EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the fourth part of a series of stories looking at the 40th anniversary of the tornadoes that hit Grand Island on June 3, 1980.
Grand Island residents know Tornado Hill as the best sledding location in all of Hall County.
Upon visiting the unassuming monument on Old Potash Highway, one would never know, just by looking at it, the stories that it holds. Along the sides of the curving slope, the well-worn tracks of countless numbers of children can be seen after years of summiting the hill only to immediately fly down it. As the years have gone on, the memory of what lies beneath the grass has been replaced with the enjoyment of what Tornado Hill has become.
However, longtime residents of Grand Island will remember the night of June 3, 1980, when seven tornadoes, three of which rotated anti-cyclonically, struck Grand Island.
The next morning, the people of Grand Island awoke to a city with significant sections destroyed by the storms — nearly $300 million in damages.
In the time after the disaster, Grand Island would slowly rebuild and reclaim the portions of the city that had been destroyed. But former Public Works Director Wayne Bennett was met with a challenge.
With the only landfill at capacity and no new location ready, Bennett needed to find a place for the debris.
Fortunately, a unique experience provided the solution for Grand Island’s problem. In a 1990 interview with Brad Frisvold of the Grand Island Independent, Bennett explained what inspired the creation of Tornado Hill.
“I was stationed in Germany and was in Munich when they were building for the 1972 Olympics,” Bennett said. “Near the same area was a large hill that was the remnants from the bombings in World War II. Grand Island doesn’t have many hills, so I thought it would be a way to get rid of the debris and create a recreational benefit at the same time.”
With a plan in place, reconstruction crews hauled debris to three locations. The debris was then set on fire to help decompose the wood and other materials. After three weeks, crews soaked the piles in water and began construction on Tornado Hill at Ryder Park.
Hooker Brothers of Grand Island was contracted by the city to handle the entire project.
After excavating a hole with a diameter of 200 feet, Hooker Brothers began working up.
At 40 feet high, Tornado Hill is easily noticed by visitors to the city.
Yet, for Grand Island native Stephanie Crosby, the grassy knoll in Grand Island’s Ryder Park has always been a time capsule of the city’s history and a symbol of unity among its people.
“We always grew up knowing that nature of the hill,” Crosby said. “My mother had a cousin that died that night, so she made sure we always knew the history.”
“It shows that a community can come together,” Crosby said. “Mother Nature can come and wreak havoc and it is possible to come back.”
Recently, Crosby began raising money as a means to place a formal historical marker at the summit of Tornado Hill.
“There have been books and national movies about it,” Crosby said. “We should have something to remember it.”
Crosby needs to raise $6,000 to have a marker placed there.
“Fundraising has been slow,” Crosby said. “With the pandemic, there has been no fundraiser.”
Crosby began working toward the marker after it was announced that the ABCDD Girls Recreation Softball League no longer would be playing games at Ryder Park.
“I have always wanted to have something there,” Crosby said. “But, when softball left, I was really concerned about what would happen with the hill. My mission is to remember the people who died in the storm.”
However, just as Crosby was starting to gain momentum on the project, coronavirus shut down Grand Island and any plans Crosby had for a fundraising event.
Even with the obstacles in her way, Crosby said she hopes to ensure that Grand Island never loses a notable and important part of the city’s history.
“I have not met a person from Nebraska that has heard of the tornadoes,” Crosby said. “There should be something there on that hill.”
Individuals interested in donating to the Tornado Hill Historical Marker fundraiser may do so at any Great Western Bank.