NOTABLE NORTHLAND STORMS
Some of the major weather events that have affected the Northland in the past 150 years
November 1872: A “great storm” wrecked the Duluth harbor breakwater “to such an extent as to expose the elevator, warehouses and docks on the lakeshore to serious damage,” according to a history of the harbor published in the News Tribune in 1899.
July 16, 1891: A windstorm demolished buildings in Superior; at least two men died when a hotel under construction on Lamborn Avenue collapsed, the Duluth Daily Tribune reported. In Duluth, cedar paving blocks from Fourth Street were washed down Lake Avenue by floodwaters; the rainfall was the heaviest in memory.
March 9, 1892: A blizzard brought Duluth to a standstill, stalling street car traffic and stranding workers downtown. Many residents “tunneled through snow from their front doors to the street, and snow was piled up to the second-story windows,” the News Tribune recounted in a look back several years later.
Nov. 27-28, 1905: The “Mataafa Storm,” named for the freighter that was stranded offshore from Canal Park in Duluth with the loss of nine lives. The storm brought winds gusting to 70 mph. “Telephone, telegraph and street car communication was interrupted … and scores of persons were unable to get home,” the News Tribune reported on Nov. 28. “It is claimed by some of the old time lake men that the waves in the harbor were the highest seen in years.” Ships also were wrecked along the North Shore, and the storm spurred the construction of Split Rock Lighthouse.
July 21-22, 1909: A violent rainstorm flooded streets and homes in Duluth, and claimed the lives of two young children who were swept out of their mother’s arms as she tried to reach safety at Ninth Avenue East and Second Street. “Floods of water poured down every avenue, making Superior Street an almost impassable river, bringing with it big timbers, paving blocks and debris,” the News Tribune reported. Water flowed into the Bijou Theater and filled the orchestra pit as the musicians scrambled to escape.
Nov. 7-11, 1913: Sometimes known as the “White Hurricane,” this massive storm produced high winds in Duluth but intensified to the east to become on of the biggest storms in Great Lakes history. Wind speeds up to 90 mph created waves 35 feet high. More than a dozen ships foundered, and about 250 sailors died. The wreck of one of those ships — the Henry B. Smith — was discovered in 2013 offshore from Marquette, Mich., by a group of shipwreck hunters with Northland ties.
March 3-5, 1935: Duluth was “practically an isolated city,” linked to the outside world only by radio, after a major ice storm cut utilities and left roads impassable. There was major tree and utility damage from Hinckley and Moose Lake, across all of Duluth and Superior and up to the Iron Range and North Shore. Utility companies reported the damage was “the worst since electricity came to Duluth,” the News Tribune reported; one transmission line was down for several miles from Nopeming into Duluth, with the mangled wires frozen together.
Nov. 11-12, 1940: The Armistice Day Blizzard arrived suddenly, bringing a sharp drop in temperatures and heavy snow that stranded hundreds of motorists and hunters in the elements across the Midwest; dozens of people died. The Northland saw heavy snow and wind but escaped the worst of the storm — though there were some Northland residents among the crews of two ships that sank with all hands on Lake Michigan.
July 16-17, 1942: Torrential rain in excess of 8 inches led to flash flooding and major damage in Bayfield, carving out deep gullies in some places and depositing vast amounts of gravel and sand elsewhere, the National Weather Service reported.
Sept. 9-10, 1947: Hibbing saw 8.6 inches of rain in five hours, flooding an estimated 75 percent of basements in town. There was flooding across the Range; U.S. Highway 169 was closed, and several mining operations saw damage.
March 26-27, 1950: As Duluth welcomed home the state basketball champion Duluth Central Trojans, a sleet and ice storm caused widespread phone and power outages and downed hundreds of utility poles.
Dec. 4-8, 1950: A winter storm brought more than 30 inches of snow to Duluth over five days; crews struggled to clear streets after about a third of the city’s snow-removal equipment broke down.
