At about 6 p.m. Tuesday, July 13, 1920, Whitman County suffered the biggest storm in the region’s recorded history.
According to that week’s Pullman Herald, the storm covered a 20-mile area, centered on Pullman.
Towns west of Pullman were particularly hard hit, with Ewartsville and Wawawai each hit by 3- to 4-foot flash floods.
The real focus of the storm, however, was a cyclone that crossed the Washington State College campus.
The tornado’s funnel cloud was first seen several miles southeast of Pullman, hitting three farms as it hopscotched north toward campus.
When it hit the school’s farm area, it was reportedly 400 feet wide at the base. Witnesses say the storm was on campus less than a minute, during which time the sky turned black as night.
Skipping over open fields, the funnel touched down in the campus farm area, destroying three research barns located about where today’s Ensminger Pavilion stands.
Remaining on the ground, the tornado then marched north through the location of today’s agricultural complex — in 2019, the eastern half of Johnson Hall, as well as Clark, Hulbert, the Food Quality Building and the new Rawlins Research Complex buildings would all have been hit.
In 1920, the current location of Johnson and Clark Halls was WSC’s 200-foot long poultry building, which the tornado completely destroyed.
Of the 600 chickens there as part of a year-long “all-northwest egg-laying contest” research project, 350 were killed; the remaining 250 were rounded up by students and staffers from all over the neighborhood in the succeeding days.
Two college staffers working in the poultry building were picked up by the storm and flung into the 2 1/2 acre student orchard located just north of it.
Though severely injured, they made their way to a nearby home and were transported to the northwest sanitarium for medical care and an eventual full recovery.
No tree in that student orchard remained undamaged, with almost all destroyed. From there, the tornado reportedly split into two and began to diminish, demolishing maple trees along today’s North Fairway before finally dissipating completely well north towards Whelan.
Beyond the chickens, there was no loss of life to humans or even to farm animals. However, damage to the region was estimated at about $100,000, over half of which happened on the WSC campus.
Mark O’English is the university archivist at Washington State University Libraries Manuscripts, Archives and Special Collections.