The Day of the ‘Dominion of Death’
The F4 tornado that swept over Regina 100 years ago this weekend remains the deadliest disaster of its kind in Canadian history
It may sound strange that a horse could be tossed from downtown Regina, across Wascana Lake, through the doors of the Saskatchewan Legislative Building and into the rotunda.
But that is one of many stories ― some true, some not ― that were published in the days after June 30,1912 and retold countless times in the 100 years since.
The culprit was the deadliest tornado in Canadian history.
More commonly known as the Regina Cyclone, the F4 tornado struck on June 30, 1912 at 4:50 p.m. on a hot and muggy Sunday afternoon, leaving behind 30 dead, more than 200 injured and millions of dollars in property damage.
From his Cornwall Street home, an eyewitness told the Morning Leader he saw a large cloud “as black as the ace of spades” followed by a brown funnel cloud descending on the city. The sound resembled “40 million shrieking devils let loose at once,” he said.
The next day, July 1, was supposed to be a celebration of Canada’s 45th birthday. Instead, as described by the Morning Leader, it was the “day of the dominion of death.”
The tornado formed about 10 kilometres southwest of Regina’s downtown core, where the Trans-Canada interchange on Albert Street currently sits, according to Gord Goddard, a local historian and president of Biographies Regina.
Goddard cited several books on the subject, including Sandra Bingaman’s Storm of the Century: The Regina Tornado of 1912.
Goddard said the tornado touched down and headed east, first striking Thomas Beare’s farm.
Beare, his family and a hired hand were injured and the farm was demolished. Next in line were the farms of Walter Stephenson and John Dunlop, with equally devastating results.
The first fatality, explained Goddard, occurred further down the path at Robert Kerr’s residence. Kerr and his family were injured, but it was their guest, Andrew Roy, visiting from Quebec, that succumbed to his injuries.
Rather than continue east into less inhabited areas near Winnipeg Street, the tornado made a sharp left turn and headed for downtown, passing through Wascana Lake and then grazing the east side of the newly built Saskatchewan Legislative Building.
The building survived its brush with the tornado with only minimal damage ― blown out windows and offices left in disarray.
But before continuing across the lake, the tornado picked up dry cement stored nearby and sucked up water from the lake ― combining and spitting both on unsuspecting residents further down its path.
Once the tornado reached the shore at Wascana Park, it demolished the Regina Boat Club and the boat and swimming houses, leaving behind two dead — Vincent H. Smith and Philip Steele.
From here, Goddard said the tornado crossed 16th Avenue, now College Avenue, and barrelled into Regina’s upper-class downtown residential neighbourhood, levelling everything between Albert Street and Broad Street, with the majority of the damage on Lorne and Smith streets. Eight more residents were killed in the four city blocks between Victoria Avenue and College Avenue.
Continuing down Lorne Street past Victoria Avenue, the tornado then rolled into and damaged the Metropolitan Methodist Church, now the Knox-Metropolitan United Church, and flattened the YWCA building nearby. Today, an inscription on the church’s Lorne Street entrance bluntly states its tornado experience ― “Destroyed and Built 1912.”
Next in its path were several other properties, including the Telephone Exchange building, and then into the CP rail yard where trains and boxcars were tossed around “like chips,” according to the Morning Leader. The tornado then proceeded into the Warehouse District north of Dewdney Avenue, where it demolished more buildings and claimed the lives of five more residents. Finally, with nothing left to destroy, it left the city.
The whole event may have lasted five minutes, said Goddard. Curiously, residents living west of Albert Street and east of Broad Street didn’t realize a tornado had even passed through, assuming it was nothing more than a harsh rain storm.
The following day, the Saskatchewan militia, the RCMP and residents came together and the recovery, rescue and rebuilding efforts began. Among those helping out was Boris Karloff, who was performing in a theatre production when the tornado hit.
On Saturday, Goddard will be leading an interpretative tour through the Warehouse District on behalf of the Regina Tornado Legacy Group as part of the 100th anniversary commemoration.
One story he is fond of is depicted in a 1912 postcard. It shows a bowling alley near the corner of Lorne Street and Saskatchewan Drive lying in ruins; however, the bowling lane has seven pins still standing. Goddard admits it isn’t known if the pins were stood up by the photographer after the tornado passed.
Then there’s the story of the baby girl found unharmed inside a stove in the middle of the ruins at Beare’s farm. Goddard argues the mystery is whether the baby climbed into the stove before or after the tornado passed through.
But one of Goddard’s favourites is the “great canoe myth.”
A canoe from Wascana Lake was picked up and thrown into Victoria Park. Rescuers found a young boy lying beside it, and assumed the tornado picked him up in the canoe and brought them both to the park. However, Goddard points out it was another boy in a canoe that was picked up in the lake and dropped, but only a few metres on shore. The boy in Victoria Park stumbled there from the shore and collapsed beside the broken canoe.
“What they did is mix up two people,” he explained.
Goddard also recalls the demise of Arthur Donaldson, who was walking his dog when he noticed the dark clouds approaching. He hurried back to the boarding house at 1947 Smith St., made it to the front porch but then the building collapsed. Donaldson, along with three others, were killed at that location. Days later, the dog was spotted at the funeral home and then at the cemetry where Donaldson was buried.
In the Warehouse District, Laura McDonald was killed at 1438 Lorne St., when she was struck by a flying two-by-four piece of wood while tending her chicken coup.
Across the street, James McDougall at 1435 Lorne St., was also killed along with two family members when their home collapsed. Goddard describes McDougall as having “black cloud syndrome” for never being able to get ahead in life. Now working as a machinist, things were finally turning around for McDougall when the tornado struck. McDougall’s eight-year-old daughter, Barbara, escaped with injuries and was later released from hospital. But she died months later in December due to complications from the tornado attack. “If it wasn’t for bad luck, the McDougalls wouldn’t have had any luck at all,” said Goddard.
And, believe it or not, the aforementioned horse was resting in front of the King’s Hotel, where the Cornwall Centre now resides, when the tornado flung it over Wascana Lake and into the rotunda “much to the astonishment of the guests,” according to the Morning Leader.
Pat Busch, a retired Regina resident, also has a peculiar connection to the 1912 tornado through two future relatives. Even though historians place the first demolished Regina home on Smith Street, she believes her grandfather, Omar T. Fall’s house, was the first. Now known as the “little pink house” at 2354 Cornwall St., her father, Fred, 11 at the time, and his older brother Bill, were trying to reach the basement when the tornado hit. A large bench with a vanity mirror fell and pinned them underneath. As fate would have it, if they had they made it to the basement, the brothers would have likely been killed by the debris, she said.
A few blocks east, another future family member, her uncle Jack McIntyre, 13, was visiting his grandfather on Rose Street when he noticed the tornado approaching. He escaped by jumping on his pony and outrunning the tornado. McIntyre, who later worked for more than three decades with the Saskatchewan Department of Agriculture, recounted the incident in an Aug. 24, 1963 Leader-Post article. “Thanks to a wild race on horseback, I missed it by a scant half mile,” he said.
Goddard is critical of some accounts, including Bingaman’s, that tally only 28 deaths, mainly because those accounts omit Andrew Roy and Barbara McDougall.
Nevertheless, he recognizes the significance of retelling the stories, both of survival and of death, because doing so helps new generations and newcomers to Regina understand why the city is the way it is.
“If you don’t know your past, how can you improve your present or your future?,” he asked. “This is early Regina. This is what people were like. They were homesteaders, they were coming for a new life. Some were looking for wealth and prosperity, others, like the McDougalls, a new place to start.”