When you hear the term “violent tornado outbreak,” you probably think of Tornado Alley or Dixie Alley, not Pennsylvania.  But on May 31, 1985, a violent tornado outbreak swept through northeastern Ohio and Pennsylvania.  89 people were killed, 64 in Pennsylvania alone.  44 tornadoes touched down in Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, and Ontario.  Of those, 20 touched down in Pennsylvania.  Of the tornadoes that hit Pennsylvania; 4 were weak (F0-F1), 8 were strong (F2-F3) and 8 were violent (F4-F5.)  9 of those tornadoes were killers. 

The focus of this article is on the tornadoes that hit the state of Pennsylvania.  They are listed in chronological order based on the time they developed.

Monroe Center, OH - Cranesville, PA
(4:59pm - 5:17pm)

  • Rating: F4
  • 12 Fatalities; 82 Injuries
  • Path Length: 14 miles, Path Width: 400 yards  

At 4:59 PM an F2 tornado touched down two miles west of the Pennsylvania/Ohio border southeast of Monroe Center. 10 trailers were damaged or destroyed and several trees and telephone poles were sheared off. The tornado, which was moving northeast into Pennsylvania, intensified as it approached Albion. In the extreme northwestern part of Crawford County, near Beaver Center, two frame homes were leveled.

A woman stands in the wreckage of her Beaver Center home. Source: Killer Tornadoes May 31 1985

Southwest of Albion, near Pennside, a farm was swept away.  In Albion, a two block wide by 8-10 blocks long section of the town was leveled, and two trailer parks in town were leveled as well.  Some of the leveled homes were swept off of their foundations.

Photograph showing the swath of damage through Albion. Source, gendisasters
Photograph by Dan Wolfe of the destruction of an Albion neighborhood. Wind-rowing occurred here, which is indicative of a very violent tornado.

The St. Lawrence Church was heavily damaged with its roof and windows being destroyed.  Sadly, nine people were killed in Albion.  The tornado then struck Cranesville, leveling two more trailer parks and several homes, resulting in 3 more deaths. 

The tornado as it entered Cranesville. Photo by Paul Medved published in Killer Tornadoes May 31, 1985, and NWS State College.

Dr. Greg Forbes’ survey of Albion

From the book Tornado Watch 211 – Pages 72-73

A very tragic story out of Albion.  Local Red Cross Chairman, Martha Sherman heard the tornado warming come across the scatter.  She got ready to drive to the junior high school in case the Red Cross emergency service was needed.  Her daughter-in-law, Debbie Sherman was driving home from work.  Debbie saw the funnel coming toward her as she pulled into the driveway.  She grabbed her dog, threw him into the car, and revved up the car to escape the twister.  She wasn’t aware that she would be driving right into it.

A neighbor trying to get his tractor into the barn saw that she was driving into the tornado.   He gunned the tractor and tried to run her off the road.  He was too late.  He saw the funnel lift her car 200 feet into the air.  It “soared” over the top of a silo and crashed down into a field.  Debbie was killed upon impact.  Her mother-in-law, Marsha, organizing the Red Cross relief operation at the Junior high, worked through the night, unaware that Debbie’s body was lying in the morgue, in the senior high school, next door.

The video below contains an interview with Martha Sherman on KDKA-TV for the 30th anniversary of the tornado in 2015.

Linesville, PA
(5:10pm - 5:15pm)

  • Rating: F2
  • 2 Fatalities; 20 Injuries**
  • Path Length: 4 miles, Path Width: 200 yards  

As many as 25 people watched a “white tubular snout, whirling like a garden hose whipped by uncontrollable water pressure,” moving toward the east shore of Pymatuning Lake.  As it ingested more water, it grew wider and came ashore at the End of the Road Campground.  At this time, 75 to 80 campsites were damaged or destroyed.  Its four-mile trek was easy to follow from how many trees were snapped off or uprooted.  A number of the trees crashed through homes trailers and cars, 27 mobile homes, and 15 frame homes, barns, and garages were destroyed as the tornado carved a “short but bloody path” toward Linesville, lifting before reaching town.  A “do not litter beach” sign was found 50-miles away.  A horse was buried alive in the wreckage of a barn along Route 6.  Hundreds of wildlife were killed as well. Many of the dead geese collected by the Pennsylvania Game commission had their eyes sucked out.  One woman, a camp hostess, was crushed to death under a trailer. 

