The Fargo-Moorhead hurricane of 1890 killed seven children in one family – InForum

The Fargo-Moorhead hurricane of 1890 killed seven children in one family – InForum

FARGO – While recently researching the famous summer flood of 1975, I came across forum clippings from other old newspapers.

The headline of an article caught my attention. The first part read: “Seven Fargo children killed by…”

The rest of the headline was obscured by the other clippings.

Since it was a file of storm reports, I assumed the headline was part of a story about the tragic deaths of the Munson children in the Fargo tornado of 1957.

But as I flipped through the papers, the rest of the headline emerged: “Seven children of a Fargo family were killed in a storm in 1890.”


The headline of a Forum article from 1950 reports on the terrible storm that killed seven children from a family in 1890.

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Not 1957.

I was shocked to read that 67 years before Gerald and Mercedes Munson buried six of their seven children, another Fargo family experienced an eerily similar tragedy.

It began in the early hours of July 7, 1890, when “a storm of wind and rain swept over Fargo with terrific violence,” as Roy Johnson wrote in a 1950 retrospective for The Forum.

At 2:30 a.m., the streets were deserted and quiet, Johnson wrote. “You could hear nothing but the howling of the wind and the crash of flying debris.”

It must have been incredibly frightening for Rose McCarty and her seven children to be awakened by the noise and chaos outside. Some of the older children begged Rose to let them seek shelter in the coal bin under a shed at the back of their house, which is located on the corner of Eighth Avenue and First Street North in Fargo, near Mickelson Field.

Rose, seven months pregnant, reluctantly agreed, but first sent two of her older daughters into the garbage can to help the little one in.

Rose would regret this decision for the rest of her life.

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Hundreds of people flocked to the McCartys’ home after the tragedy. The tragedy occurred when the back half of the house (on the right in the photo) broke away from its foundation and the coal in the bunker where the family had taken shelter shifted, suffocating the seven children. Forum archive photo

According to the weather service, the storm blew at more than 75 mph for 17 to 18 minutes without a break. Within a short time, it had ripped the McCarty house off its foundation and pushed it into the shed, where the McCarty family felt safe.

All seven children were killed, including: Rose “Belle,” 19; May “Mamie,” 16; Frances “Anna,” 14; James “Frankie,” 12; Justin “Justy,” 6; Luella “Lulu,” 3; and Josephine “Josie,” 21 months.

Rose survived as if by a miracle.


After seven children of the James McCarty family were killed in their Fargo home in a tornado that struck the city early on July 7, the funeral procession, led here by members of the Grand Army of the Republic and the Continental Hose Company, passed the Lincoln School, seen in the background, on July 8.

Photo courtesy of the Institute for Regional Studies, NDSU, Fargo (51.52.4)

It had already been a difficult summer for the family. They had moved to Fargo from Osage, Iowa, in 1880. Just three weeks earlier, the family patriarch, James McCarty, a Civil War veteran, had died after a long illness.

Since her husband’s funeral was barely remembered, Rose had to plan another one – for her seven children.

The only bright spot from that devastating night was that two McCarty children were not home during the storm. Laura, 18, taught at a rural school in Clifford, ND, and her 8-year-old sister, Katie, was visiting her. They had stayed overnight in Hunter, ND, the night of the storm and planned to come home the next day.

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The gravestone commemorating James McCarty’s family is located at Holy Cross Cemetery in north Fargo.

David Samson/The Forum

Laura and Katie supported their mother in her grief, including the birth of Rose’s tenth child, Jay, in September 1890. The family originally consisted of twelve children, but now there were only three.

Why was it called a hurricane?

In newspaper reports of the time, the storm of 1890 was called a “hurricane.”

In a recent interview, WDAY chief meteorologist John Wheeler said that in the 1890s, the Weather Bureau used the word “hurricane” to describe a weather system that causes widespread wind damage over a relatively large area for up to an hour.

It is different from a rotating tornado that touches down quickly or a thunderstorm squall.


“The Line Storm” by John Steuart Curry, 1897–1946, a painting possibly inspired by the approach of a derecho-producing storm in Curry’s home state of Kansas. 1934; Collection of Sidney Howard, New York; lithograph in the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC)

Contributed/1934; Collection of Sidney Howard, New York; Lithograph in the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC/Photo is in the public domain in the United States.

“Everything I’ve read about the 1890 storm leads me to believe it was a ‘derecho.’ That’s the new word we used in the late 19th century to describe this type of storm that would have been casually called a hurricane,” Wheeler said.

