The Regina Cyclone

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CraigBaird

On June 30, 1912, the City of Regina progressed along as it always had for the previous 25 years. It was a bustling community of 30,000 people, and was basking in the glow of a new Legislative building that had been built. Seven years after being declared the capital of Saskatchewan, things were looking up for the community.  

Little did anyone know on that day, a defining event was about to occur. 

The weeks leading up to June 30 were hot and muggy.

As the day wore on, and the weather became hot and muggy, clouds began to form in the horizon. It soon became clear that a thunderstorm was coming. Thunderstorms were not unusual for that time of year in Regina, but this thunderstorm would bring something else.  

By the time the thunderstorm on the horizon had passed, 28 people would be dead, 200 would be injured, houses and lives would be destroyed, and millions of dollars in damage would occur.  

At 4 p.m. Mayor Peter McAra Jr. was showing the city to dignitaries from the Grand Trunk Railway, touring the Warehouse District to showcase the modern expansion of the city. Along the streets of the community, preparations were being made and decorations were being put up for the parade and celebration of Canada’s 45th birthday to happen the next day.

It was around this time that the heat began to lift as the barometer started to drop quickly. As soon as the barometer dropped, the thunderheads began to appear.

At 4:50 p.m., an F4 tornado, the strongest ever seen in Canada at that time, touched down south of the city near where the Trans-Canada Highway and Albert Street intersect. Roughly 10 kilometres south of the downtown core, what would be known as the Regina Cyclone had been born.  

Described as a cloud that was darker than an ace of spades, with a sound that sounded like 40 million shrieking devils, the tornado began to move east. The first victim of the tornado, property-wise, was the farm of Thomas Beares. The farm was completely destroyed, but thankfully, no one was killed.  

The tornado continued its path of destruction through the countryside outside of Regina. Walter Stephenson would soon lose his farm, followed by the farm of John Dunlop as the tornado continued to move towards downtown.  

By the time the tornado reached the home of Roger Kerr, the first fatality was about to happen. While Kerr and his family were not killed, only injured, it was their guest Andrew Roy who would perish sadly. 

If the tornado had continued on its original path, it would have moved towards Winnipeg Street, an area that had few homes. Instead, it moved to the north, heading straight towards downtown.  

Brushing up against the Saskatchewan Legislature, only minimal damage occurred with a few blown out windows. At this point, the tornado began to move across Wascana Lake, picking up water and showering residents throughout the area.  

The Regina Boat Club was next in the path of the tornado, with its swimming houses, boats and building completely destroyed. Two deaths would occur here, that of Vincent Smith and Philip Steele.  

The tornado continued moving to the north at this point, destroying many homes and killing eight people as it progressed over College Avenue, demolishing much on Lorne and Smith Streets. As it passed over Victoria Avenue, the tornado heavily damaged the Metropolitan Methodist Church, which today is known as the Knox-Metropolitan United Church. Next door, the YMCA building was destroyed. The church, which had been erected only a few months earlier at the cost of $75,000, or $1.73 million today, was an especially hard loss for the people of the community. 

The tornado continued to move north and out of downtown where it hit the CP railyard and began throwing rail cars around like toys. Moving at this point into the Warehouse District, the tornado hit several more buildings and took the top floor off the Ackerman Building. By the time it had passed through, five more people were dead.  

Through its path from the CP Railyard through the Warehouse District, it is estimated that some firms lost $200,000, or $4.6 million, in funds from the damages to equipment and the loss of merchandise.  

C.R. Delerue described the devastation.

“Not only was one elevator laying across the tracks, but four more besides in the railway yards there was not a single car upon the tracks. A great brick warehouse on the other side of the tracks was missing.”

The tornado then left the city, leaving behind a massive trail of destruction. In all, it had spent three minutes in the city.

At 5 p.m., a six word message would be received in the Winnipeg Telegraph Office. It would say:

“Cyclone hits Regina. City in ruins.”

Delerue would walk through the city after the destruction, saying later, “pretty well every plate glass window in the city was broken, and the rain had just played Old Harry with the merchandise…the magnificent churches of the morning were in ruins. Knox Presbyterian church looks just like an old English ruin. The YMCA and YWCA buildings, which were only recently opened, were terribly dilapidated. Lorne Street was strewn with all kinds of goods, telegraph poles, trees, lumber, glass and parts of furniture and clothing.”