**Officially one fatality occurred.  However, in the book “Killer Tornadoes May 31, 1985” it mentions two fatalities occurred, and “Tornado Watch 211” mentions that two people were killed, and a score injured.  I was unable to confirm this second death.  And there is no official injury count.  But it is likely that these 20 injuries did occur as many people were inside their campers when the twister smashed through them. 

Both photographs by Ed Malliard of the damage at Pymautning. Trees fell onto cars and campers.

Cornelian, OH to Jamestown, PA to Atlantic, PA to Cochranton, PA to Tionesta, PA
(5:17pm - 6:30pm)

  • Rating: F4
  • 16 Fatalities; 126 Injuries
  • Path Length: 56 miles, Path Width: 440 yards  

This killer tornado touched down just west of the Ohio/Pennsylvania border, in Trumbull County, shortly after the Linesville tornado lifted.  It was only in Ohio for a few hundred yards before it crossed into Pennsylvania.  In Ohio, the only damage was to a few farm buildings and trees.  The tornado then ripped through the northern part of Jamestown, in northern Mercer County, on the Crawford County border.

The tornado as it was passing near Jamestown. Original photographer unknown. Source, National Weather Service State College.

Five people were injured here as several homes were destroyed. Two mobile homes were tossed 100 feet into a ravine.  As it crossed Route 322, a car and a truck were tossed.  Four homes and a tavern were destroyed, and a church was unroofed on Snake Road, just off Route 322.  The tornado intensified even further as it moved northeast toward Atlantic.

The tornado as it approached Atlantic. Original photographer unknown. Source, National Weather Service State College.

Atlantic is a small town with a large Amish population.  Several of these Amish farms were heavily damaged, and in some cases swept away. 

A group of Amish farmers picking through the debris of a farm house, which was leveled, just outside of Atlantic. Photograph by Dan Wolfe.

On the outskirts of town, a trailer park was swept away leaving the frames of the homes wrapped around debarked trees.  A 312-foot-tall AT&T tower that was built to withstand 200 mph winds was flattened.  Most of Atlantic was leveled; including the post office, a school, and a chair factory.  A family of five were killed in one house.  The damage swath through Atlantic was a quarter of a mile wide and showed evidence of multiple vortices.  The Rocky Glen Cemetery was heavily damaged as monuments and grave stones were pulled out of the ground.  And nearly every tree in town was sheared off just above the ground.

Aerial photograph of a trailer park just outside of Atlantic that was swept away.
Photograph by Dan Wolfe of trees that were toppled in Atlantic.
3rd photo already has caption as it was from a book. Source, Killer Tornadoes May 31, 1985

Near Custards, the tornado changed directions and started to move toward the east.  Here, a motel and tavern were destroyed resulting in a death. The tornado was slightly weaker as it tore through Cochranton, here a church and several homes were heavily damaged, and two people were killed.  The funnel crossed into northern Venango County.  Near Cooperstown, three people were killed and a trailer park was destroyed.  Five people were killed between Dempseytown and Cherrytree as two homes and a dozen trailers were destroyed and 160,000 birds were lost on a poultry farm. The tornado then turned southeast, tracking through a heavily forested area, and then crossed into Forest County, lifting about five miles south of Tionesta. 

Tornado crossing Route 417

Home that was leveled in Atlantic

The AT&T Tower that was toppled in Atlantic

A destroyed home and severe tree devastation in Atlantic

Seagertown to Centerville, PA
(5:23pm - 5:55pm)

  • Rating: F3
  • 0 Fatalities; 0 Injuries
  • Path Length: 23 miles, Path Width: 300 yards  

This tornado tracked for 23 miles through Crawford County, from two miles south of Seagertown to two miles east-northeast of Centerville. A Ranger’s home at the Army Corp of Engineers camp was destroyed, near Woodcock Creek Lake. The Ranger’s car was also rolled 100 feet. 

Note:  Photographs uncovered after the initial writing of this summary showed that the tornado leveled the Hunter Farm north of Blooming Valley on Price Road.  A truck was thrown 300 yards and was mangled.  The farmhouse was swept away.