In addition to the damage to the McCartys’ home, dozens of other homes were destroyed and a Northern Pacific train was overturned by the wind, injuring 18 passengers.

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The storm, which some called a tornado, was strong enough to blow a Northern Pacific train off the tracks on July 7, 1890. Forum archive photo

What happened to the McCarty family?

The McCartys probably didn’t care what the storm was called. For them, it was the storm that changed their lives forever. Unfortunately, the McCartys’ grief didn’t end there. A little over a year after the storm, in July 1891, Katie died of illness.

(In the 1890s, North Dakota was severely affected by infectious diseases such as typhus and diphtheria.)

Laura married William Ruthruff in 1893. They had three sons. Only one survived to adulthood. This was all too much for Rose, who had physically recovered from her storm injuries but had never healed emotionally after the deaths of so many loved ones. She died in 1896 at the age of 49.

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Rose McCarty survived her family’s tragic accident, but never fully recovered from the loss. She died six years later. Danielle Teigen / The Forum

After her death, Laura took over the care of her 6-year-old brother, Jay. She gave up teaching, enrolled in a business course, and eventually took a job as a stenographer formerly held by her older sister, Belle. She eventually became chief stenographer for the North Dakota Democratic Central Committee.

When Laura’s husband died in 1902, she moved to Idaho with her surviving son Edgar and younger brother Jay, hoping to leave the sadness behind.

She built a life there, serving as a justice of the peace for Clearwater County and remaining active in the Democratic Party. She died in 1943 at the age of 70.

Jay McCarty told The Forum in 1950, when he had just turned 60, that his sister Laura had raised him as her own son.

“She was everything a mother could be. She gave me incredible affection. And she was not only my mother, but also my loving sister and best friend all in one,” he wrote.

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Jay McCarty was born two months after seven family members were killed in a tornado on July 7, 1890. Katie, then 8 years old, was visiting her oldest sister Laura (right), who was teaching near Clifford, ND.

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Photographer David Samson and I visited the McCarty graves at Holy Cross Cemetery just before the Fourth of July. It was a beautiful sunny day, very different from the last day of the McCarty children’s lives. As we stood looking at the large headstone commemorating their deaths, I wondered how many other people had stood where we were now, and realized how incredibly sad this all was, just like Dave and I.

Sometimes I wonder why we tell some of these sad old stories and dredge up the past. We debate the ethical aspects of these stories, probably more often when they involve true crime (like a story I wrote about the murders of a family near Turtle River in 1920).

I know that those of us who report tragic stories, old and new, have sleepless nights because of them. Perhaps those who read them feel the same.

After all, the names on the gravestones are real people and the dates carved in stone often represent lives that ended too soon.

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The gravestone commemorating James McCarty’s family is located at Holy Cross Cemetery in north Fargo.

David Samson/The Forum

After Dave took the photo you see in this story, I returned to my car. I walked down the cemetery road, looking at the headstones and thinking about how many other stories of hardship and loss lie here. Can we, the living, learn from their experiences more than curiosity or voyeurism?

We cannot help but feel the grief of the McCartys and others, but perhaps, as is so often said about history, we can learn from it.

On the surface, we can acknowledge that science has given us modern severe weather warning systems and greater knowledge of how to protect ourselves.

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Laura McCarty survived the storm of 1890 and raised her younger brother Jay as her own child. She moved to Idaho and built a successful life for herself.

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We can also be thankful that childhood diseases that killed millions of people, like Katie McCarty, have been largely eradicated by vaccinations and antibiotics. (In an ironic twist of fate, I’m making the final edits to this story with a bandaged hand after badly cutting my hand on a glass bowl over the holiday weekend. I was rushed to a hospital 15 minutes away, stitched up, and given antibiotics. I’m in pain, but OK. Would that have been the case in 1890?)

We can also celebrate the courage and strength of survivors like Laura McCarty Ruthruff, who endured so much loss and yet thrived in the life she was given – a lesson in perseverance.

Perhaps through the sad stories we learn not only tangible things from the past, but also gratitude for the present.

We are so lucky. I have to remind myself of that.

Next time I go to the cemetery, I have to bring flowers.

Take a journey through time with Tracy Briggs

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Tracy Briggs, columnist for Back in the Day with Tracy Briggs.

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Hi, I’m Tracy Briggs. Thanks for reading my column! I love reading “Back in the Day” every week, with stories about interesting people, places and things from our past. Check out a few of them below. If you have a story idea, email me at [email protected].