1899 tornado victim pledged to keep living
The losses were multiple for many, but it was agreed that none other had lost more in the June 12, 1899 New Richmond cyclone than Stephen N. Hawkins.
A reporter who visited the scene of the disaster at the time wrote, "Perhaps the saddest case of all that occurred as the result of that direful tornado was that of S. N. Hawkins. His wife, two highly educated and accomplished daughters, his youngest son, a bright boy of 12 years, his niece, wife's aged father, and their hired girl - in all seven persons killed and his home and all its furnishings, including his home library swept away, his tenement houses demolished, his office, including his elegant law library, all destroyed, and he himself badly injured, buried under a two-story brick building that fell in upon him, head bruised, lower limbs crushed, ribs fractured, bones broken, so that after being extricated he was taken to St. Joseph's hospital in St. Paul for treatment." Two sons were spared.
Stephen Hawkins was born in 1846 near the city of Loughrea, County of Galway, Ireland, one of a family of 16, of whom 12 grew up and settled in the St. Croix Valley of Wisconsin in 1855, where Hawkins spent the rest of his life. He lost his mother at age 7 and lived with a sister until age 15, after which he was on his own, working at whatever jobs were available and managing to educate himself as a teacher, and later for the law profession.
Hawkins was a prolific writer, beginning to keep a journal at a very early age, and eventually writing a detailed account of his experiences, and that of others in St. Croix County, in an account he entitled "A Pioneer's Own Story."
And now that detailed primary account of local history, along with many other Hawkins papers gathered together in a large ledger, has been donated to the New Richmond Heritage Center by the Doar, Drill & Skow Law Office of New Richmond. Those who work in the Heritage Center archives will now be spending many hours transcribing the Hawkins material.
But, to continue the story of the New Richmond tornado on its 112th anniversary, here are some of Hawkins' own words on his personal ordeal in a letter written to friends on June 15, 1899.
"About as I expected it would be, I collapsed after reaching St. Paul, and was a little worse than I really expected, and my condition at times is very painful. Am receiving good treatment at the hospital, but there are so many other poor victims here who appear to be injured much more than myself, and I sympathize with them so much that I have permitted the nurses to go and wait on them first. I have been reading the accounts in the several newspapers and am meeting and conversing with some friends who have called to see me.
"The outburst of anguish with me has about passed away, and I am now endeavoring to look upon the matter from a philosophical standpoint. I am now regarding my escape as being quite miraculous, and I also look upon it as being, perhaps, providential, and perhaps there is something yet left for me to do, before my career is ended, and so, I am going to try and make the best of it, and try life's battle again.
"It is true that my wife, two daughters and youngest son were all killed in the fatal storm. My eldest son was injured quite severely, although I hope and trust it will not prove fatal. My other son, Robert, escaped without any injury whatever, as he happened to be in a basement cellar at the time the tornado struck us. I am now inclined to think that I will now engage in life again, and try and get my sons started upon some business career. Otherwise it would appear as if, for me, life were no object.
"I would be pleased to be at home during the cleaning up of the debris in and about my premises and office, for the reason that there were many things - account books, briefs, speeches, etc. - which cost me a great deal of time and much labor, and if I could find any of them I would be pleased to preserve them. But, perhaps they are all gone, and while I had taken the precaution of keeping a copy at my house, and there at the office, yet, that cruel tornado swept them all away - house, office and everything I had.
"Tell my friends that I, myself, have not given up yet. I am going to get well again, perhaps not as well as if that cruel tornado had not stricken me at all, but, yet, I am going to get up again, get out and about and wait on myself, I think."
With the steadfast courage as evidenced in that letter, S. N. Hawkins did indeed put his life back together, building a new home and beginning to gather a new law library. He was in demand as an orator, particularly at patriotic events, noted for his "booming voice." In 1901 he remarried, and in 1906 was elected Mayor of New Richmond.
The foundation of New Richmond is laid upon such pioneer lives. May we continue to validate them.