All that remained of the Hunter’s Home was an exposed basement

The contents of the Hunter’s house were scattered away from the foundation

This is what is left of the truck parked in the driveway of the Hunter’s house, it was left as a crumpled up ball 300 yards away from the driveway

A house at Woodcock Creek Lake that was heavily damaged by the tornado. Photograph by Dan Wolfe.

Waterford to Corry to Bear Lake, PA to Panama, NY
(5:25pm - 5:55pm)

  • Rating: F4
  • 0 Fatalities; 17 Injuries
  • Path Length: 28 miles, Path Width: 500 yards  
The large, violent, tornado as it passed near Corry. Photograph by Tom Atkins, WJET/Fox 66.

A large, wedge tornado tracked from two miles east-southeast of Waterford, to three miles north of Corry.  It then turned northeast and crossed into extreme northwestern Warren County and into Chautauqua County, NY.  Near Union City, four homes and several barns were destroyed along Highway 8.  Two injuries occurred here.  Over 30 head of cattle were killed on a farm that was destroyed.  A wagon was carried a mile away and a farm on Lyon Road was completely leveled.  The farm-house was actually seen in the air.  Over 50 buildings were destroyed in the Elgin and Corry areas.  A dump truck was picked up from a driveway and hurled over a house and into a field.  At least 15 injuries occurred just north of Corry.  A car that was parked in-front of Wigger’s Canoe Store, north of Corry, was carried 1/2 mile and dropped in a swamp.  The tornado crossed into New York, three miles southeast of Clymer, and it weakened and narrowed.  Along the 8-mile path in New York, 12 homes and 8 trailers were destroyed and 38 were damaged. Thousands of trees were felled as well. 

Photograph by Dan Wolfe, of a house near Corry that was swept away. The dump truck that was thrown over a house, can also be seen in this photo.
Photograph by Dan Wolfe of a house near Corry that was opened up like a doll house.

Home leveled near Corry

People digging through the rubble of a home near Corry that was torn part.

Trees on a hillside near Corry that were leveled

Photo of the Corry Tornado before it grew into a wedge

Dorset, OH to Pennline, PA
(5:28pm - 5:41pm)

  • Rating: F2
  • 0 Fatalities; 15 Injuries
  • Path Length: 10 miles, Path Width: 220 yards  

9 miles of this tornado’s path was in Ohio. It touched down west of Dorset, passing south of Pierpont and near Steamburg. It tore apart farm buildings and several homes. Extensive tree and power line damage occurred. The tornado crossed into Pennsylvania for only a mile, lifting one mile north of Pennline. Only tree damage occurred in Pennsylvania. 

Centerville, PA
(6:12pm - 6:23pm)

  • Rating: F3
  • 2 Fatalities; 10 Injuries**
  • Path Length: 8 miles, Path Width: 440 yards  

This tornado touched down two miles southwest of Centerville and moved east-northeast, ending one-mile east of Buell Corners. A PennDOT building worth $500,000 was demolished. A volunteer fire fighter reported seeing PennDOT trucks being thrown through the air. Two people were killed in a house that was leveled at the intersection of Station Road and Route 8. 10 homes, one trailer and several barns were destroyed as well. 

** In most publications it lists the two fatalities that this tornado caused with the Seagertown tornado. This could be due to the fact that in the Storm Data Publication these two tornadoes were counted as one. The 10 injuries that are listed here, where listed on a graph made by the National Weather Service State College for the 30th anniversary of the outbreak.  

Thompson Run, PA
(6:30pm - 6:37pm)

  • Rating: F1
  • 0 Fatalities; 0 Injuries
  • Path Length: 5 miles, Path Width: 130 yards  

This tornado moved through an area south of Youngsville in State Game Lands #86 and crossed Thompson Run. Details are limited about this tornado, but damage likely consisted of numerous snapped and uprooted trees.  

Tionesta to Marienville, PA
(6:30pm - 7:10pm)

  • Rating: F4
  • 7 Fatalities; 30 Injuries
  • Path Length: 29 miles, Path Width: 1 miles  

A violent F4 tornado touched down in Venango County, just east of Oil State Park, near Pithole.  It tracked east into Forest County passing north of Tionesta.  The tornado was nearly one mile wide as it crossed through Forest County, leveling trees in the Allegheny National Forest.  It lifted near Pigeon, about 7 miles northeast of Marienville.  Starr, Crystal Springs, Whig Hill and Kelletville were hit hard.  125 buildings were destroyed and 700 were damaged.  14 out of the 17 trailers at a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center were demolished.  As the tornado crossed Route 36, it picked up a car and threw it 100-yards away, killing three people inside.  Four other deaths occurred near German Hill.  

