Armstrong County, PA Sugar Creek Township Tornado, May 1860

The violent tornado that occurred on the 29th or 30th of May, 1860, began to move with or to gather its devastating force on the Kittanning and Brady's Bend road on this tract, between Christopher Foster's house and barn, where it swept in a course slightly south of east to David C. Porterfield's, and turned thence northeasterly to William A. Foster's, tearing off the roof and upper story of his house. He was absent at the time. As he saw, returning from Middlesex, the storm moving toward his house, apprehensive for the safety of his two young children whom he had left there, he hastened thither with utmost speed. The little girl, when she saw the storm approaching, took the little boy with her from the house, and both, as they were just about to encounter it, lay down in a gutter which proved to be a place of safety for them. It passed thence northeasterly through Washington township, crossed the Allegheny river a short distance above the mouth of Sugar Camp run, through Madison township with slight deflections to Red Bank creek nearly east of Owen now Thomas Meredith's residence, moving everything in its course.

Lewis Bish said he was standing on a hillside of Red Bank creek, between the old Red Bank Furnace and William Shoemaker's, while the tornado passed above him. It did not disturb anything where he then was; some sand fell on him while viewing it; the hillside is steep and the bench of the hill was 100 feet above; he saw the largest trees whirling in the air above him, and felt thankful that none of them fell on him. William Shoemaker's house, near Anthony's tunnel, except the sleepers and kitchen floor, was swept away. Two boards having been taken out of the floor, a small nursing child was dropped down through the opening thus made and was unhurt. Neither the cradle in which that child was, nor any part of the house or spring-house, was ever found, nor any part of the barn which was blown away. The orchard, except six stumps of apple-trees whose bark was stripped off, was uprooted and borne along in the irresistible current of the tornado. Pieces of stone were driven so deeply into these stumps that Lewis W. Corbett could not draw them out. The fences were strewn all over the farm, and Shoemaker was so seriously injured that he was disabled from work for several weeks. Passing with increased force through the southern part of Clarion county, it swept away everything in its track. Passing about half a mile north of New Bethlehem, it reached Charles Stewart's place while the family were at dinner. Mrs. Stewart, as the door opened, exclaimed: What a storm is coming!" which struck the house while she was attempting to close the door, and removed it some distance from its foundation. She was found lying between two rafters and beneath a heavy piece of oak timber, whose crushing weight caused her death in three hours.

Her child was in the cradle, which dropped into the cellar, where it was found in the same position in which it had been in the room, with its occupant uninjured. The rest of the family were scattered over the meadow and more or less injured. Stewart's barn was ignited by what appeared to Philip Huffman to be a stream of burning fluid, two feet thick, borne along by a dark cloud. The grass in some places was burned on the ground. Some of the timber, used two years afterward in building John Henry's barn, was so imbedded with small stones that it could scarcely be worked. John Dougherty's daughter, about sixteen, in attempting to escape from the house was killed by a falling log, while those who remained about the chimney suffered no injury except a few light scratches. Valentine Miller, who resided across the hollow from Dougherty's, his mother, wife and children were together in a log house which was struck by the tornado. The superstructure was blown away, but they, having huddled about the chimney, were not injured. It struck John Mohney's house north of Millville in the absence of himself and wife. Their oldest son, when he saw it approaching, ordered all the children into the cellar; taking the youngest in his arms, he sprang to the foot of the cellar stairs, and before he had time to think of anything the house was blown away, but neither he nor any of the children were injured. The bank barn was nearly leveled to the ground, and a heavy new four-horse wagon standing back of the barn was found crushed within the foundation of the barn, and a new wheelbarrow at the other end of the barn was blown into the top of a maple tree about 75 rods distant, where it was found unbroken. John Shields and his horses were blown over and over through a large field about half a mile east of Mohney's without serious harm.

When the tornado struck Maysville, Dr. Stramley was having his horses shod at the blacksmith shop, which was blown away and the blacksmith seriously injured ; the horses were borne some distance, and when the storm ceased the doctor was found lying in the middle of the street beside a large dog ; the latter, which was well enough before the storm, was dead. The doctor's boots, coat and hat flew away, and were never again seen by him ; he never afterward saw any part of his buggy but the seat, which was found a quarter of a mile up the creek. The bridge and every building in that town was swept away. There were three run of buhrs in the gristmill, one set of which was turned upside down ; another pair were carried up to the dam and left setting as they were in the mill ; the third pair fell into the millpit ; and. the gearing was blown away, only pieces of the metal part having since been found. The book kept by the miller was afterward found 65 miles distant in Union county. Irvin McFarland's hotel was borne diagonally across the street and precipitated down the bank of the creek above the bridge. His wife, who was in it, lived about two and a half hours after her removal. He, in searching for his little boy, four years old, thought he heard a noise like his voice, and, in endeavoring to follow the sound, he approached a pile of brick—the large brick chimney had tumbled into a pile where it stood—and, thinking he could hear the sound more distinctly, he began to throw the loose brick off the pile. About four feet of the foundation was still standing, at the side of the lower part of which he found his boy unharmed, with his right hand extended as high as he could reach against the chimney. Adam Bachman was carried, with his own building, a short distance, and died of the injury which he received. All that was ever found of the three new wagons at the blacksmith shop, one finished, and two unfinished, were the rims of two wheels and a few spokes left on the ground where the wagons were.

The width of that tornado varied from 30 rods to half a mile. It carried everything before it where it was widest, but its force was greatest where it was narrowest, plowing up the ground three feet deep and from three to five feet wide, swinging trees on the ground, large oaks around, as if on pivots, one-fourth of a circle, and pruning off all the branches within reach. It took a northeasterly course three miles south of Brookville, and, passing through Clearfield, Union and other counties in this state, struck the ocean between New York and Philadelphia.

Thus sped to the mighty deep that tornado which, wherever else it was generated, began its devastating career in a whirlwind in the public road on this Orr-Foster tract, reminding one of DeKay's description of this destructive force of nature, which closes thus:

"And as in court-yard corners on the wind Sweep the loose straws, houses and stately trees Whirl in a vortex. His unswerving tread Winnows the isle bare as a thresher's floor, His eyes are fixed; he looks not once behind, But at his back fall silence and the breeze. Scarce is he come, the lovely wraith is sped.
Ashamed the lightning shuts its purple door,
And heaven still knows the robes of gold and sun
While placid ruin gently greets the sun."*

* The church edifice of the Medway Presbyterian congregation, frame, one story, 36X54 feet, ceiling 18 feet, was erected in the summer of 1880, and its interior is very neatly finished and furnished. It was dedicated Friday, October 29, the services being conducted by Rev. David Hull, D. D., of Indiana, Pennsylvania.

History of Armstrong County, Pennsylvania, Chicago: Waterman, Watkins & Co., 1883, pages 540-541