By Ben Welter
Powerful thunderstorms moved through Minnesota on a steamy Sunday afternoon in July 1890. A huge tornado, later immortalized in a Julius Holm painting, churned across Kohlman Lake, “a little summering place” in what is now Maplewood. At least seven people were killed and dozens injured.
That evening, about 70 miles to the southeast, on Lake Pepin, a much larger tragedy unfolded. A “cyclone” blew in from the west, capsizing a steamer carrying more than 100 passengers and crew up the Mississippi River. A Minneapolis Tribune correspondent who happened to be on the scene told the tale in gripping — if maddeningly chronological — fashion.
An Awful Disaster
At Lake Pepin,
A Steamer Capsizes
With 150 People
The Wind and Waves
Have no Mercy on
Only Twenty Succeed in
People Watch the Awful
Struggle From the
But no One Could Lend
The Storm Drowned the
Cries of the Un-
A Disaster Never Before
Equaled in the
LAKE CITY, Minn., July 13. – [Special.] – What may prove the most disastrous storm in many years passed over this place this evening killing probably 100 people and damaging property to an extent that at this writing cannot be estimated. Your correspondent was visiting friends in Lake City and was sitting in the yard when what appeared to be an ordinary electric storm was noticed coming up from the West. In half an hour the whole heavens were converted into a complete canopy of lightning which was watched with interest by the brave citizens of the little village and with fear by the timid women and children. A little before dark a terrific wind struck the community and your reporter sought the shelter of the house just in time to escape being caught under a huge tree that came crashing down against the house. Windows were closed instantly and none too soon, for the cyclone was upon us and trees and houses were fast being demolished in its path.
|The steamer Sea Wing about a year before the tragedy. (Photo courtesy mnhs.org)|
While my wife, in fear and trembling, sought the seclusion and protection of the cellar in company with the ladies, I assisted in closing shutters and making preparations for the worst that could be expected while trees were heard to be crashing down and missiles were striking against the house. The building proved strong enough to weather the blast, and in half an hour the worst of the hurricane had passed. As soon as the trees had been cleared away from the front of the house your correspondent started out and soon learned
THAT A HORRIBLE CALAMITY
Had befallen the place, that had not been equaled since the St. Cloud cyclone several years ago. People began to gather on the streets, and in a few moments the news was scattered abroad that an excursion boat with over 200 people on it was capsized in the middle of Lake Pepin. The boat proved to be the steamer Sea Wing, which came down the lake from Diamond Bluff, a small place about 17 miles north of here, on an excursion to the encampment of the First regiment, N. G. S. M., which is being held a mile below this city. The steamer started back on the homeward trip about 8 o’clock, and although there were signs of an approaching storm, it was not considered in any way serious, and no danger was anticipated. The boat was crowded to its fullest capacity, about
150 MEN, WOMEN AND CHILDREN
from Red Wing and Diamond Bluff being on board, and about 50 people on a barge which was attached to the side of the steamer. When about opposite Lake City the boat began to feel the effects of the storm; but the officers kept on the way. The storm increased as the boat continued up the lake. In 15 minutes it was at its height. Nearing Central Point, about two miles above Lake City, the steamer was at the mercy of the waves, which were now washing over the boat, and all was confusion. The boat momentarily ran onto a bar and the barge was cut loose, and the steamer again set adrift in the lake. A number of those on the barge jumped and swam ashore. As the barge also floated again into the deep water those on the barge saw the steamer as it was carried helplessly out into the middle of the lake, and as they were being tossed about on the raging waters, they were horrified a moment later to see the steamer and its cargo of 150 people
PRECIPITATE INTO THE LAKE.
Those on the barge remained there until they were drifted nearer the shore and they were all rescued or swam ashore. Among them were two ladies who were brought to the beach by strong and ready swimmers. There were about 50 in all that were on the barge.