Image via Storm Data

Home swept away in Tionesta

Home destroyed near Tionesta

German Hill Road along SR 666 near Kelletville

A home near German Hill that was swept away.

Where the tornado crossed Route 62 and the Allegheny River north of Tionesta.

Newton Falls, OH to Niles, OH to Wheatland, PA
(6:30pm - 7:35pm)

  • Rating: F5
  • 18 Fatalities; 310 Injuries
  • Path Length: 47 miles, Path Width: 450 yards 

The Niles-Wheatland Tornado, as it is typically referred to, was the deadliest, strongest tornado of the outbreak.  It is also the first and only F5/EF-5 to hit Pennsylvania since the official records began in 1950. Tom Grazulis, in his book Significant Tornadoes 1880-1989, called this a “maxi-tornado”. The tornado touched down in Portage County Ohio, about 1.5 miles north of Charlestown in the Ravenna Arsenal.  The tornado ripped into Newton Falls in Trumbull County as an F3.  Several buildings were heavily damaged or destroyed in Downtown Newton Falls, and frame homes were destroyed.  

Homes destroyed at Newton Falls. Source, National Weather Service State College.
Damage to the Newton Falls High School. Source, Penncare.com
F5 damage to a strip mall in Niles. Source, Wikipedia

The tornado also affected northern Lordstown, Niles, Coalburg and Hubbard.  The storm path was continuous, and destruction was total in many areas.  8 people were killed in the Niles and Hubbard area, this is also where the tornado reached F5 intensity.  Most of the deaths were at the Niles Park Plaza on Highway 46 that was leveled and partly swept away, as was a roller skating rink, and a newly-built nursing home.  A house across the street from the plaza was leveled, three elderly people were inside and killed.  Their bodies were found amongst the wreckage of the plaza.  One body was severed in half and dismembered.  Cars in the parking lot of the plaza became “pancakes” and one car that was in the parking lot was carried there from a mile away.  Hundreds of homes were destroyed and at least 1000 were damaged in this area, too.  Schools, churches, and businesses were also damaged or destroyed.  75,000 pound “giant” propane storage tanks were torn lose, thrown across the road and crushed.

A propane storage tank blocking Warren Road in Niles. Source, Penncare.com

In Ohio, there were a total of 8 deaths and at least 250 injuries.  Some of the injuries in Niles were gruesome.  One woman had a splintered piece of telephone pole impaling her to the ground.  Another woman had her scalp torn off, so deeply that it was hardly bleeding.  The tornado then annihilated the town of Wheatland Pennsylvania.

Photo of the tornado as it ripped through Wheatland. Source, Sharon Herald and U.S. Tornadoes.

It maintained F5 strength as it ripped through the small town.  Per the Storm Data Publication; “The destruction at Wheatland was so complete that most of the town resembled that of a bombed-out battle field.”  The 300 mph winds wiped out 99% of Wheatland’s industry.  The Wheatland Sheet and Tube factory was partly swept away with its steel girders “twisted like a pretzel.”  Asphalt in the parking lot was scoured away, and pieces of paper and metal were wedged under the remaining asphalt.  At least 50 homes were demolished and many more heavily damaged.  The three-story tall Hotel Shenango was “missing,” leveled to the ground.  At least 7 people were killed, and 32 injured at Wheatland.  Further east, at Hermitage, a trucking company was destroyed.  A maintenance garage housing 20 vehicles, some valued at $100,000 a piece, was demolished.  71 homes were destroyed in Hermitage.  A hangar and four planes were destroyed at the Hermitage Airport, and in fact a wing from the one plane was carried 10 miles to Mercer.  15 homes were destroyed and 30 more damaged in the Greenfield area before the twister lifted.  Also in Greenfield, the WWIZ Radio Station was destroyed with only some interior walls left standing.  The 200-foot radio tower was left as “a twisted pile of spaghetti.”

