As the No. 2 St. Paul Limited train pulled into the station, its crew and passengers saw utter devastation. Wrecked buildings and broken furniture strewn upon the streets. People injured, some dead.
This was Herman on June 13, 1899, only minutes after the prospering Washington County village was slammed by a tornado.
Newspapers in Blair, Omaha and across the country, including the New York Times, reported on the catastrophe, saying the town of about 300 people was “practically wiped out of existence.”
A direct hit
Storm clouds were building that evening six miles west of Herman. While the residents had noticed them, they didn't become seriously alarmed as the storm seemed to be passing to the north, according to an article in the June 14, 1899, Omaha Bee.
But by 6 p.m., it was apparent the village would take a direct hit from a tornado of “terrific force and dimensions,” the Blair Courier reported. Residents scrambled to seek shelter in cellars, while others stayed above ground.
“The noise was like 40 freight trains all coming into town at once,” a man told the Courier.
But, then, as fast as it came in, the storm was gone and all was quiet.
A town destroyed
As residents emerged from their shelters in a heavy downpour of rain, the destruction became apparent.
Downtown Herman was a pile of debris. Only a few buildings, though heavily damaged, remained, including a hotel, two grain elevators and the Methodist church.
A house owned by S.W. Chambers stood intact on the north side of town. A few other houses on the outskirts of town were slightly damaged.
The school house, located on the south side of town, was still standing.
“The depot was scattered to the winds in such a way that one could not be positive in saying there ever was one,” the Courier reported. “Freight cars were turned about like toy balloons and were left in all sorts of positions.”
A 10-ton steel water tank, which had recently been purchased for the town's water works, was carried more than a block before it was dropped on its side by the hotel.
The Plateau bank, a one story brick building, was in ruins, but the vault remained.
Trees were torn up by the roots and stripped of limbs and bark.
About 30 businesses were completely destroyed, including the post office, blacksmith, meat market, implement house, livery stable, drug store, barbershop and three saloons.
According to the Blair Pilot, damage estimates were $150,000. Today, that would be approximately $4.5 million.
The St. Paul passenger train was headed toward Herman when the storm hit. It slowed to avoid the twister, arriving shortly after the village was destroyed.
With debris on the tracks, the crew and passengers gathered the wounded, creating a makeshift hospital in the train. Nearly 100 people were brought aboard, according to the Pilot. The train then headed back to Blair.
The following day, the train returned with supplies and relief. The Blair Fire Department also offered 15 men to patrol the city. Doctors from Blair and Tekamah treated the wounded. Many Blair residents also went to Herman to do what they could.
The Women's Relief Corps in Blair collected clothing, bedding and other items for those in need. A committee was also formed to collect monetary donations. Within two days, more than $2,000 was raised.
Mourning the lost
Thirteen people lost their lives that day — including four from one family.
Abram and Polly Hopkins, their 25-year-old son, Anderson, and daughter, Anna Kelso, who was visiting from Pender, were all killed. Their daughter, Ella Hopkins, received a badly cut head, and 7-year-old granddaughter, Carrie Kelso, was injured internally.
S. William Richards, the Herman postmaster and a Civil War veteran, died as a result of excitement and suffocation, according to his obituary.
“When the terrible storm that swept away his home and store approached, he, with his wife, sought shelter in an outside cellar where they were safe from the raging tempest,” his obituary said. “He, however, has suffered from heart trouble and asthma for some time, which was greatly aggravated by the excitement and suffocating atmosphere accompanying the storm.”
One man, Thomas Hines of Blair, had only stopped in the town for work. He had gone to Herman to bid on a job. His body was pulled from the ruins following the storm.
Rebuilding the town
Though the town was gone, many people stayed in Herman.
Rebuilding began immediately. The Pilot reported a new, much larger and more modern depot was to be built. Merchants began erecting temporary places for business and the Plateau bank, a general store and a lumber yard each planned to build two-story brick buildings.
Soon, the new businesses flourished and Herman had the largest department store in the state for the town of its size, according to the Washington County, Nebraska History book published by the historical association.
Other businesses included a large retail implement dealership, pool hall, restaurant, millinery shop, meat market, doctor and dentist offices, veterinary practice, a clothing store, grocery store and drug store.
Today, Herman is still a small community with a few businesses. There are 268 people living in the village, according to the 2010 census.