Devastation in the Aftermath of the 1957 Fargo Tornado

In the course of putting together a few coffee table books, we’ve spent a lot of time rooting through boxes of postcards at estate sales and antique stores, hunting down old photographs, and perusing eBay for the occasional treasure. Over the years, we’ve amassed quite a collection,¬†with the intention of using them in a book about Fargo one day.

One aspect of this potential book is the resilience with which Fargo has survived numerous disasters… epic blizzards, biblical floods, the Great Fargo Fire and the F5 tornado of 1957, which just so happens to have passed two blocks south of the house I live in today.

So, late one night I was surfing eBay and I searched for something like “rare Fargo photo,” and one of the first results was for a lot of silver gelatin prints, little ones, like 2 x 3, from 1957. The photos were taken in the aftermath of the tornado by an unknown photographer. I bought the lot of photos not knowing what a fascinating stash I had found.

guy-with-a-cellphone
This was the first photo that caught my eye when I took ’em out of the package, but they were so small… my first step was to scan ’em at high resolution so I could get a good look at ’em.

guy-with-a-cellphone
As I started to examine them at higher resolution, I noticed the guy standing next to his car in a devastated North Fargo neighborhood. That’s interesting, let’s zoom in on that.

guy-with-a-cellphone-zoom
Look at that. There are a lot of photos like this floating around, showing a totally devastated cityscape, neighborhoods just scrubbed of homes. As I looked at this photo some more, I wanted to zoom-in on the gentleman next to the car some more.

guy-with-a-cellphone-tight
Hmm. Is it just me, or does he look like he’s looking at his smartphone? Is this another one of those time-traveler with a cellphone things?

All joking aside, as I continued looking at this batch of photos, I slowly began to realize that some of them were very similar angles to some of the others, and the photo of Marty McFly above, was shot number one in a sequence of three by our unknown photographer. He or she had the foresight to shoot a panorama sequence.

I wonder if they imagined that one day almost sixty years later, a guy who now lives in the same neighborhood would put those photos together into a huge panorama.

guy-with-a-cellphone-panorama

Click that to see it panorama-size. Marty McFly is over there on the left next to his time machine, and the next two shots in the sequence only amplify the disaster.

Another treat in this collection, photos of Fargo Shanley High School which took terrible damage in the tornado. One particular angle caught my eye because it showed the huge water tower on 10th St in Fargo, a convenient landmark for matching up some photo angles.

shanley-and-water-tower

This is looking northwest from the intersection of 13th Ave N and 7th St North. You can see some of the damage to Shanley in the photo from 1957. There were many more in the collection that I intend to include in the book. Of course, as the photo from 2015 shows, there is only a parking lot today where the old Shanley stood, the students having long moved on to the new Fargo Shanley in south Fargo.

These photos came from an estate sale in Washington state, and the seller tells me they came from the Klinsmann family. If you know anything about the photographer, please contact us.

See also: Is This a Time Traveler in 1957 Fargo
See also: 11 Fargo Places Ripped from Science Fiction


Troy Larson is a father, author, and photographer from Fargo, North Dakota.

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30 Comments

  1. judy (weeks) gunderson

    My folks lived in the golden ridge area with their first 6 kids. They were at the grocery store when it was announced so they drove home, unloaded the groceries- My Mom was always curious why they took the time to unload the groceries?- piled in the car and headed south, out of the path. They were very close friends of the family that lost all their kids but one. Very interesting!!

  2. I love the GIF of a then/now!

  3. Lauri Strain

    It must have been a Brownie Camera….you had to look down from the top to line up the photo through mirrors. A pain, but it was great in it’s day. That man must have been taking photos.

  4. jerry olson

    We lived just south of 13th ave south when the tornado came to Fargo. Dad loaded all of us in car and headed south on old hwy 81.
    I have a research paper no. 42 from US Dept of Commerce on detailed analysis of the Fargo tornadoes on June 20, 1957.

  5. Kristie Formolo

    Really enjoyed your photos and the history… Thank you!

  6. Kathleen Cota

    Thanks so much for posting. Mt family lived a few blocks from Shanley. Our neighborhood was blown apart. My mother was at St. John’s hospital delivering my brother under their emergency power system. We stood in the backyard watching, when suddenly huge hunks of house debris appeared in the sky just above us. Dad yelled “get I n the basement!” The sky was green. I was 7 years old. I will never forget that night.