Steele pipes that were bent, and homes leveled in Wheatland. Photograph by, Anne Redfield.
A woman carrying her dog through the wreckage of a home in Wheatland. Source, Sharon Herold.

Homes torn apart in Wheatland

Damage to homes in Wheatland

F5 damage in Niles

F5 damage in Niles

Homes flattened in Wheatland

A home in Wheatland that was slabbed.

From the book Tornado Watch 211 – Pages 117-121

Mayor Helen Duby lived on a hill that overlooked the town.  She was sitting at her sewing machine around 7:00 pm when a severe storm warning came across the TV.  She paid no attention to it.  A few minutes later mothball sized hail started hitting her windows.  Suddenly the hail increased to golf ball-sized, and she and her husband heard what she thought was a group of airplanes flying by.  She said, “Wonder where all those planes are coming from”.  Her husband said ‘they’re not planes.  That’s a tornado, get down to the cellar.”

The sound got very loud and faded in just seconds.  They stayed down there for a few minutes then came up.  She looked out the front door and looked down at the town.  She yelled “oh, my God!  Wheatland’s Gone! There’s absolutely nothing left!”

From her doorway, it looked as if a steamroller as passed over the town. There was nothing left, no poles, no homes, only factories, most of which were flattened to the point of being unrecognizable.  When she made it into town, she couldn’t get her bearings.  Landmarks were gone.  The Shenango Hotel, nor the Valley Baptist Church were nowhere to be seen.  Surprisingly, the Municipal building was still there.  People were walking around in a dazed, zombie-like state.  A woman got out of her car and ran to Mayor Duby, crying, saying she wanted to get home.  Mayor Duby just passed that house, and she had to tell her that there was no home left to go to.  Unfortunately, Wheatland, never fully recovered to how it was before the F5 tornado obliterated the town.

Mayor Helen Duby touring the damage at Wheatland with Vice President George Bush.

Lamont, PA
(6:50pm - 7:35pm)

  • Rating: F2
  • 0 Fatalities; 0 Injuries
  • Path Length: 19 miles, Path Width: 300 yards 

This tornado touched down in far eastern Forest County, four miles southwest of Chaffee.  It skipped northeastward into Elk County, through Lamont, into McKean County.  It finally lifted about 9.5 miles east of Kane. The tornado caused mostly minor damage and snapped and uprooted several swaths of trees along the 19-mile path.   

Tidioute, PA
(7:30pm - 7:55pm)

  • Rating: F3
  • 0 Fatalities; 8 Injuries
  • Path Length: 17 miles, Path Width: 1/2 mile 

Touching down three miles west of Tidioute in Warren County, this tornado carved a 17-mile path long and half-mile wide swath toward the east-southeast.  It travelled through the Allegheny National Forest and the southern part of Tidioute.  At Tidioute, 32 buildings were damaged or destroyed.  Most of the damage was to trees, with extensive tree damage occurring.   

Photograph by Betty Anderson of the extensive tree damage in Tidioute.

Moshannon State Forest, PA
(7:35pm - 9:00pm)

  • Rating: F4
  • 0 Fatalities; 1 injury
  • Path Length: 69 miles, Path Width: 2.5 miles 

An intense tornado touched down four miles southwest of Penfield and tracked mainly toward the east.  It went through the Moshannon State Forest, over mountains, and across rivers.  Lifting nearly 70 miles later, two and a half miles north of Avis, near the Clinton/Lycoming County border.  The damage was mainly to trees, with at least 88,000 trees being uprooted, snapped off, or shredded in Clearfield County.

Photo from the June 2, 1985 Clearfield Progress Newspaper via newspaperarchives.com
A photograph by Kenny Hunt of the swath of severe tree damage in Parker Dam State Park. Kenny was nearly sucked out of a cabin that had its roof torn off.

13 homes were destroyed by the tornado, near Penfield.  One of the destroyed homes was swept away.  A woman was also injured when a tree fell onto her home near Penfield.  The tornado then struck the Lady Jane Collieries, tearing off the roof and flipping cars in the parking lot.  The massive funnel then ripped through Parker Dam State Park.  It leveled a massive swath of trees in the park and snapped off power poles.  An octagonal shaped cabin in the park was unroofed.  5 people were inside, but none of them were injured.  However, one of the boys was nearly sucked out.  25 camps and 50 buildings in the park were damaged or destroyed.

