Scorching heat gave way to green-tinged skies on August 21, 1883, when a violent tornado ripped through Rochester, then a southeastern Minnesota wheat center of about 5,000 people.
But Rochester had no hospital. Not yet anyway.
Injuries from the intense tornado prompted Franciscan nuns to push for a hospital, and St. Marys opened six years after the storm. Today it is one of two medical campuses (Methodist is the other) that make up Mayo Clinic Hospital in Rochester.
The tornado hit with a huge roar at 7 p.m. on Tuesday evening, sending residents rushing to their basements. As the storm passed and the stars appeared, the sound of “screams and moans” punctuated the scene, according to newspaper accounts.
“Yesterday Rochester was one of the finest towns in southern Minnesota, with fine wide streets, shaded with magnificent trees, containing many important commercial structures and dwellings, and a large number of expensive houses, and peopled with a affluent populace and intelligent class of citizens,” according to the Minneapolis Tribune. “Today it presents a picture of indescribable devastation.”
The tornado swept away the steeples of the churches and the dome of the courthouse. It derailed a train, collapsed a railway bridge and destroyed more than 100 buildings, including homes, schools, mills and grain elevators. The death toll reached more than 30, with at least 200 injured.
Rochester Mayor Samuel Whitten said a third of the city was flattened by what weather historian Thomas Grazulis has since ruled to be an F5 tornado, the ranking of the meanest tornadoes.
A little boy broke his leg and wrist when he was ‘picked up by the tornado, thrown across the Zumbro River and dropped off near Oak Wood Cemetery, where all the headstones had been blown away’, according to accounts local.
With no nearby hospital, 40 of the injured spent the first night at the convent of the Sisters of Saint Francis. A local doctor, Dr. William Worrall Mayo, rushed to help the injured in his office, the Buck Hotel, a dance hall and the pavilion of the German Library Association.
Then 64, Mayo had emigrated from England in his twenties, working first as a pharmacist in New York and heading west as a tailor and medical student. After completing his education in the 1850s, he moved to Le Sueur, where he also worked as a farmer, ferry operator, justice of the peace and newspaper publisher to supplement his income.
The Union Army rejected Mayo’s offer to become a regimental surgeon in 1861, but he landed an appointment a few years later to assess recruits for the enrollment board in Rochester. He and his wife, Louise, settled there and started a family, including sons Will and Charlie.
Will graduated from the University of Michigan Medical School in 1883, the same year as the tornado. Charlie was 18 when the storm hit and would eventually receive medical training in Chicago. Both boys had been riding with their father in medical races for years.
The Sisters of St. Francis had taken refuge in the basement of their convent when the funnel cloud approached, while the Mayo brothers hid in a blacksmith shop. Their father urged them to treat dozens of injured people that night at the convent.
After the storm caught them off guard, Mother Alfred Moes began to lobby for a hospital in Rochester. “But when she pitched the idea to Mayo, he balked at the plan,” according to a St. Marys story.
At the time, hospitals were seen as a place to die, and the Mayos weren’t sure Rochester was big enough to support an expensive new one. Elder Mayo estimated it would cost $40,000, or about $1.2 million in today’s dollars.
“Just promise me you’ll take over our hospital,” Mother Alfred told her, “and we’ll immediately put the building in front of you.”
Over four years, the nuns raised the $40,000 to open St. Marys Hospital. It opened in the fall of 1889, a day before its scheduled grand opening, when Dr. Charlie and Dr. Will jumped at the gun and removed a cancerous tumor from a patient’s eye. The Mayos took in eight more patients that first week.
“For many decades, Rochester residents dated cyclone events and headed straight for the basement whenever a storm approached,” according to MNopedia.com. “But as long as the Mayo Clinic exists, Rochester will be remembered for their perseverance in the wake of tragedy.”
Mother Alfred spent the first few months supervising a team of sisters assigned as nurses who shoveled coal, delivered meals to patients, and drew water from the basement. She ceded control to younger sisters in 1890 and retired to St. Paul, where she died at age 71 in 1899. For years afterward, the nuns she led across the Midwest were known under the name “Al’s gals”.
Curt Brown’s Tales of Minnesota History appear every Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at [email protected] His latest book looks at Minnesota in 1918, when flu, war, and fires converged: strib.mn/MN1918.