117 people killed were never identified. They are buried at Immaculate Conception Church Cemetery in New Richmond.

``There were a lot of people from other areas, people passing through,″ Regnier said. ``It was June. It was hot, and they had to bury them quickly.″

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