Sunday, March 29, 1998
Minnesotans know March weather is notoriously fickle, but the residents of Courtland, Nicollet, and Saint Peter know better than most. On March 29, 1998, southern Minnesota was struck by a series of tornados that devastated our region. It’s not shocking March 29, 1998, is still known as the day “The Tornado” hit.
In St. Peter, the sirens sounded shortly after 5:00 p.m., and the storm hit just before 5:30 p.m. Scant minutes later, residents emerged from their shelters to destroyed homes and businesses, wrecked vehicles, and thousands of uprooted and splintered trees. Shock and awe set in as the extent of the devastation became apparent.
After the storm, many wondered whether the town would recover and if so, would it ever be the same. Through great determination and spirit, and with a lot of help from our friends, the town recovered. It may not be exactly the same, but new trees were planted, homes and buildings repaired, and the spire atop Christ Chapel stands tall once more.
Today passersby would never know twenty years ago an F3 tornado ripped through town causing such devastation in its wake. Our trees are growing tall, we have a new public library and community center, the churches rebuilt, and our town is growing.
Today we remember where we’ve been, what we’ve lost, and what we’ve gained.
Trouble was brewing
The weather conditions were very different from Comfrey to St. Peter in comparison to other parts of Minnesota. An unusual warm front was sitting over southern Minnesota from Windom to just north of St. Peter. Toward the Twin Cities, it was cold and windy with temperatures in the 40s, but it was humid with temperatures up to 70 degrees in this region. Given the extreme differences in temperatures, moisture, and wind directions in the two air masses, trouble was brewing.
By sundown that Sunday, over a dozen tornados hit southern Minnesota. Among them was one with winds as high as 260 mph that stayed on the ground for 67 miles, decimating Comfrey and striking Courtland.
Another powerful twister dropped out of the sky near Nicollet, heading for St. Peter. It was almost as powerful, with winds between 158-206 mph and measuring over one mile wide.
The path of destruction moved diagonally across the community, from southwest to northeast. It knocked down trees and tombstones at Resurrection Cemetery, leveled houses at Pine Pointe, and caused enormous damage at Gustavus Adolphus College before reaching the city’s main residential and business sections.
This photo, taken at the corner of 3rd and Nassau Streets looking southwest, is one of the only images of the tornado moving into St. Peter. Because the funnel cloud was so large, some residents described it as looking like a black fog dropping into the valley. The sirens in St.Peter went off minutes before the tornado hit, and they were destroyed.
Our story in pictures
The tall spire of Christ Chapel at Gustavus-Adolphus Colledge was blown over at the college, countless windows were broken in numerous buildings, cars were destroyed in parking lots, and many trees were destroyed before the tornado moved down into the valley. Fortunately, most of the students were on a scheduled break from their studies and were not present on the campus.
Church of St. Peter & the Evangelical Lutheran Church
The Church of St. Peter and the St. Peter Evangelical Lutheran Church, respectively on the south and east sides of Gorman Park, were too severely damaged to restore. Today, a new Church of St. Peter is located near the western edge of the community, along Broadway. The St. Peter Community Center now occupies the site of the destroyed church. The Lutherans built a new church on the same site as their previous church.
Arts and Heritage and Community Center
Two former schools constructed on the same block were in the path of the tornado. One was then serving as the St. Peter Community Center. The other was the home of the St. Peter Arts and Heritage Council. The Community Center extended along the south side of Nassau Street, between South Washington Avenue and South Fifth Street. The Arts and Heritage building, which had once been St. Peter’s first high school, was on the northwest corner of the intersection of South Fifth and Grace Streets, facing South Fifth. Today, the block is occupied by the Central Square Apartments.
Downtown St. Peter
Many structures within the rectangle enclosed by Chestnut, Front, Myrtle, and Third Streets sustained significant tornado damage. The wind destroyed the steeple of the Courthouse. The building suffered considerable damage, but extensive collections of essential documents, including birth, marriage, death, land, probate, and court records, survived the storm. The St. Peter Public Library at 101 West Nassau Street was damaged so severely that it could not be saved. The current library is attached to the St. Peter Community Center. The Nicollet Hotel was among the most severely damaged structures. Opened in 1873 as one of the finest hotels in southern Minnesota, the building faced demolition until a last-minute agreement was reached to restore it. Among other damage, ACE Hardware owner Dave Neiman discovered a natural gas leak at the store that had to be attended to immediately. The St. Peter Woolen Mill owners found large numbers of yarn balls in many colors were scattered over a sizable area around their building. The roof of the beautiful and historic Church of the Holy Communion was lifted and set down somewhat off-center by the wind. The old store built by pioneer James Clark at 219 West Nassau Street suffered extensive damage but is again one of the city’s architectural gems. These are only a few of many examples of damage within the business district.
It was determined that only 10% of the houses in St. Peter went undamaged during the storm. Historic houses and architecturally significant ones were not spared, and some of those houses were among the ones that were lost. However, most residences did survive, and St. Peter continues to feature an impressive collection of interesting houses, with construction dates going as far back as the 1850s.
A city in chaos
The tornado left many people in St. Peter without electricity or natural gas for heat, which was especially unfortunate when the weather in the days after the tornado brought cold temperatures and snow. Utility crews from many cities came to help the local crews make the necessary repairs. Buses brought students from many regional schools to help with the cleanup process. Adult volunteers also came in large numbers. The city was patrolled by members of the National Guard and law enforcement personnel from various communities.
The trees are gone
People who were familiar with St. Peter before the tornado invariably commented afterward on how many trees were lost. Among them were many people who were surprised to learn that Gustavus Adolphus College was so close to the crest of the hill on the west side of the city. Prior to the tornado, it was not easy to see many of the buildings on the campus from Minnesota Avenue, which is also Highway 169. Many people who had passed through St. Peter frequently before the tornado were surprised to see the college buildings so suddenly revealed. The loss of so many trees made the city look very different from what it had been, but thousands of trees were soon planted to replace the ones that had been lost.
Tornado in the news.
The May 25, 1999 issue of the St. Peter Herald indicated the severity of the tornado damage in St. Peter with the following statistics: damage to 2,000 of the city’s 2,500 homes, more than $40 million in damage at the college, approximately 17,000 destroyed trees, 110 demolished single-family structures, 44 demolished rental properties, 23 demolished commercial buildings, and over $250 million in physical damage in the city.
Photos from the area
Today the city once again has a fine collection of beautiful trees throughout the community, the damage has been repaired, new homes and businesses have been constructed, and the city looks better than ever.