The 1899 New Richmond Tornado was an estimated F5 tornado that nearly destroyed the town of New Richmond, Wisconsin, on June 12, 1899, killing 117 and injuring 125 people. More than $300,000 (USD) ($8,636,000 in today's dollars) in damage was reported.
June 12, 1899, was the day of the Gollmar Brothers Circus, which drew hundreds of visitors in addition to the town's 2,500 inhabitants. Around 3:00 p.m., clouds began to build, and the sky became quite dark. As the circus ended for the day around 4:30 PM, a heavy rain, with some hail, began to fall. The rain let up around 5:00 PM, and people began to head home for the day. By 6:00 PM, the streets of New Richmond were full of tourists, travelers and residents.
Meanwhile, the tornado had already touched down to the southwest. It began as a waterspout on the east bank of Lake St. Croix, about 15 miles (24.1 km) from New Richmond, at around 5:30 PM. The tornado was described as a "boiling cloud", which seemed to skirt the hills to the east of Lake St. Croix, and then head straight for New Richmond. Passing over mostly open country, it destroyed several farm buildings near the rural communities of Burkhardt and Boardman as it traveled northeast. Three people were killed there.
There was little warning in New Richmond. The tornado was completely illuminated by lightning, but it was visible for only a few minutes before it reached the town. Homes and businesses were demolished and torn from their foundations, flying debris filled the air, and people were swept away. The brick, three-story Nicolett Hotel was completely leveled by the tornado. Some barely had time to scramble for shelter in storm cellars, but many were caught in the streets. Even some who did take refuge were killed anyway, such as those who ran into the O.J. Williams dry goods store. The store was swept away, and the people taking shelter in the basement were pelted to death by flying bricks and timbers. Most people who could not find shelter were killed. Debris of all sorts flew through the air at tremendous speeds. A 3,000 pound safe was flung a block from its original location. Trees and timbers were hurled "like javelins" through the air, and the intense winds swept people up and threw them against walls or the ground. The northern residential section of town was completely obliterated by the tornado, with nothing left but small pieces of debris scattered about. Every home in that area was leveled or swept away. The tornado dissipated shortly after exiting the town.
Shortly thereafter, another storm with strong winds swept through, sending people back into their shelters. It is likely that some died in fires while potential help was hiding from the possibility of another tornado.
All but the extreme western end of the town was obliterated by the tornado and subsequent fires. More than 300 buildings were destroyed, and the only significant surviving structures were the Catholic and Baptist churches. The town's electrical plant and water facilities were destroyed, so fires ran rampant through the scattered debris. Many bodies found in the aftermath were burnt beyond recognition— it was impossible to tell if they died from the tornado or from being trapped and burned alive.
Twenty-six families experienced multiple deaths, and six reported four or more deaths in the family. After order was restored, authorities determined that a total of 117 people had been killed (64 in the town itself) and more than 150 injured. This is the ninth highest death toll for any single tornado in American history. The New Richmond Tornado is generally assumed to have been an F5 tornado, with winds in excess of 261 mph.
The town was so completely damaged that it had to be essentially rebuilt. Damage claims exceeded $300,000 ($7 million in 2006 dollars), however, damages may have been as high as $600,000 ($14 million in 2006 dollars).