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How the Mayo Clinic grew out of a devastating tornado

For residents of Rochester, August 21, 1883, began with oppressive heat and ominous stillness.

Cole's Mill after cyclone, Rochester. Photographed by Elmer & Tenney, August 21, 1883. At Cole's Mill, eight cars of flour were overturned, the west end of the mill was blown in, machinery was blown about, and the roof was blown off.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

For residents of Rochester, August 21, 1883, began with oppressive heat and ominous stillness. By evening, the skies darkened and the winds began to roar. A tornado formed from these conditions, devastating most of the town and much of the outlying rural area. It killed dozens and injured hundreds, dropping people into cemeteries, scattering fish across the landscape, and plucking chickens bald. In the ruins of the small city, however, lay the seeds for its promising future: an emergency hospital, created to tend to the wounded, led to the establishment of the now world-famous Mayo Clinic.

Before the storm, Rochester was best known as the hub of the wheat market in southeastern Minnesota. It was incorporated as a town in 1858, the same year that Minnesota became a state.

When Rochester residents noticed the strange weather on August 21, they had no idea how much their city was about to change.

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The air that day was heavy. Survivors said it filled humans and animal with a sense of dread. The wind began in fits but soon became a gale. The tornado formed suddenly, but it was so loud that some residents had warning and were able to take cover. Three miles east of Rochester, a Congregational Sunday school moved their picnic indoors. The steeple was snapped off their church, but everyone survived. The Mayo brothers also narrowly survived, ducking into a blacksmith shop when they saw the funnel cloud approaching.

Many others were not so lucky. Exact estimates differ, but most agree that twenty to thirty people were killed by the storm, and another 200 people were injured. Rochester’s mayor, Samuel Whitten, reported that one-third of the city had been laid waste. The tornado caused destruction along a twenty-five mile path, but the northern side of Rochester was most affected.

Survivors said the scene was indescribable. The north Broadway bridge was torn from its moorings, the prominent Cole Mill was gashed, and nearly every building in north Rochester was destroyed. The earth was strewn with debris, as well as horses, cattle, and fish that had been swept up from the Cascade River. One man was picked up by the storm and set down alive in a cemetery, where all of the headstones had been blown over.

After the storm passed, Mayor Whitten gathered volunteers. They went through the streets with lanterns, announcing that the disaster had overtaken north Rochester and asking people to come to the aid of those most affected.

Whitten also sent a telegraph to Governor Lucius F. Hubbard. Hubbard was meeting with businessmen when he received the message, and he immediately began raising money for Rochester’s rebuilding. The businessmen contributed $5,000, Minneapolis and St. Paul pledged $5,000 each, and more than $60,000 was raised in total.

Rochester’s most immediate need was medical care for the wounded. The town did not have a hospital, but it was home to several doctors, including William Worrall (W.W.) Mayo and his sons William and Charles. The night of the storm, injured people were taken to the Mayo office, the Buck Hotel, city hall, and the convent of the Sisters of St. Francis for care.

The next morning, the town decided to centralize medical care and create an emergency hospital. They used lodge rooms of the German Library Association and Romel’s dance hall to care for the wounded.

This makeshift hospital inspired Saint Marys Hospital, which later became the Mayo Clinic. Months after the storm, Mother Mary Alfred proposed a permanent hospital in Rochester, echoing a suggestion by Archbishop John Ireland. She thought the Mayos could be the resident physicians and the Sisters of St. Francis could provide nursing care.

The Mayos thought the town was too small to support an expensive hospital. But Mother Alfred was determined, and the Sisters raised all of the money for it. The hospital was approved in 1887 and built in 1889. It was commonly called the Mayo Clinic, and that became its official name in 1914.

For many decades, Rochester residents dated events from the cyclone and headed straight for the basement whenever a storm approached. But as long as the Mayo Clinic stands, Rochester will remember their perseverance in the wake of tragedy.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.