On the afternoon of August 9, 1878, the worst tornado ever to touch down in Connecticut roared through Wallingford, wreaking unimaginable destruction across 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. So on August 9th, many residents were too quick to dismiss the incoming storm clouds as “merely” another bad summer thunderstorm. They failed to seek shelter before the storm’s massive, half-mile-wide funnel cloud touched down. As a consequence of that, at least 34 people died as a direct result of the deadly tornado.
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. In minutes, it cut a two-mile-long path through the town, destroying everything from modest wooden homes to multi-story factory buildings. The devastating twister also snapped 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 100 people were injured, many 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. They hampered rescue efforts by climbing through ruined buildings and crowding Wallingford’s streets, gawking at, and, in some cases, photographing the devastation. Many of those photographs, taken in the immediate aftermath of the storm, have helped historians understand the devastating impact of one of Connecticut’s most formidable natural disasters. These images can be easily viewed today in online galleries.
“The Great Wallingford Tornado,” connecticuthistory.org
“A 3-D View of the Wallingford Tornado of 1878,” Hartford Courant