  7. It must have been a terrible shocking experience and at a time when it started to get better times for the people of ND

  8. A terrible and shocking experience at a time when it started to get better times for the people of ND.

  9. I was 5 years old at the time. I remember standing on the gravel road outside our house. It get real still and turned a NASTY green color outside! Mom was babysitting 10 or so kids, total. Us four and others.
    She yelled at me from the front door. GET IN THE HOUSE! All of use went to the basement.
    When it was all over, in only a few minutes, we saw all the destruction you see in the pictures above. Plus that, the slide in our backyard that my dad had built for us had been hit, though slightly. Dad said the tornado came through our backyard. If I am remembering things correctly, but then who knows right? Tornadoes can do weird things!!

  10. Patty Fowler

    My family lived a block from Shanley. My dad was out of town for a national guard weekend and he was one of the first guys back to Fargo. I have old pics if you want to contact me.

  11. Kirsti Fleming

    We have been scanning my grandparents 10,000+ slides and he has a lot from the aftermath of the tornado if you ever need them. In color too!

  12. Marshall K

    Kirsti, I would be interested in those pictures if you have them available. Live about 3 blocks east of the old shanley school and I think our house was probably the only house (lot) on the block that was demolished from that tornado because the house there now was built in ’57.

  13. Ryan Maack

    I actually really believe that’s my wife’s house. Our address is 1001 26th Street North in Fargo, and out title says the house was built in 1915. A change or two since this picture, but you should check that out!

  14. Troy Larson

    I will check it out.

  15. Very cool!

  16. Hi. I happen to have been born at St. John’s Hospital about an hour before the tornado. Our house was on the corner of 9th St. and 17th Ave. North. We were about 4 blocks north of Shanley, so our damage was minimal, so dad says.

  17. Though the man in the picture appears to be walking, he could be standing still, holding a microphone to a radio located on/under the dash of the car. But then why isn’t the car marked somehow? Like a Taxi or squad car?

  18. Cheryl Dahl

    My family lived near El Zagle on 16th Ave. North. My dad was looking out our kitchen windows and asked Mom to join him and look at all the strange birds flying. Mom shouted, “They’re not birds! Those are pieces of wood in the air.” We dashed to the cellar in our basement and hid under a small table covered with a cloth and listened to objects hitting our house and glassware clinking against one another in the china cabinet. Once it became still, we left the cellar not knowing what to expect once we reached the upstairs. Luckily we only had some chips in our windows and several shingles missing from our roof.

    At some point Mom decided she wanted to check out damage near us, and I rode with her in our Ford. I recall a rain storm, downed electrical wires in the streets, and seeing a home with missing walls and an intact fireplace….like looking at a doll house.

    There were children who died in this tornado and, I believe, their home had no basement. That was sadder than all the destroyed buildings.

  19. Linda Biwer

    i was in that tornado. We lived at 7th ave and 28th street. We lost everything. We were in our neighbor’s basement. I am very interested in those photos and book.

  20. Lynnette Ohm

    Though I was not even a thought in 1957, I find it interesting how I can relate to these comments.. Linda Biwer.. My future family lived in the area off 27th and 10th ave, the Jacobson’s. I grew up across the alley from the golden ridge Church; it’s been our home for 30+years. Dan Cota..When it was time for me to buy a home, we purchased Sebastien Vogel’s home one house in from the corner of 9 th street and 17th avenue North… We found report cards from Shanley and pictures of the children in the walls and attic when doing remodeling. This has potential to be a wonderful project.. And connect a lot of people. Thank you for sharing.

  21. Evalon Elton Wiste

    I lived only 2 blocks from where the tornado went through, not far from St.Lukes hospital. Sirens were going all night. It had been so hot and humid that afternoon and right b/4 it hit got still. Sounded like a freight train going over the house. Spent it in the basement. Very scary.

  22. Becky Monson-Ohnstad

    Our family lived 2 blocks south of Shanley and 2 blocks east of Roosevelt. Our last name was the same as the family who lost all but one of their children. They had 6 kids, our family had 7. The reports on the radio reached Grand Forks where our Uncle lived. He rushed down to Fargo not knowing what he would find at our house. He had to park his car several blocks away and walk amongst the downed electrical and telephone lines. Knocking on our front door my Dad answered. Our Uncle was shocked to see his brother and our family were all safe. He thought the news report was about our family. We had minor damage to the roof. But our family was safe.

