By Tim Kalinowski
On June 25, 1915 a normal Friday evening turned into nightmare for Redcliff residents as an approaching massive super cell storm turned the sky purple and sickly to the south. In the breathlessness of the air a dead quiet hung like a deathly shroud. The citizens of Redcliff knew something was coming and they knew it would be bad.
At about 6:30 p.m. the cyclone came upon the town like a freight train levelling everything in its path. Businesses such as newly built knitting mill, the town’s rolling mill and the cigar factory were completely destroyed. Others such as the Ornamental Iron Works were badly damaged. Houses all through the community had roofs blown off or windows broken.
Cecil T. Hall’s account of the storm in “50 Golden Years” describes the scene on that fateful day.
“In the air one could sense an ominous feeling that all was not well,” writes Hall. “The gathering clouds darkened, and the wind increased. Then all of a sudden a dead calm… Then crash! The wind struck and the air was filled with dust and flying debris. Building were picked off their foundations. Roofs were carried away.”
Hall goes on to describe how the town was literally shredded by the cyclone.
“The steel roof of the present water tower was torn off like so much brown paper. The roof of the Laurel Hotel rolled up like a giant carpet… A cigar factory which stood near the C.P.R. was crushed over sideways with only the top story remaining, the lower part of the building splintered to kindling wood.”
The Medicine Hat News of June 26, 1915 further speaks about the aftermath of the massive storm front which spread destruction from Grassy Lake, where three died, to Redcliff, to Taber, to Okotoks and finally to Calgary, which was completely inundated by a cloud burst which saw the Bow River rise four inches every hour. Even though Redcliff had no deaths, the town’s residents still bore the brunt of the deadly super storm.
“Miraculous as It may seem, but four people of some 150 connected with the buildings and occupying them at the time, were injured,” wrote the News. “There is hardly a house in the whole town but what did not meet with some damage. Roofs partly blown off, and windows smashed are common. Many of the houses were damaged by flying debrls. The fact that there was not a large casualty list is probably due to the fact that it was impossible to be on the street for fully a half hour before the main blow came (due to strong winds starting at 5:30 p.m.).”
Among the five notable casualties from the storm, the Rosin family, (who owned the Redcliff Cigar Factory), were particularly unfortunate or fortunate depending on how you look at it. According to the Medicine Hat News, the elderly Mrs. Rosin was at home with her husband when the storm struck. The wall of their house collapsed in on them while they were sitting at the kitchen table breaking Mr. Rosin’s ribs and dislocating Mrs. Rosin’s shoulder. Mrs. Rosin nearly died in hospital due to shock, but later accounts show she did pull through.
And when the cigar factory collapsed in the storm the Rosin’s two sons were working there. The elder son managed to get clear just in time, but the doorway collapsed on his younger brother who was right behind him. The younger son had to be pulled from the rubble and was sent to hospital in “precarious condition.” Later reports also suggest he somehow pulled through.
All four Rosins survived, but also lost their home and their business in the storm.
The other notable casualty was an elderly man named Mr. Wray who was boarding at the Gibson family home when the wood frame house was picked up by the tornado and turned completely on its side. Wray was in the process of evacuating the home when his coat snagged on the door. When the house overturned, he went up with it. Wray hurt his shoulder in the incident.
The Redcliff Review of July 2, 1915 talks about the aftermath of the most destructive disaster in Redcliff’s history, focusing on the strong community spirit of its citizens in the days following the storm.
“When the storm had passed people came from all directions to learn the extent of the damage done and to render assistance if necessary, as all thought surely there must be some fatalities and serious bodily injuries inflicted. Strange to say no one was killed but the piles of wreckage which filled the streets and vacant lots was a sad looking sight. Early Saturday morning (on June 26) about 100 men were put to work cleaning up debris and making traffic safe, and by night there was a big improvement in the town’s appearance.”
Local historian Cliff Dacre says the cyclone of 1915 has to rank as one of the most significant events in the town’s history. It also marked the beginning of a 30 year decline in the town’s prosperity as the first of a series of unfortunate events.
“After the cyclone in 1915 a lot of those industries did not re-open because they were damaged so much,” explains Dacre. “Then the First World War came and more men left so they couldn’t do any work on anything. The population of Redcliff decreased. There was a Spanish Flu epidemic after the war, and that killed quite a lot of people in Redcliff here too. Then came a depression after the First World War too. So Redcliff’s population at the time this cyclone came through was around 3,000. By the time the First World War was over in the 1920s the population was down to about 1,000 people.”
Although Redcliff began to turn things around after the Second World War, Dacre feels Redcliff could have been even more if the cyclone of 1915 hadn’t stunted the community’s future so badly.
“In 1915 Medicine Hat and Redcliff were competing to see which would become bigger,” explains Dacre. “When the storm came through it stopped everything cold. And the town didn’t recover until after the Second World War in the 1950s. We’ll never know what Redcliff might have been if the tornado hadn’t done so much damage back then.”