Empire Builder Tornado

Courtesy of "The Weather Doctor".  Full link:  http://www.islandnet.com/~see/weather/history/tornadotrains.htm


On 27 May 1931, the Great Northern Railway’s crack transcontinental passenger train The Empire Builder was heading eastbound from Seattle to Chicago. Less than an hour out of Fargo, North Dakota, disaster would strike. Late that afternoon an area of severe thunderstorms raged through Clay County, Minnesota. Suddenly, a funnel cloud formed, first observed by farmers in northern Kurtz township about 10 miles (16 km) south of Moorhead heading on an east-northeasterly course. At approximately 4:30 PM, The Empire Builder, eight miles (12.8 km) past Moorhead near the community of Sabin, encountered the heavy weather. Engineer B.E. McKee drove the great locomotive pulling twelve cars including five Pullman cars behind it into the storm.

Neither he nor fireman Klinfihn saw the funnel cloud approaching, though both observed the advancing storm. As the train sped southeast across the Minnesota prairie at 60 mph (96 km/h), the tornado (later rated an F3) struck it nearly broadside, and its force lifted five of the 70-ton passenger coaches from the rails. It carried one car through the air and deposited it in a ditch eighty feet (24.4 m) off the track bed. The remaining passenger cars were derailed. Only the 136-ton locomotive and 94-ton tender remained on the track. Interestingly, the coupling between the tender and the mail car was found to be closed after the impact. This suggests that the mail car was lifted vertically out of the coupling, at least a few inches before being blown from the tracks. All the cars remained coupled to each other, though some couplings were badly twisted by the derailment. All but one of the cars fell on their side, the lone exception was a car caught between two coaches which could not fall over.


Tornado meet The Empire Builder May 1931 The Empire Builder, bound from Seattle to Chicago, was struck by a tornado, May 27, 1931. Only the 136-ton locomotive remained on the track. Courtesy, Historic NWS Collection, NOAA



McKee saw the tornado moments before it struck and thought the locomotive took the brunt of the strike. The force of the wind blew out the cab windows and tore the engineer’s goggles off his face and out of the cab by a force that he described as "a suction at his body." Fifty-seven of the 117 passengers were injured by the impact and flying glass, and one was killed when he was hurled (or perhaps jumped in fear (?) according to a Pullman spokesman) through a day coach window and crushed in the wreckage. The railroad quickly sent a rescue train from Fargo to the wreck site. After loading the passengers, this train took them back to Fargo where the injured were taken to the hospitals. Stan Cowan, a reporter with the Moorhead Daily News recalled: "this tornado actually tipped this train over on its side which was, of course, going ahead full speed."


Tornado meet The Empire Builder May 1931 The Empire Builder was struck by a tornado east of Moorhead, Minnesota while traveling nearly 60 miles an hour. Courtesy, Historic NWS Collection, NOAA


The tornado tore a path forty miles (66 km) long across the Minnesota countryside. A additional death was recorded apart from the Empire Builder accident; however, damage to local farms was estimated at $200,000.