Thomas Grazulis in Significant Tornadoes documents four intense tornadoes that occurred across parts of Pennsylvania on August 19, 1890. An F2 tornado destroyed barns west of Reading in Berks County. In Susquehanna County, a tornado given an F3 rating swept away a home, killing two children inside. Two tornadoes moved through parts of Luzerne County: An F2 near Silkworth and the deadliest of the day, an F3 at Wilkes-Barre. This summary will describe the events in Luzerne County.

Map of the tornadoes from the NWS Binghamton Summary.

Rohrsburg-Silkworth, PA

Stats from NWS State College Tornado Database

Rating: F3 
Path Length: 25 Miles
Path Width: 600 yards
Fatalities: 4
Injuries: 10+
County: Columbia, Luzerne

This tornado first developed in a hollow in the northern part of Greenwood Valley. It moved generally east-northeast. It first hit the Freas Farm, north of Rohrsburg. A house was unroofed and fences and outbuildings were destroyed. An eyewitness nearby reported that the tornado, “moved faster than a railroad train, roaring fearfully.” Another witness in the area described the funnel as “a white cloud that suddenly turned black.” It cut a clear path through the wooded areas. About a mile north-northwest of Stillwater, near the village of Fishing Creek, a “sulfurous smell” was noted, and people for the next six miles of the track noticed this stench. It was also here, in the Fishing Creek area, where the first injury occurred. A person was injured when their house was unroofed and torn apart. Several barns in this area were leveled.

About a mile east of Fishing Creek a woman stated, “the tornado column separated into two distinct funnel-shaped clouds, moving onward side by side. Two fully formed columns surrounded by fine debris which appeared like a swarm of bees.” Near the Columbia/Luzerne County border, about 3 miles east-southeast of Benton, the tornado likely reached its first intensity maxima. It was here where the NWS Binghamton estimates the tornado was an F3, but it is the author’s personal opinion that the tornado was probably close to, if not, an F4 at this location. The quarter-mile-wide funnel leveled three houses. One farm was “blown to pieces.” The tornado even scoured the ground in this area, deep enough to tear sprouts from their roots and removed stones from the ground.

Crossing into Luzerne County the tornado weakened, producing mostly tree damage. It quickly intensified on a steep hill overlooking Pine Creek, where George Smith and his family lived. The house was lifted off its foundation and thrown 200 feet over a ledge, where it crashed down as mass of debris. George’s 6-year-old son was killed instantly when his skull was crushed by debris.

The tornado widened to about 600 yards wide and then plowed into Harveyville. The town was nearly completely destroyed. One person was killed and three others were injured in the town. The library was demolished. Debris from the library was scattered in all directions. A carpet was found a quarter of a mile to the northwest. Clothing and tinware was found half a mile to the northeast. The brick schoolhouse was “left as a mass of rubbish.” The general store was torn apart and a flouring mill was blown off its foundation. The M.E Church was unroofed. A barn in which several people took shelter was leveled, resulting in the town’s only fatality.

Continuing east-northeast from Harveyville, the tornado maintained F3 to possibly F4 intensity. The twister tore into the Gregory Schoolhouse and completely destroyed it. Eyewitnesses in the area described the tornado as “a silvery color and seemed like a stream pouring down into the darker mass of clouds at the earth.” They also noted that the trees were carried high into the air and “whirled rapidly.” Several homes in this area were leveled to the ground. One of the houses was lifted off its foundation and thrown down several yards away as a mass of debris. A basement wall also collapsed at this house. Another home was completely destroyed and debris was blown into small unrecognizable pieces. At this home, a girl was killed and her parents injured. At a third home that was swept away, Mamie Burns was on her way to the cellar but didn’t make it in time. She was crushed by debris and tragically died from her injuries four days later.

South of Sylvan Lake, about 5 miles east-northeast of Harveyville, another house was swept away, and trees were stripped and denuded. The twister then tore through Prichard. In Prichard, the tornado likely reached its second intensity maxima. The Signal Service papers noted that, “The destruction rivals the severest tornadoes of the Mississippi Valley.” The tornado leveled the forest through here. Nearly every tree in the path was destroyed. In some places, the fallen trees were stacked six to eight feet high. One pine tree that was 100 feet tall, and 30 inches in diameter was removed entirely from the ground and dropped tens of yards away. Other trees were reported to have been dragged along the ground, leaving gouges. Several homes were completely swept away, and one person was paralyzed after her spine was crushed by falling timber.