  23. Sharon Mische Scheltens

    We lived at 1215 8th St. N, one block south of Shanley! We had 2 garage parts in our backyard and a 2X4 pierced the south wall of the living room! Shanley’s whole gym was caved in! Graduate of Shanley in
    1956 and student at NDSU when this happened. We survived in the southwest corner of our basement. Very sad about the children who
    Lost their lives in the Golden Ridge neighborhood. We had two real close family friends whose homes on 1st St. N (1300 block) were
    blown away almost totally. The true grit of North Dakotans showed
    through, Fargo recovered better than ever. Fargo is such a wonderful
    City and I lived there until I was 21 and graduated from NDSU. I still
    have family in Fargo and get back every year! Love your photos, and
    wish we hd taken some or saved the Fargo Forum!

  24. Darlene Henry

    The family that lost six of their seven children that day is very close to our family. The father Gerald, married my mom’s mom, so he was always Grandpa to all of us. Gerald Munson also passed away in Tacoma Washington, in the late 70’s. This could be his estate sale. Soon after his passing Grandma sold everything and moved back to Willmar MN. I know this story from Grandpa, not that he talked of it much. Any storm and we were tucked away very safe. he loved us more than anything. I think we received all the love from his sorrow.

  25. Clay Hage

    My dad and I stood on our front lawn looking north from the 1600 block of 14th street south. He said his sister’s house was up there and worried about her and the family. Their house was severely damaged and their new 1957 Pontiac was picked up and dropped on its side. I remember the green sky and then it was a dark purple as the evening went on. Only 4 years old and it left that one vivid memory.

  26. Neila ChaoucH

    I have vivid memories of that tornado. My school and my church were taken and a friend was killed. I remember the devastation.

  27. Alicia

    My husband and I lived in the Golden Ridge from 2003-2007 in a house that was built in 1920. Our house revealed evidence of the tornado a few times. Once when my husband went up in the attic for the first time he hollered at me to come up and take a look. In the attic, there was a torn, and magled roof, in which a new roof was just put over the top of it. Also that part of the house was the kitchen area and we know that it was added on in 1957, after the tornado went through. Then, when tearing out old cabinets in the kitchen, we found a bunch of papers that must have fell out of their junk drawer. That was cool itself! Old coupons for 5 cents off, pictures, cards, etc. Then amoung it was a little pencil sketch. It was of a tornado, a house, and 12 graves…we know that thirteen people died in the tornado, but one wasn’t until months later from injuries sustained by the tornado. It gave me chills when I saw it. We moved, but I kept that little drawing. I thought it was pretty neat.

  28. Maybe McFly is holding one of those small transistor radios they had back then. You guys are probably too young to remember, but there were some about the size of a new iPhone, just thicker. Great find!

  29. Don Lawrence

    Our farm was 27 miles north of Fargo, but I remember as a small child the sky was black, then green. I was at my Grandmother’s and Grandfather’s farmhouse and they were listening intently to the radio about the impending storm. They had distant relatives living near Golden Ridge who lost their home. Everything was gone off the floor but standing in the middle was a birdcage on a pole with a parakeet in it. Unharmed even tho the cage was filled with debris. Grandma and Grandpa were given that bird by the relatives and he lived for many , many more years. In fact he was named Petey, and would sing and sing much to my Grandfather’s amusement…… he always remarked he thought that he had alot to say about life and living after going thru a virtual ‘Hell’. God rest the souls of all who did not make it.

  30. Paul Madsen

    I was 12 years old when the tornado ripped through Fargo in June 1957. My grandparents, my mother’s parents, lived at 1302 8th Street North, directly across the street from Shanley High Sch00l. They had been sitting out in their back yard that day enjoying the early summer evening and barely got inside their house and down in the basement when the funnel swept over them. In fact, I remember my grandfather recounting how he had just reached the 3rd step on the stairs to the basement when he heard and felt the house being sucked apart. They lost everything in that monster storm except their lives. My memory of it is as fresh and alive today as it was then.

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