Last summer I wrote about corn and watermelon pickles and shore cottages and my mother’s birthday. It was cheerful. Bringing up disaster in the middle of the “good old summertime,” however, is kind of a downer, but because this event was important in the history of Wallingford, Connecticut, I’m going to throw all caution to the wind (so to speak) and write about the 1878 storm that devastated my town.
It’s the nature of disaster to come unbidden and leave scars. One minute you’re fine, and the next, the roof blows off and the floor gives way – figuratively and literally. When the great tornado of 1878 struck Wallingford, Connecticut one hundred and thirty-seven years ago, it did its work quickly but left an enduring mark.
My mother’s family has lived on Whirlwind Hill in East Wallingford since the early eighteenth century, so I was always aware that, even though we weren’t in a tornado state like Kansas, we weren’t exempt from whirlwinds. Starting in 1670, when the town was founded, tornados visited Wallingford five times. The tornado of 1878 killed thirty people, injured over thirty-five others, and did significant property damage.
“On the afternoon of Friday, August 9, 1878, we were an active and a prosperous people…Surely any visitor on that bright day would in his heart have said, ‘Here is a place beautiful in its valleys and hills, and blessed in its contented and joyous families.’ No words could have been more true. But Friday evening saw a far different sight, for we were soon to feel the breath of the Death Angel…About 6:15 p.m. black clouds met above Community Lake and swept eastward…The time from the formation of the cyclone until its destructive work in the village was completed, did not exceed one and a half minutes…Torrents of rain fell for ten or twelve minutes. Water came down in sheets.” — John B. Kendrick, “The History of the Wallingford Disaster”
The above quote, and the vignettes in the rest of this post are from a book owned by my great-grandfather, William E. Hall. I have a feeling that my lifelong fear of tornados came from my mother’s telling of these stories. She treasured this little book that John B. Kendrick wrote and published only a month after the cyclone hit Wallingford. In seventy-six written pages and eight engraved illustrations, Kendrick detailed the horror, hope, and occasional humor that followed in the wake of the tragedy.
Because a reprint of “History of the Wallingford Disaster” is easily available online or through that bookseller whose name starts with ‘A,’ I’ll share with you just a few highlights from the book.
The storm wreaked the most havoc near what is now Colony Street on the west side of Wallingford. The Catholic church was destroyed, and the majority of the dead were Catholics. A Protestant deacon who was visiting from a nearby town the day following the tornado asked a bandaged victim;
“My poor fellow, how do you account for the fact that none but Catholics were killed yesterday?” Without hesitation, Pat replied: “Sure and it’s aisy enough accountin’ for that; the Catholics are ready to die any minute, but your folks ain’t good enough to go suddint like.”
In the chapter called “The Destruction on the Plains,” Kendrick wrote;
“All the barns in this section [the plains] were torn to pieces, and no one can find out where the wind put the pieces. One man went eastward to find his cow, and met her coming back uninjured. He does not know which left the premises first, his cow or his barn.”
“One of the injured women, upon being asked how it seemed, replied: “I did not know whether to laugh or cry; the pigs were whirling round in the air, cows were flying as if they had wings, and doors and furniture went by us and over us like lightning.”
On the hill, and on the east side of town, the destruction wasn’t as pervasive, but still costly.
“In William E. Hall’s [my great-grandfather’s] woods, fine large beech, white oak, and chestnut trees, lie upon the earth broken and shivered; one can plainly see the manner in which the wind twisted them from their stumps. They lie here in every direction but the northwest. In one place the trees lie across one another, pointing northeast and south. The storm here was too high to do much injury to small timber, but these six acres of heavy timber suffered injury to the amount of about one thousand dollars.”
On the Sunday following the tornado the high estimate of visitors was 77,000 – the low estimate 22,000. The rapid spread of word about the disaster seems amazing to me in the days before social media. Extra trains were added to the line to accommodate the hoards, and one hundred and thirty-eight Wallingford men (my great-grandfather William included) were deputized as special constables to protect life and property.
“Wherever there is anything to be seen, there will people gather, why this is a fact is not for us to explain; but we all know and have felt this peculiar attraction. The wind with its strange and fatal violence had scarcely done its work on that sad Friday evening, when strangers began to appear into the desolated regions. On foot, in teams, by rail, they found access into the village and among the ruins.”
The most vivid description of the storm’s rage came from a fourteen year-old boy, Elbridge Doolittle, who watched it from the second story rear window of his Center Street house. His tale makes the storm seem like a living being – a giant Godzilla bearing down on the tiny creatures below.
“I saw the lightning flashing, and then heard a queer noise, and turned around and looked over to the lake, in which direction there was a rumbling and rolling noise. There was a crash, and then something shot up into the sky that looked like a cloud of smoke, and was so thick that I couldn’t see through it. There was an awful roar, and it came along about five rods, and then there were pieces of board and shingles and pieces of roof, I should think that were about [five feet square]. These I suppose came from Grasser’s shop. The tornado, or whatever you call it, was about as wide as a house is long, and kept whirling round and round, being a good deal bigger at the top than at the bottom. It swept along awfully fast and tapered down at the bottom like a balloon with a long tail stringing under it, out of which a stream of water kept running, just like it would out of a tunnel. The tail kept swinging and whipping around like a snake…When it got opposite our house the thing was terribly black and thick and was full of timbers, which kept turning end over end instead of spinning around like a top. It was full of limbs of trees too, and they looked like big kites with the leaves at the top, and the limbs or trunks hanging down like the tail to a kite. Every little while the stuff in the air would drop and another building would be picked up and thrown around. The tail kept dragging along the ground and all moved very rapidly, there being no stop until it reached the school-house. Then I thought it stopped for a second or two, as if the school house was too big for it, but it went up into the air, and the tail seemed to wind around the school-house, I could see it so plainly…I should think it took about three minutes for the whole thing to come from the lake to the school-house.”
The loss of life and shelter was horrific, but in the end, people stepped up and helped each other. Storm clouds made way for blue sky. Friends and neighbors nursed the injured, buried and mourned the dead, and rebuilt homes, barns, schools, and churches to shelter the living. Kendrick prefaces his account of the tornado and its aftermath with words of hope and optimism;
“Many men and women of our day think and act as if the days of chivalry were past. It is a great mistake. The world is daily growing wiser and better, and with all the sadness and pain of this disaster, there have been many, very many, grand and noble deeds of self-denial and mercy which assure one that this is not a very bad world after all.” — John B. Kendrick – Preface to “History of the Wallingford Disaster.”