The tornado crossed Hunlock’s Creek and started to narrow and weaken. It finally roped out and dissipated about two miles southwest of Lehman Centre, at Mr. White’s property. A detailed description of the rope out was reported by him and will be included here. “While we were all watching the storm I noticed that directly north of the house the leaves that were carried by the wind were moving in a circle, and I called to the women to run to the back windows as there was a cyclone passing. We all ran to the windows and looking almost over our heads and to the north, we saw a huge black funnel-shaped cloud moving toward the northeast and whirling rapidly on its axis as it went. As soon as the funnel had fairly passed us, it quit raining, and I threw up a window and jumped out that I might see better. The funnel was about five or six hundred feet above the ground and seemed to be suspended in the air, but all at once a tail or nozzle came spinning down to the ground. It did not come straight down but seemed to writhe or gyrate as it came down. The tail broke into pieces almost as quickly as it came down leaving only the funnel revolving in the air. A second and third time this happened but the last time the tail did not extend more than a hundred feet below the funnel. Soon after, the funnel went to pieces precisely as a little whirlwind goes to pieces on a summer day, i.e. the ragged pieces of clouds continued to revolve for a time after the funnel went to pieces, but all ceased to revolve after a time and sailed away to the northeast. Now there are some other things that I ought to mention. In the first place, I thought that the funnel revolved more rapidly each time it sent a tail downward and slowed up somewhat as the tail disappeared.”

It should be noted that our summary differs significantly from Thomas Grazulis in Significant Tornadoes. The main discrepancy is the rating. Grazulis rates this as an F2. The F3 rating used here was applied by the NWS Binghamton and is also used in the NWS State College tornado database. It is my opinion that this tornado could be a candidate for an F4 rating. He also has the location of the tornado wrong. The tornado actually moved from near Rohrsburg (Columbia County) to the northeast of Silkworth (Luzerne County), and it was continuous along this 25-mile path. He does not include Columbia County, despite near F4 damage occurring there. We also were able to uncover a fourth fatality that occurred but was not counted. It also seems as though the injury total of 10 is too low. Per newspaper reports, it seems as though at least 25 to 30 people were injured.

This is what Grazulis has on this tornado in its entirety. “Skipped northeast of Shickshinny to near Silkworth. This event was probably a family of small but intense tornadoes. At least three people were killed, and others may have died. Most of the attention in the press was paid to the Wilkes-Barre event. Two of the deaths were in separate barns, and one was in a home.”

Tornado Path

Coordinates from NWS State College Tornado Database

Start: 41.13 / -76.45  End:  41.13/ -76.03

Note:  Exact tornado path may not be straight and/or continuous.

Wilkes-Barre, PA

Stats are from Grazulis and the NWS Binghamton

Rating: F3
Path Length: 16 Miles
Path Width: 440 Yards
Fatalities: 16
Injuries: 60
County: Luzerne

As the Rohrsburg-Silkworth tornado was dissipating, a new tornado began about 6 miles to the south. It began approximately 1.7 miles west of Nanticoke. It initially produced F0 tree damage. As the twister continued through Nanticoke, dust and other light debris “rose in a whirlwind” and a large tree was blown down. The tornado followed the Susquehanna River as it moved generally east-northeast into Korn Krest. Trees were twisted apart and even debarked in some places and the tree debris littered surrounding farm fields. The tornado was not continuous through Korn Krest, and damage only to trees occurred.

The tornado veered toward the northeast and then plowed into Wilkes-Barre around 5:30 pm ET. It seemed to follow the line of the D&H Railroad into town. The 100-yard wide-funnel quickly widened to 300-yards wide. The tornado was described as a “black cloud a quarter of a mile in width, driven at a velocity of 20 miles an hour.” Roofs were seen being lifted into the air. Five passenger train cars were thrown onto their sides. Trees and buildings were said to be “wrecked” between Main and Franklin Streets to Wood and Academy Streets. In this area of downtown Wilkes-Barre, it intensified into an F3. A roundhouse belonging to the Pennsylvania Railroad was destroyed. Four men were killed when the Hazard Wire Rope Works was torn apart. A man and two horses were killed when a smokestack at the Kytle Planning Mill fell onto them. A girl caught outside on Main Street was killed when a building collapsed into the street. Stegmaier’s Brewery collapsed, killing two men. A brick building on Market Street was leveled, killing another man. 5 people were killed when a “double frame” house was leveled to the ground. The damage in Wilkes-Barre suggests that the tornado had multiple-vortices. Strong, well-built, brick structures were leveled, while weak frame buildings beside them were left untouched.