In speaking of the houses along Lorne, he said, “One might almost call them mansions. Now there were seventy or eighty as flat as a pancake. There wasn’t a post standing. It was impossible to recognize that houses had stood there.”

He went on.

“People were running this way and that, screaming. Other people were dragging the injured out. Soon, every available vehicle was pressed into service and they made for the hospital with the injured.”

The first relief train would arrive from Moose Jaw at 7:15 p.m. at the Exhibition Grounds, loaded with medical supplies, doctors and nurses. A train would arrive from Winnipeg in the morning.

One of the most famous stories from the story of Boris Karloff, the man who would be immortalized for his portrayal of Frankenstein’s Monster. One of the first groups to respond to the need for financial assistance was a visiting American theatrical troupe. Called the Albini-Avolo Company, they were performing at the Regina Theatre and with them was a then-unknown Karloff. On the afternoon of the store, they had been on a picnic along Wascana Creek and did not know about the tornado until they came back to the city. They would stage a benefit performance of the comedy The Real Thing, in Regina. One week later in Saskatoon, they donated half the proceeds from their performances there to the relief effort in Regina.

Father Mollier would write a letter to Father Burke in Toronto, which I will take segments of here:

“It is with tears in the eyes that I write you today. Sunday last we had the visit of His Lordship who came for the first time to visit our poor mission. Our small chapel, crowded with people, was splendidly adorned. On that bright Sunday morning, amidst such impressive ceremonies, little did I dream that today I would have to write you the pitiful tale that follows.”

He goes on to relate when the tornado hit.

“In a few moments, the dreadful tornado had reached our poor chapel. The immense roof gave way first and was projected on the ground. Then in the interior of the church, everything was in a few seconds smashed to pieces; our beautiful statue of St. Margeret, the fine little altar, the neat and decent pews, our organ, all the draperies, candlesticks, flowers, everything was broken into a thousand peaces.”

After speaking of the people of the church who had dealt with poor crops the past few years, and his worry many would now leave the area, he continued in his letter.

“As for me, I will stay at my post. I have so far lived in dire poverty. I do not care. I can live and die like my Divine Master, deprived of all this world’s comforts, but these souls entrusted to my care ought to have a home to pray to their God.”

As can be expected, the Dominion Day celebrations were cancelled. Mayor Peter McAra would issue a proclamation stating, “In view of the terrible happenings of today, I deem it my duty to declare all celebrations indefinitely postponed. I also request that all bars of the city hotels remain closed for the day.

This would be the only year that Regina would not have Dominion Day celebrations. On that day, the Saskatoon Daily Star would report an account of the storm saying, “On the north side, where many of the labouring classes live, the scene is heartrending. Outside the ruined houses are to be seen families grouped looking at what was left of their happy homes. The children are crying to their parents who are stunned by the catastrophe.”

The Beelby family would take refuge in their attack and the tornado would take the roof off the house and carry the family from the attack, throwing them 150 feet away in a neighbours yard. None of the family were hurt.

Arthur Donaldson was rooming with the Hodsman family when he saw the storm approach while he was walking his dog. He raced towards the house just as it was completely demolished by the storm, killing him. His dog watched as the rescuers dug through the wreckage and found his owner. The dog then apparently followed his owner’s body to Speers Funeral Parlours and from Sunday to Wednesday, the day his owner was buried, the dog kept vigil and then left the area for good.

One sad but amazing story comes from Frank and Bertha Blenkhorn, who had married in England in early April and were going to voyage on board the Titanic. Their wedding party went on so long they missed the sailing home on a ship called the Titanic. They would take a later boat and were in Regina on the afternoon of the tornado. They were walking across Victoria Park when the cyclone hit, picking them up and throwing them 200 yards, killing them both.

At the Telephone Exchange Building, the roof was ripped off and the south wall collapsed. Amazingly, the weight of the switchboard broke through the floor on the second story, taking three women and a men all the way into the basement, saving their lives. They climbed out a window and when they told their story to the reporters at the Regina Leader, they were not believed.

With Dominion Day coming on July 1, optimism was high at the Regina Boat Club. The 1912 Dominion Day Regatta was going to be held, and a three-piece orchestra was hired for a dance that would follow the activities of the day. Little did any of the band members know, nor the members of the club know, was that not a single note of music would be played.  

