The history of significant tornadoes in west-central Wisconsin is thankfully sparse. Ask someone to name one, and the three most likely answers would be the 1958 Colfax tornado (a particularly strong storm that is in the living memory of quite a few locals), the 1899 New Richmond tornado (which killed 117 and remains the deadliest in state history), or the July 15, 1980 windstorm (technically a combination of weak tornadoes and a derecho, a.k.a. straight line winds) that brought Eau Claire to its knees.
These were all storms worthy of infamy, but there was another that has been nearly forgotten. The Friday the 13th tornado of June 1930 claimed seven lives and spread a swath of destruction from eastern Minnesota through rural Dunn County and downtown Eau Claire before fizzling out five miles west of Wausau. In the city of Eau Claire, almost thirty homes were destroyed and property damage was estimated at $1 million, which would be $17.5 million today. The lumber industry and other businesses sustained significant losses. The Red Cross identified seventy-two area families who were in “urgent need,” some left with only the clothes on their backs. While power was restored to parts of the city less than two hours after the storm, most had to wait a week for electricity. Only about a quarter of Eau Claire’s 26,287 residents had telephones, but that service was also interrupted.
The tornado was a major disaster for the Chippewa Valley, but as the country plunged into the Great Depression there were greater concerns in the public consciousness, and memories of the storm faded. Yet those who were injured or killed, and those who lost homes or livelihoods, deserve to be remembered along with the victims of more famous storms.
The twister first struck the tiny Minnesota town of Randolph, where it killed railroad employee William Drappe, 43. The next lives lost would be in Dunn County, where fourteen-year-old Lorraine Roach died as her family’s cottage at Pine Point on Tainter Lake was torn apart. Charles Wolbert, 41, was the head of the Wolbert Ice Company, and his farm included a small dam and power plant–all of which were destroyed. Charles was killed along with wife, Kathryn, 42; employee Louis Haynes, 23; and neighbor Mrs. Carl Kaiser, 19 (whose own first name seems lost to history, despite diligent searching on the author’s part).
The only fatality in Eau Claire County was John Logan Sr., 65, whose farm was in Scott’s Valley, between Allen and Augusta. He was hit by falling debris as his barn collapsed, and died at Sacred Heart Hospital.
In 1930, Sacred Heart Hospital was on North Dewey Street by the Neo-Romanesque church that still overlooks downtown. The high vantagepoint afforded Dr. Arthur Haag a terrifying view of the approaching funnel amid flashes of snapping power lines. Hospital staff had ten minutes to prepare for the storm and the inevitable injuries. The tornado passed two hundred feet to their north-west, downing thirty trees, and causing minor injuries due to glass flying from broken windows. Miraculously, no one died in the city of Eau Claire, and less than a dozen were treated at hospitals.
One of the most ravaged spots in the city was the Pioneer Furniture Company at the corner of North Oxford and Maxon (near the current site of the Eau Claire Children’s Theater and the Brewing Projekt). The entire third floor of the main building was swept away, two other buildings were demolished, the factory lost its roof, and all windows were broken.
The storm blew through the ten acres on Cameron Street owned by the Evans-Lee Lumber Company, leaving only one of fifteen buildings intact and lumber strewn about like matchsticks. A tall chimney was blown from the roof of the Ninth Ward school, then crashed through two floors and ended up in the basement, leaving a ten-foot hole. Debris from sawmills on one side of Dells Pond blew across into homes on the opposite side of the lake.
There are countless more harrowing stories from that turbulent night, but hopefully this brief look into the past helps to ensure that the Forgotten Tornado of 1930 is forgotten no more.
Want to brush up on other tornadoes in the Badger State?
Or if you want to delve more into Eau Claire’s history, we have plenty of books on that!