Wallingford, CT Tornado, Aug 1878

The grade school building at Wallingford following the passage of the tornado of August 9, 1878. In: "History of the Wallingford Disaster," by John B. Kendrick. 1878., photo from NOAA John Ginty's house, thrown off its foundation by the tornado of August 9, 1878. In: "History of the Wallingford Disaster," by John B. Kendrick. 1878, image from NOAA photo library

The Tornado at Wallingford, Conn., in 1878.

During the last of July and the first of August, 1878, showers with thunder and lightning occurred almost daily, and on some of the days there were several disastrous ones. For two or three weeks there seemed to be more and greater thunder showers than the people of New England had ever experienced. Wind blowing with the force of a tornado frequently accompanied the, especially those that occurred on the eight and ninth of August.

On the afternoon of Friday, the ninth, in all sections of the three southern New England stated there was great destruction of property by lightning, and several persons were killed by it. Rain fell in great quantities, falling in Boston to the greatest depth ever known, and in several places wind was very disastrous. The tornado that occurred at Wallingford, Conn., was the most terrific and resulted in the greatest destruction of life and property that was ever caused in New England by such means.

Rain began to fall at about six o'clock, and in a few minutes it increased to a deluge. Heavy black clouds gathered over the village, making it dark as night, and lightning illumined the gloomy masses, while thunder continually rolled and crashed along the clouds. When the shower was at its worst, without a moment's warning, a fearful tornado swept across the northern part of the town, from west to east, accompanied by hail. The wind swept before it the rain and every movable thing that lay in its track, heavy and light articles being alike carried away and destroyed. Wooden houses were unroofed of blown off their foundations, some only a few feet, others an eighth of a mile. Its track, which was less than half a mile wide and about two miles in length, lay over what is known as the "sand plains," about a quarter of a mile north of the railroad station, and near the line of the New York, New Haven and Hartford railroad. For a slight distance on either side of it some damage was done, especially to chimneys, but it was not to be compared to that which occurred within the track. The wind came and went almost in an instant, but in that time many strong, healthy persons had been swept into eternity, and desolation had come upon the town. Such a frightful scene had never before been witnessed by the inhabitants. Immediately after the destruction took place, fire burst out among the ruins in many places, being occasioned by burning lamps and stoves, and fore a time it seemed that a terrible conflagration would add to the horror of the scene; but the rain which continued for about an hour fortunately extinguished the flames. At eight o'clock, the sky was clear and the moon shone brightly and serenely over the scene.

The tremendous force of the wind and the awful desolation it caused can perhaps be conceived when the reader learns that thirty-four persons lost their lives, twenty-eight more were severely injured, and that one hundred and sixty buildings were wholly ruined, which with the other property destroyed amounted to two millions of dollars in value. Among the buildings wholly demolished were forty dwelling houses and fifty barns. The latter were in some instances, raised clear of the hay contained in them, which were left standing. Trees and fences were torn away, and hurled through the air as though nothing but straws. The damage to property and the loss of life were caused by the force of the wind alone, many persons being killed by the falling houses.

The town was in a state of uproar and consternation, and the greatest excitement prevailed. Immediate assistance was needed from other places, but there were no means of communication. The telegraph poles and wires were blown down, the cars would probably be late, and the distance to Meriden, the nearest town, was six miles. Little John Hoey, only twelve years old, thinking that the trains would be delayed, rode on horseback to Meriden for help. At seven o'clock, the steam cars arrived, and by them a message was sent to Meriden. On the express that left that place at half-past seven came seven physicians and other assistance, and systematic work was immediately begun. The dead bodies were searched out and brought together, twelve being laid on the children's desks in the Plains school-house. The town hall was transformed into a hospital, and those who were seriously wounded were conveyed thither, being placed in charge of the physicians and professional nurses. There were wounded persons of both sexes, young and old, some with broken arms, legs and backs and fractured skulls, and others suffering from concussion of the brain and internal injuries. The scene throughout the place will never be forgotten by those that witnessed it. A guard of one hundred and sixty men was immediately placed over the desolate district.

Twenty-five of the dead were buried in the town cemetery on Sunday, the eleventh, an immense throng of ten thousand persons being present at the sad services, which were conducted by Rev. Mr. Leo of Winsted, assisted by Rev. Messrs. Slocum and O'Connell of New Haven and Mallon of Wallingford. There were two thousand carriages in the procession that followed the remains to the cemetery.

The disaster was not only sad and distressing on account of the loss of life and personal injuries, but in the great loss of property, buildings, furniture and goods, which belonged principally to the workmen, entailed upon the community many privations that had to be met. In several of the towns and cities around, public meetings were held to raise funds to assist the sufferers from this terribly catastrophe. The Catholic diocese immediately responded to the wants of the people, all those that died being of that faith, except Mr. Littlewood, and assistance came as freely and in as large amounts from Protestants.

Many wonderful incidents were related of fearful deaths and narrow escapes. Over the lake at the Wallingford community two clouds appeared to come together, and reaching down to the water drew it up in an immense spout seemingly two hundred feet high. A man was out on the lake in a boat, and when he saw the fearful commotion he jumped into the water, and swam ashore; but had scarcely done so when he saw his boat carried into the air and lodged on a hill. Four persons belonging to the family of John Munson were buried in the cellar when the house was blown down, and it was a good while before they could be dug out of the ruins. Two of them were slightly injured and the other two escaped. Michael Kelly, who was driving in a buggy, was blown in his team some thirty feet over a precipice, and both himself and horse escaped with slight injury. A boy named Matthew Mooney was struck by the wind as he was standing on the railroad track, and was blown fifty feet, being almost beheaded. A woman was lifted a hundred feet into the air, carried along seven hundred feet, and dropped to the earth, her remains being found horribly mangled. A Mrs. Huxley had her child in her arms when she was picked up, both being dead and almost scalped. Frederic Littlewood was found dead by the side of the road, where he was killed by flying timbers. He was one of the many men that were on their way home from the shops where they worked, having finished their labors for the day. In the Catholic cemetery, the largest monuments were torn up and trees uprooted. The wooden church of the Catholics, and the new brick High-school building were both crushed to a mass or ruins. To this scene of disaster and desolation there was a constant stream of visitors for several days after the catastrophe.

Historic Storms of New England, its Gales, Hurricanes, Tornadoes, Showers with Thunder and Lightning, Great Snow Storms, Rains, Freshets, Floods, Droughts, Cold Winters, Hot Summers, Avalanches, Earthquakes, Dark Days, etc..., by Sidney Perley, 1891, pages 334-337