Charleston, West Virginia The most destructive natural disaster in lives and property to occur in West Virginia came about as the result of a tornado at Shinnston in Harrison County on June 23, 1944, when a total of 153 persons lost their lives. This was but nine miles from the Monongah mine where in 1907 some 350 persons lost their lives, the greatest disaster in the state and the greatest mine disaster in history.
This tornado, the most severe one West Virginia has experienced, came about 8:30 in the evening when from the northwest a great black funnel-shaped cloud appeared, traveling about 40 miles per hour. Most persons seeing it thought it to be fire of some kind until they noticed a heavy mass of debris, timbers, trees, etc., traveling before the cloud. Then they knew the worst.
Other sections visited by the tornado were Flemington, Meadowsville, Montrose, Thomas all in West Virginia: Oakland, in Maryland and Chartiers, McKeesport and Smithfield in Pennsylvania. But the big damage was in Shinnston. The main path of the tornado was from 500 to 1,000 feet in width. The time it took to roar through Shinnston was some two minutes.
Here is the summary of the damage of the tornado as given by the American Red Cross:
West Virginia 103 persons killed, 72 in Harrison County, nine in Barbour County, three in Marion County, seven in Randolph County; 846 persons seriously injured; 1,686 families affected; 404 homes destroyed.
There were 45 persons killed in Pennsylvania and three in Maryland. Total statistics for Pennsylvania, Ohio, Maryland, West Virginia: 153 persons killed; 846 seriously injured; 1,686 families affected; 404 homes destroyed; 821 other buildings damaged. The damage was less serious in Ohio.
The tornado ran out in the Allegheny Mountains.
The place hardest hit was Pleasant Hill, a suburban section of Shinnston with about 50 homes. This group of houses just disappeared. Persons who witnessed the tornado say that one minute it was there-the next minute it had gone as though by some magic. Dozens were killed at that spot.
As usual many unbelievable things happened in this tornado: Bonds, checks and papers from that section were found some 150 to 200 miles away in Moorefield, West Virginia; Staunton, Virginia and in Southwest Virginia.
The steel radio tower of the State Police was broken in twain.
A barn was blown away, leaving the horse in the stall uninjured, but a two-by-four beam blew straight through a cow in the field. A pig pen disappeared leaving the pigs. Hailstones were described as baseballs.
Nine persons were killed in the home of Charles Carlin on Peoria Hill at Shinnston, all that were there when the house was demolished; but there were 17 persons in the general store of Y. C. Holsberry at Meadowsville and all but three were injured when the store collapsed completely. Holsberry lost 17 buildings in the tornado. A garage was carried away at Meadowville, the car inside undamaged. Some automobiles were blown 100 feet.
Streetcar tracks were twisted as though made of macaroni, and a cook stove was found three miles away from its former home.
A box containing $750 in bonds and valuables was carried miles away but returned to its owner.
Numbers of bodies were recovered from the West Fork River, one of them 40 miles down stream.
A truck was loaded with a thousand feet of green lumber. Only five pieces of the lumber remained after the storm. One woman was found dead, hurled through the air several hundred feet.
The home of Paul Cox, Shinn's Run, skidded 1,000 feet then was borne through the air for 175 feet. His wife and two children died.
The "believe it or not" story about the tornado is that some persons will swear that they saw straw blown through a concrete wall.
(Note: permission was given by George Rice of Shinnston to use material from the book his father-in- law, the late John L. Finlayson, author of Shinnston Tornado.)
Sources on the Shinnston Tornado