August 9: The Worst Tornado in Connecticut History


On the afternoon of August 9, 1878, the worst tornado to ever hit the state of Connecticut roared through Wallingford, wreaking unimaginable destruction throughout the entire town. In the late 19th century, most Connecticans lived under the impression that the monster tornadoes that annually devastated the Great Plains could never happen in New England; on August 9th, many residents were too quick to dismiss the incoming storm clouds as “merely” another bad summer thunderstorm and failed to seek shelter by the time the massive, half-mile-wide funnel cloud touched down. As a result, at least 34 people died as a direct result of the tornado.

One of many stereoscopic photographs taken following the Wallingford tornado of 1878. Part of the online Robert Dennis Collection of Stereoscopic Views at the New York Public Library.

Weather historians and meteorologists have since classified the Wallingford tornado as an F4 on the Fujita scale with estimated wind speeds of up to 260 miles per hour. The tornado cut a two-mile-long path through the town, destroying everything from modest wooden homes to multi-story factory buildings and breaking massive trees in half as if they were twigs. A shantytown full of day laborers near the train station was completely wiped out, and the town’s new brick schoolhouse was nearly leveled. Nearby telegraph poles were ripped from the ground, delaying communication with neighboring communities during the first crucial hours after the skies cleared.

According to local officials, in addition to the storm’s 34 fatalities, over a hundred people were injured, many of them seriously. In the days following the storm, trains brought both relief in the form of physicians and nurses, and aggravation in the form of thousands of morbidly curious spectators who hampered rescue efforts by climbing through ruined buildings and crowding the streets of Wallingford in order to gawk at the devastation. For better or for worse, many of those photographs, taken in the immediate aftermath of the storm, have helped historians understand the extent of one of Connecticut’s most formidable natural disasters, and can be easily viewed today in online galleries.

Further Reading

The Great Wallingford Tornado,”

A 3-D View of the Wallingford Tornado of 1878,” Hartford Courant