The Wallingford Tornado of 1878 ranks as one of the worst natural disasters to ever strike Connecticut. It caused so much damage the ruined town center became a tourist attraction.
The town then was a burgeoning community of about 4,000 people along the Quinnipiac River. Many of its residents were Catholic immigrants who worked in two large silver factories.
The Wallingford Tornado wasn’t the only destructive tornado to hit Connecticut. The state has, along with western Massachusetts, a tornado alley that has experienced some of the worst damage in U.S. tornado history.
And in 1878, it took the Wallingford Tornado just moments to inflict terrible destruction on an unsuspecting town.
Connecticut Tornado History
Connecticut ranks only 43rd in the United States for tornado frequency, and most Connecticut tornadoes are weak. But occasionally an intense tornado strikes, and the state’s dense population gives the weather system more opportunity to wreak havoc. A Connecticut tornado can cause as much damage as its Midwestern siblings.
The first record of a Connecticut tornado happened in 1648. The settlers didn’t have much to say about it, other than on June 14, a ‘great tempest’ toppled trees somewhere near Hartford.
Then on June 20, 1682, a tornado destroyed forests in southern Connecticut. In the worst hit town, Shelton, the tornado left scarcely a tree standing along a half-mile-wide path.
During the Four State Tornado Swarm of 1787, at least five tornadoes starting in New Britain struck Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New Hampshire, killing two in Wethersfield. The first went from New Britain to Coventry in Connecticut, while another traveled from Killingly to Mendon, Mass. A third struck northeast of East Windsor and the fourth injured two while moving from Northborough, Mass., to Framingham, Mass. The fifth hit Rochester, N.H.
The Worcester tornado of 1953, one of the 25 worst tornadoes in U.S. history, killed 90 people in a 90-minute terror spree.
And back in Connecticut in 1979, the Windsor Locks tornado was one of the most destructive in history, killing three people and causing millions of dollars of damage.
The Wallingford Tornado
The Wallingford tornado struck furiously around 6 pm on Friday, Aug. 9, 1878. The black funnel cloud appeared over Mt. Tom and hit the Community Lake and created a 200-foot-high water spout.
Then it headed for the center of town.
Wallingford was completely unprepared for the disaster. The Wallingford Tornado ripped up trees from their roots, destroyed orchards and tore down at least 40 houses and 50 barns. It caused a fire to start, but fortunately rain put it out quickly.
The Wallingford Tornado also took off the top two floors of the new brick schoolhouse, wrecked the windmill, a brick factory and the Catholic church. The collapsing buildings killed most of the victims.
In the end, the storm killed 34 people, mostly Catholic, at the rate of one person every four seconds. The tornado severely injured another 28 people and inflicted minor injuries on 42.
The Wallingford Tornado also uprooted telegraph and telephone wires, cutting off communication. A 12-year-old boy named John Hoey rode on horseback to Meriden, the next town, to seek help. Within an hour of the tornado touching down, trains began to arrive with rescuers. Seven doctors came a half hour later and turned Town Hall into a hospital.
The Catholic Church buried 25 of the victims on Sunday, two days after the Wallingford Tornado struck. Ten thousand people came to the funeral.
Over the next few days, special trains carried thousands more sightseers to see the destruction. They could buy refreshments to help raise money for the survivors. Factories in New Britain closed to workers could travel to Wallingford to view the carnage.
This story was updated in 2023.