May 26, 1958: A possible tornado caused damage in Duluth, including the collapse of a garage on Greene Street in West Duluth. Athletes and spectators at the city track meet at Public Schools Stadium had to take cover. To the north, large hail caused damage in Eveleth.
Nov. 28, 1960: Winds estimated at 75 mph kicked up huge waves on Lake Superior, which sent water and debris into Canal Park. The breakwaters along the Superior Entry were damaged, stranding two Coast Guardsmen in the lighthouse there for about two days, the News Tribune reported. There also was flooding in downtown Grand Marais, and about 1,000 cords of timber stockpiled on the waterfront was washed into the harbor.
March 1-5, 1966: A prolonged winter storm caused widespread power outages over several days and brought business to a halt in downtown Duluth. The Finland Air Force Station along the North Shore was cut off for several days as plow crews struggled to cut through 15-foot drifts.
April 30, 1967: Gale-force winds sent waves crashing over the piers of the Duluth ship canal. Three teenage brothers from Duluth drowned when they were swept off the north pier; a Coast Guardsman who attempted to rescue them also died.
Aug. 6, 1969: Two people died when an F3 tornado touched down near Boulder Lake and tracked east to Two Harbors. It was part of a large outbreak of tornadoes across Minnesota that day; another one that hit the community of Outing caused 12 deaths and injured 70.
August-September 1972: On Aug. 20, 1972, Duluth saw 3 inches of rain in two hours — after what had already been a very wet summer — causing major damage to streets on the hillside. Sixth Avenue East was among the hardest-hit locations. To the west, tons of sand stockpiled for the project to connect Piedmont Avenue with Interstate 35 washed down 20th Avenue West and closed Superior Street. A month later, an early-morning storm dropped another 4 to 6 inches of rain, undoing many of the repairs from the month before and affecting more areas, including Proctor. Two people died when their car went into a washout northeast of Two Harbors. Combined, the storms caused an estimated $41 million in damage — more than $200 million in today’s dollars.
March 23-25, 1975: A blizzard dropped more than a foot of snow and brought winds that reportedly gusted to 100 mph in Duluth, the Weather Service reported. Huge waves on Lake Superior sent debris into Canal Park, including into first-floor rooms of what was then a Holiday Inn along the shore. Interstate 35 was closed between Duluth and the Twin Cities, and waves damaged the Two Harbors municipal water plant. Another blizzard brought 12-plus inches of snow to Duluth days later — and all of that followed another blizzard that in January had dropped close to two feet of snow to parts of the Northland.
Nov. 10, 1975: A storm that brought relatively little snow and wind to the Northland intensified as it moved over eastern Lake Superior, where it produced hurricane-force winds that hit the freighter Edmund Fitzgerald. The Fitzgerald sank with the loss of all 29 men aboard, an tragedy remembered each Nov. 10 with a memorial observance at Split Rock Lighthouse.
Nov. 20, 1982: A late-autumn rainstorm combined with melting snow to cause flooding in the Twin Ports. Tischer, Miller and Keene creeks left their banks; floodwaters surrounded the Irving Recreation Center.
March 3-4, 1985: A blizzard brought wind gusts in excess of 90 mph to Duluth, created drifts in excess of 20 feet on Park Point and shut down the freeways and bridges in the Twin Ports at times.
Nov. 18, 1985: Winds gusting to near 70 mph pushed the anchored 585-foot freighter Socrates onto the beach of Park Point, where it remained stuck in the sand just offshore for nearly a week and became a tourist attraction of sorts until it was freed with the help of eight tugboats.
June 21, 1986: Hours after Grandma’s Marathon, a violent storm moved through the Twin Ports with winds in excess of 80 mph. It downed trees and power lines, flipped planes at Sky Harbor Airport and broke the moorings of six mothballed or derelict freighters around the harbor. One — the Joshua A. Hatfield — was blown across Superior Bay and went aground on the harbor side of Park Point.
