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Think the rain is bad now? Recalling the greatest storm in Minnesota history

In 1867, a deluge never seen before or since drowned Minnesota.

In 1867, a deluge never seen before or since drowned Minnesota. Minnesota Historical Society

There is a sickly green tinge to the air when a summer thunderstorm passes over the Twin Cities. Last Thursday, as commuters headed home from their jobs, a slapping wind blew away the afternoon sunshine and signaled another gusher was on the way. Umbrellas inverted uselessly. Clothes soaked through in seconds. Car radios competed against the din of water pelting windshields.

That was just an ordinary summer storm -- practically nothing when you put it up against historical precedents. Last August, nearly 10 inches fell near Willmar over two days. In 2007, nearly 15 inches of rain fell on Hokah in only 24 hours.

But even these events pale in comparison to the mother of all storms.

On July 17, 1867, pioneer surveyor George B. Wright was navigating the Chippewa River. He was about 15 miles southwest of Glenwood, where the river winnowed down to a burbling creek about three feet deep.

Around noon, Wright noticed the skies had gone dark. The wind kicked up and it began to rain, with a few flashes of lightning and rumbles of thunder. He headed back to his hilltop camp under a few tall cottonwoods. It was still raining, mild but steady, when he closed his eyes for the night.

By morning, the sky was gushing. The downpours kept coming in waves, letting up for moments before dumping buckets, again and again. During one of the lulls, Wright looked out where the Chippewa used to be and saw only a glassy sheet of water “as far as the eye could reach.”

So began the great storm, the likes of which had never been seen in 200 years of recorded history. While Wright watched its progress, it was wreaking havoc on the upper Mississippi.

An article in the Pioneer Press detailed rampant damage. Every single boom -- the river barriers designed to store logs that were being floated to mills -- was broken between St. Paul and St. Cloud. Logs passed St. Paul by the thousand as the waters rushed on. Ferries between St. Paul and St. Anthony were rendered useless. In one fell swoop, a Sauk Rapids bridge was carried off.

The storm lasted 36 hours. After the last drop finally fell, the ensuing heat turned the Chippewa valley into a massive pressure cooker.

“The sun shone out of a coppery sky, and the hot heavy vapor could be seen and felt everywhere and all the time,” Wright said. Mosquitoes turned up in humming clouds and feasted in the jungle-like conditions. Wright’s supply of sugar dissolved into useless syrup. Clothing left out to dry mildewed and rotted in a matter of days.

For days after the storm, gluttonously full rivers punished the metro area. The Pioneer Press reported that the water in Minneapolis was “higher than it was ever known before.” West St. Paul was “completely submerged.” Crops in Sauk Valley were decimated, wheat fields lost in up to six feet of water.

By July 19, the consequences of the storm had turned from remarkable to deadly. That’s the day swollen, sullen Sauk Lake burst through the McClure and Moore dam, wrecking a nearby grist mill in less than five minutes. Then it swept away the miller’s house. Meanwhile, just six miles away, three men drowned in the mouth of the Ashley River.

Grace C. Hall of Morris recounted tragedy striking when a mail carrier from a nearby fort tried to navigate the rushing river water.

“He first attempted to cross with his stage, but he could not make it,” she said. “Then he took his dispatches and, on the back of a horse, attempted to swim the river. When he was part way over, watches on shore saw his horse fall over backward and both horse and rider disappear…”

Wright said he had no way of knowing how much rain actually fell. The Pioneer Press’ correspondents reported that a pork barrel standing open in Crow Wing swallowed 36 inches of water. To this day, it’s remembered as Minnesota’s Greatest Thunderstorm. No storm since has come close.