Michael Dawe: ‘Three minutes of hell’ left extensive damage to region in 1927

Alberta has been experiencing some wild weather this year.

On June 13, there was the devastating hailstorm in northeast Calgary, which is estimated to have caused $1.2 billion in damage.

There have been several other severe wind, thunder and hailstorms in many other places, such as Innisfail and Millet.

Heavy rainfalls and/or severe hailstorms are quite common in central Alberta. Damage is often considerable, particularly for farmers, who sometimes refer to hail as “the great white combine.”

It is no accident that the Alberta Hail Suppression Project was centred at the Penhold Airport.

Tornados are less frequent, but again, not unknown. This year is the 20th anniversary of the horrific Pine Lake tornado of July 14, 2000.

Another major disaster occurred on July 31, 1987, when a devastating tornado hit the east side of Edmonton, killing 27 people, injuring 600 and causing hundreds of millions of dollars of damage.

The summer of 1927 was another year of extreme weather in central Alberta. Conditions were generally hot and muggy.

According to one local newspaper correspondent, “the days of deluge and days of bright sunshine alternate so rapidly that it’s hard to keep track of what were the good and bad days in any given week.”

The weather on Friday, July 8, 1927, fit that pattern. It was very humid. Temperatures gradually worked their way up to 28 C shortly after noon.

As the afternoon progressed, people began to notice an almost eerie stillness in the air.

Then, around 2:30 p.m., the residents of Rocky Mountain House noticed a major thunderstorm appearing to the southwest. It began to rain and to hail a bit.

Then the clouds formed into a funnel and phenomenal winds struck. Trees on the edge of town began to sway heavily and then appeared to start jumping into the air. What followed was described by one witness as “three minutes of hell unadorned.”

The amount of damage was astounding. Virtually every building in the town was damaged or destroyed.

There were many remarkable sights. During the storm, Walter Good watched a cook stove fly over his head. His wife’s dishpan got wrapped around the top of a telephone pole by the wind.

Two people were severely injured, but miraculously, no one was killed.

The storm proceeded northeastward, tearing up the countryside and heavily damaging several farms. As it proceeded across Gull Lake, witnesses saw a waterspout estimated to be as much as 30 metres high.

As the storm roared through the Wetaskiwin area, further tragedy struck. Three men were killed when the granary in which they had taken refuge was swept away by the whirlwind.

There was an incredible rain after the tornado had passed, which turned the ground into a quagmire. In some areas, the hail pounded crops into a pulp.

Unfortunately, the extreme weather continued. Another bout struck at the end of July during the annual Red Deer Fair.

Late on the Tuesday afternoon (the second day of the fair), a terrific thunderstorm and hailstorm struck.

The storm started in the Diamond Valley district by Eckville, then swept eastward across the Sylvan Lake and Burnt Lake districts.

The storm intensified as it reached the Penhold/Horn Hill districts. The storm finally seemed to abate once it neared the Pine Lake area.

Although many had experienced severe storms, this one was particularly memorable.

Inglis Pickard, from the area east of Edwell, recalled that the thunderheads looked like a set of towering angry horsemen as they came over the hills to the west.

The storm not only hammered crops, it also punched holes in roofs. In the case of the Pickard family, the hail killed most of the family’s turkeys.

In the aftermath of the storm, farmers began to evaluate the damage. The crop losses south and east of Red Deer were almost all 100 per cent.

Some lucky farmers had at least some hail insurance. Others were totally wiped out for the year.

The sense of loss was particularly acute since, before the various storms hit, the warm wet weather seemed to be producing some of the best crops since the bumper crop year of 1915.

Alberta has long been known as “next year country.” People managed as best they could. And 1928 did produce one of the best harvests in years, helping to offset the losses of 1927.

Red Deer historian Michael Dawe’s column appears Wednesdays.

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