March 22-23, 1991: A major ice storm hit Duluth, which combined with high winds to topple the 850-foot-tall WDIO-TV broadcast tower — which in turn hit a power line that knocked out power to all TV and radio stations in town except for KDAL-AM. There was ice up to 6 inches thick on the wreckage after the storm passed. The storm also caused widespread tree damage across the region.
Oct. 31-Nov. 3, 1991: Halloween blizzard dropped more than 3 feet of snow on Duluth and brought travel to a near standstill across the city and region. Read more about it elsewhere in this section.
July 4, 1999: A windstorm known as a derecho swept across the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness with winds estimated at 80-100 mph, downing millions of trees. Several dozen campers were injured — but, miraculously, no one was killed. The downed trees created an immense amount of potential fuel for wildfires — a danger that persists to this day.
June 18, 2001: An F3 tornado touched down in Burnett County, causing severe damage in the community of Siren. Three people died, and more than a dozen were injured.
March 1-2, 2007: Widespread snowfall of 20 or more inches and winds in excess of 60 mph hit Duluth and the Northland. Snow fell at a rate of 2 inches per hour at times, and was accompanied by thunder and lightning. Plows were pulled from the roads at the height of the blizzard, and access to Park Point was cut off. Earlier that same week, another storm had dropped about 18 inches of snow on Duluth.
April 5-7, 2008: A persistent band of heavy snow dropped as much as 32 inches just north of Virginia — possibly the greatest April snow event in state history.
June 6, 2008: A half-foot of rain in a short amount of time caused flash flooding in Grand Marais and elsewhere in Cook County, washing out roads and flooding basements.
March 23-25, 2009: Steady rain and temperatures just below freezing combined for a major ice storm on parts of the North Shore, including the Silver Bay and Finland areas. Tens of thousands of trees snapped under the weight of more than an inch of ice.
Dec. 24-26, 2009: Just in time for Christmas, Mother Nature brought 2 feet of heavy, wet snow to the Twin Ports and winds to 55 mph.
June 19-20, 2012: Six to 10 inches of rain fell on top of already-saturated ground in the Twin Ports, leading to widespread, catastrophic flooding. There was flash flooding in Duluth, Superior and surrounding communities, and a longer-duration flood event in the Moose Lake area. The Lake Superior Zoo suffered major damage and the death of some animals, and major roadways — including Interstate 35 — were closed for a time. Damage reached the millions of dollars — but no people died or were seriously injured.
March-April 2013: After Duluth started the winter with below-average snowfall, the city saw 25.5 inches of snow in March — double the normal amount. Then, in April, the Duluth airport recorded 50.8 inches of snow — the most ever recorded in a single month in the city’s history. Cross-country skiers were out on the Birkebeiner trail near Hayward into May, but the extended winter wreaked havoc on spring sports, gardens and the fishing opener. The season total was 129.4 inches of snow — surpassed by the next season’s 130.2 inches. The record for Duluth remains 135.4 inches, in 1995-96.
July 11-12, 2016: Three people died after storms with torrential rainfall caused major flooding in Northwestern Wisconsin and parts of Carlton and Pine counties, including more than $10 million in damage at Saxon Harbor along Lake Superior.
July 21, 2016: A line of storms brought winds that may have exceeded 100 mph in the Duluth area, causing widespread damage to trees, buildings and power lines. Some homes were without power for days. The same storms claimed the lives of two campers in Quetico Provincial Park, and caused major damage in Hill City and Ely. It was the largest of several damaging windstorms to affect the region that summer.
Oct. 27, 2017: A storm brought heavy snow and northeast winds gusting to more than 60 mph. Already-high water levels on Lake Superior combined with 20-foot waves to cause major damage along the Lakewalk and at Brighton Beach in Duluth, and caused major beach erosion on Park Point. Damage in Duluth was estimated at $2.5 million. Damage also was reported in the Apostle Islands, and at locations along the North Shore.
— Compiled by Andrew Krueger. Sources: News Tribune archives; National Weather Service; “Minnesota Weather Almanac” by Mark Seeley; Minnesota Department of Natural Resources; Minnesota State Climatology Office