After devastating portions of downtown, the tornado curved to the east into the Five Points Neighborhood. It was here where newspaper reports would suggest the tornado reached peak intensity. People were able to take cover in their cellars, which resulted in many lives being saved. Only a few minor injuries were noted in this area. Between Scott and Kidder Street, every home was either unroofed or destroyed. Some homes were swept away. Other homes were left as a pile of debris on their foundations. Some houses in this area were even taken from their foundation and “hurled almost unbroken on their sides.” Every road through here was blocked under piles of debris from the demolished homes. The St. Mary’s Church was heavily damaged, the back part of the church was blown off. The St. Nicholas Church had most of its stone facade torn down. A large hole was punched through the sidewall of the Helfrick’s Hotel.

Over 400 buildings were damaged or destroyed in Wilkes-Barre. Of those buildings, many were churches, factories, and houses in a poorer part of town. 16 people were killed in the town, and at least 60 others were injured. After leaving town, the tornado passed through Mountain Park and crossed Laurel Run. The damage was only to trees in the Mountain Park area. The tornado finally lifted on the northern side of Bald Mountain.

The newspapers reported on several oddities that occurred from the tornado, though some may have been exaggerated. I will include them below. The section of the newspaper was titled “Many Wonderful and Thrilling Experiences of the Great Storm.”

  • A man was driving a horse and buggy when the tornado struck. The tornado sucked up the horse and wagon and threw them into the ground. He reported that he was rolled over and over a half dozen times. The wagon was “broken into a thousand pieces and the harness torn into shreds.” The man was thrown into the door at Barney Williamson’s store, where he crawled in just before a large amount of debris was smashed into the front of the store.
  • A family was sitting down to eat dinner, the tornado lifted their house up from around them, and threw it onto its side, 20 yards away. The family was not injured. Their supper “was scattered to the four winds of heaven.”
  • A man was severely injured when he was carried over a house, then dropped back down on the other side.
  • On South Canal Street, a woman who was caught outside when the tornado struck was supposedly stripped of all of her clothes. She reportedly, “ran distressed into the nearest house.”
  • Two women were blown through a window at Wolf’s Hotel.

This tornado was one for the record books. Although not as intense as the previous tornado, this struck a highly-populated area, resulting in many more fatalities. This tornado is tied with the May 31, 1985, Atlantic PA F4 as the third deadliest tornado in Pennsylvania history. They both produced 16 fatalities. The only tornadoes that caused more fatalities occurred on June 22, 1944. These F4 tornadoes produced 17 fatalities (second deadliest) and 26 fatalities (deadliest). Most Pennsylvanians believe that tornadoes can’t occur in their state, due to the mountains. Wilkes-Barre is located in a valley in the Pocono Mountains. This myth continues to be shattered, as several tornadoes have struck the town following this tornado. This includes another killer F3 tornado that moved through town just 24 years and one day after this one. Seven people were killed and 75 others were injured as an F3 tornado slashed through Wilkes-Barre on August 20, 1914.

Just like the previous tornado, there are some differences from what is listed in Significant Tornadoes. Thomas Grazulis only lists a 2-mile path. When you plot the damage out, you actually get a 16-mile path. Though the first 6-7 miles of the path produced only F0 to F1 damage, as soon as the tornado crossed into the city of Wilkes-Barre it quickly strengthened into a strong F3 for about 5 miles.

Tornado Path

Coordinates based on map from NWS Binghamton

Start: 41.20175 / -76.03321  End:  41.24952/ -75.7304

Note:  Exact tornado path may not be straight and/or continuous.

Damage Photos via Wilkes-Barre City History

The remains of the William Gable warehouse and Fred Jacobs’ Saloon.
Damage in the eastern part of Downtown Wilkes-Barre.
People standing amongst the rubble of buildings that were leveled.
The destroyed roundhouse.
St. Mary's Church

Newspaper Clipping

Sources:

NWS Binghamton Summary

NWS State College Tornado Database

August 1890 Monthly Weather Review

History of Luzerne County PA

Notes on the August 19, 1890, in Luzerne and Columbia Counties

newspapers.com

Grazulis, Thomas P. (1993). Significant Tornadoes 1680-1991: A Chronology and Analysis of Events. St. Johnsbury, VT: The Tornado Project of Environmental Films. Page 653.

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