The club had spent the previous two years renovating its boathouse, and had built a $1,400 extension, along with a new pier to pull boats out. Many new boats were sitting at the pier, and the building even had electricity and a phone.  

Then the Regina Cyclone happened, and everything was lost. By the time the tornado passed, members had lost everything in their club and only had $600 with which to rebuild.  

It did not take long for the club to begin rebuilding and within a week they had incorporated their club and begun selling shares for $10 each. They also arranged for a $3,600 loan. 

By the end of the summer, a new $2,680 clubhouse was built and a dance was held in September of 1912 to commemorate the re-opening.  

In 1968, with the Regina Boat Club long one, Bevan Lawson came up with the idea of having a cairn installed at Wascana Park to honour the club and the destruction of the Regina Cyclone. Three years later, during Saskatchewan Homecoming celebrations, a cairn was unveiled at the original location of the boathouse.  

Francis Nicholson Drake arrived in Regina in 1892, where he married his wife Anna Elizabeth, Francis Darke established a retail and meat business that allowed him to build a huge fortune.  

Serving on council for nine terms, and elected as Regina’s youngest mayor in 1898, he would lose his home to the cyclone. His wife, terrified of such a thing happening again, urged him to build a new home that could survive a tornado.  

Over the course of the next several years, he built her a home that would survive a tornado. By the time it was completed in 1926, it would be the most expensive home ever built in Regina to that time, it still stands and today is known Stone Hall Castle. Sitting across from Darke Hall, it was the home for him and his wife until their deaths.  

Fred Berkan had come to Regina from Dinsmore, Saskatchewan in a roundabout way. Living in Edmonton with his new wife Martha Pekrul, he found work with the CPR in Regina and they made the move in 1912. Edmonton at the time was dealing with a housing shortage, so finding a place in Regina was much more desirable for the young couple.  

Earning $3.25 a day, Berkan was on the job when the Regina Cyclone came tearing through his workplace, completely destroying the building.  

The incident would leave Berkan unconscious, and he would not awaken until after the storm had passed. Finding himself on top of a pile of timbers, he escaped relatively uninjured except for some bruises and a few minor cuts.  

Living north of Regina, Arthur Martin and his helper Henry Hollerbaum were working in the field when the cyclone came up on them. As they were far north of the property that Martin owned, they had been camping in a caboose during the evenings. That caboose then became their refuge when the storm hit. The cyclone hit the caboose and began to rock it back and forth, which caused the heater inside to come loose. Coupled with the rocking, the heater now chased the men around the caboose as the wind whipped up a mini-storm inside the shelter.  

Over at his homestead, Adolph’s wife Louise was dealing with her own situation from the storm. The roof on the barn was completely ripped off and bits of wood began flying around the homestead. One piece of wood came flying towards the house and became lodged in the door frame. If it had of made it into the room, it would have killed the three children in there. Henry Hollerbaum’s wife ran to the granary where her husband and her had been staying, to grab her baby to protect it. While she was in there, a grain bin was thrown in front of the door, where it remained. She was trapped in the granary until she was rescued several hours later.  

Born in Manitoba in 1900, Greba McDougall was one of eight children and she was ten-years-old when the family moved to Regina. Unfortunately, it would be a tragic decision to do so. When the Regina Cyclone hit, Greba would lose her father and two of her sisters in the storm. They would account for three of the 28 victims in the disaster.  

Eventually, Greba went to school and became a stenographer for both the Pat Burns Company and the CPR. She would marry a lawyer named Allan Armstrong in 1922 and together they would live in Strasbourg for 45 years, where they would be highly active in many community matters and raise three children.  

Allan died in 1977, while Greba would die several years later. 

It would take years for Regina and its residents to recover from the storm. The storm would have other impacts as well beyond the destruction. The Association of Regina Realtors was created on July 10, 1912 when several real estate agents came together to address the task of repairing and restoring much of the property that had been destroyed in the storm. The storm also caused a real estate boom, and the organization dealt with the speculation in property that was beginning to rise at that time.  

In the end, 2,500 were left homeless and damages would amount to $1.2 million. It would take the city two years to repair the damage and ten years to pay off the storm debt.

Information comes from Canadian Encyclopedia, Canada History.ca, Wikipedia, Encyclopedia of Saskatchewan, Tornado Legacy.ca, Catholic Register.org

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