The events that transpired on the steamer after it separated from the barge are probably most clearly stated by those who were rescued from it about half an hour ago. It is now 12 o’clock midnight. As soon as the [storm] had begun to affect the progress of the boat, Capt. Weathern [Wethern, actually] gave instructions to run the boat into the Wisconsin shore but it was a too terrible force of wind and wave. In five minutes more the waves began to wash into the boat and fill its lower decks, and while hailstones as large as hen’s eggs came down on the heads of the poor helpless creatures which were huddled together on the top, a huge wave struck the craft on the side at the same moment that a terrific blast of wind, more horribly forcible than the others, came up and carried the boat over, all of the people on board; 150 or more were thrown into the water, some being caught underneath and others thrown into the waves.
The boat turned bottom upwards and only about 25 people were observed to be floating on the surface. These caught hold of the boat and climbed upon the upturned bottom, those first securing a position assisting the others. In 10 minutes more than 25 or so who had obtained momentary safety on the boat could observe no others of the boat crew or passengers floating on the surface of the continuing high sea of waves. Afterwards, however, as a flash of lightning lighted up the surface of the lake, the sight of an occasional white dress of a drowning woman or child was observable, but it was impossible for those who witnessed the horrible sight
TO LEND ANY AID.
Those remaining began calling for help from the shore as soon as the storm began to abate and in half an hour lights were observed flitting about on the pier at Lake City, opposite which point the upturned steamer had now been driven. Before help could reach them, however, the creatures who remained to tell the horrors of the night were again submitted to another battle with the elements, with no word of warning; and as they were just beginning to hope that they would be taken off by the citizens of Lake City, the boat again turned over, this on its side and again all of the 25 remaining souls were hurtled into the water. Of these several were drowned before they could be brought to the boat by those who succeeded in remaining afloat and again securing hold of the boat’s side. As the men hung on to the railing, in danger each moment of being washed away by the waves, one man observed the forms of two women wedged in between a stationary seat and the boat’s side, both pale in death, as the lightning gleams lit up their upturned faces. Another man saw two little girls floating past him as he hung with desperate efforts to the steamer’s side.
|National Guard members survey the wreckage of the Sea Wing. (Photo courtesy mnhs.org)|
Half an hour after the passage of the storm your reporter went with others to the dock where the steamer Ethel Howard was anchored safe from the storm. It was presumed that the steamer would at once proceed to the rescue of the drowning, but when I asked the captain, Mr. Howard, if he was going out to the rescue, he replied that he was not going to run his boat away from the shore until the indication of another approaching storm had disappeared. He said also that he did not propose to run the risk of losing his boat in order to look for dead people out on the lake. Citizens of Lake City, who heard Captain Howard’s remarks, were most severe in their denunciation of this position he assumed in the face of the statements made to him that every minute might mean the saving of a half dozen lives. Many talked of taking the boat away from him by force, but there were not enough to put the threat into execution, and other means of rescue were resorted to. In a few minutes a dozen or more rowboats were manned and put out from the shore. The upturned boat was at last discovered;
THE TWENTY OR MORE REMAINING PEOPLE
Clinging to the boat were rescued and brought to the shore, most of them being men who could swim.
Among those who are known to have been on board the steamer and who are undoubtedly drowned are: Two children of C.H. Reberick, Peter Goken, his wife, five children and hired girl, Fred Sebes, wife and daughter, Mrs. Capt. Wethern and her two children, F. Christ, Wm. Blaker and family of three, Mrs. Hempting and daughter, Gus Beckmark; a Miss Flyn, Bose Adams and Ira Fulton. A full list of the 150 passengers, which are pretty certain to have been drowned, is not obtainable at this writing. A large majority of them were women and children. Those being saved being nearly all strong men, who were able to swim, and cling to the boat, after it had capsized. On the return from the capsized boat with three or four people who had been rescued, one of the row boats encountered two floating bodies, each with a life preserver attached.
In Lake City the damage to property by the cyclone is great, although no fatalities have been reported. Collins Bros.’ saw and planning mill is totally demolished. The roof of the opera house, owned by Mr. Hanisch, was carried away and the stores underneath more or less damaged by the rain and hail.
Up to this time, 1:30 a.m., 62 bodies have been found and laid out.
|Julius Holm’s 1893 oil painting shows the Kohlman Lake tornado as it skirted the edge of St. Paul.|