A collection of photographs I took during a visit to Parker Dam in March of 2017. The Cabin that was unroofed has since been rebuilt. There is a hiking trail there now called Tornado Alley. Countless trunks that have not rotted away and mounds of dirt from the root balls of trees are still visible to this day along Torando Alley trail.

Just before crossing the Clearfield/Cameron County border, near Quehanna, it struck the PermaGrain nuclear facility.  The roof and walls were ripped apart, and a fire started, though no radiation leaked.  An office trailer here was smashed.  The tornado was only in Cameron County for about 4.6 miles, where it leveled a large swath of trees.  Crossing into western Clinton County, the tornado leveled more trees as veered toward the southeast and crossed the northern tip of Centre County.  It was at this point where the tornado was 2.5 miles wide.  The tornado then crossed back into Clinton County, destroying trees for 30 miles before lifting north of Avis.  In Clinton County, a fire look-out tower and at least one cabin were destroyed as well. The WSR 77 radar in State College detected a debris ball, as the tornado was lofting trees into the air.

The radar echo of the tornado as it tore through the Moshannon State Forest, a primitive debris ball was detected as many trees were lofted into the air. Source, National Weather Service State College.

The tornado was detected on the seismograph at the Earth and Mineral Sciences building at Penn State, in State College.  Some meteorologists speculate if this tornado was an F5, however, it didn’t strike anything that would warrant an F5 rating.

Blowdown in Parker Dam

Wood Hill, PA
(7:54pm - 8:00pm)

  • Rating: F2
  • 0 Fatalities; 2 injuries
  • Path Length: 6 miles, Path Width: 150 yards 

An F2 tornado touched down in southeastern Venango County, four miles west-northwest of Emlenton.  It tracked southeast ending two miles northeast of Emlenton, thus making a 6-mile path.  Two trailers, five homes, and farm buildings were destroyed.  A man and his son were severely injured in the destruction of the one trailer. 

Emlenton, PA
(7:56pm - 8:00pm)

  • Rating: F0
  • 0 Fatalities; 0 injuries
  • Path Length: 5 miles, Path Width: 300 yards 

A weak tornado with wind-speeds around 60 mph touched down in southeastern Venango County, two miles west of Emlenton.  It tracked east-southeast for five miles, ending in Clarion County.  The tornado caused only minor tree damage. 

Kane, PA
(8:00pm - 8:40pm)

  • Rating: F4
  • 4 Fatalities; 40 injuries
  • Path Length: 29 miles, Path Width: 1 mile

It touched down four miles south of Sheffield in Warren County and tracked into McKean County, through parts of Kane, then into the Elk State Forest in northern Elk County.  At Kane and East Kane, 99 homes were destroyed and more were damaged.  Three businesses and schools were destroyed too.  A church in East Kane was swept away with only the concrete steps left.  The four deaths occurred in frame homes and trailers.  Forest devastation was so complete in the path’s center that every tree was snapped off at ground level and/or debarked. 

A home that was swept away in Kane. Source, Bradford Era.

F2 damage to homes in Kane

Big Beaver, PA to Sarver, PA
(8:10pm - 9:05pm)

  • Rating: F3
  • 9 Fatalities; 120 injuries
  • Path Length: 39 miles, Path Width: 250 yards

A photograph of the tornado that was posted on the U.S. Tornadoes website. The location of where its as taken was not listed. Source, Beaver County Times.

This tornado started two miles west of Darlington, passing north of Beaver Falls, through Big Beaver.  At the Big Beaver Borough Shopping Plaza, 12 of the 14 stores were completely destroyed.  Two people were killed at the shopping center.  Over 100 cars in the parking lot were destroyed.  It crossed the Allegheny River into Butler County, and demolished a garage that housed 16 antique cars, which were destroyed.  At the intersections of Highways 588 and 65, a drive-in theatre, gas station, three homes and two other businesses were destroyed.  One person was critically injured at the drive-in.  A van traveling on I-79, just south of Zelienople, was thrown 1/4-mile away, the family inside was thrown from the vehicle and survived.  In Evans City, a trailer park was leveled and two men were killed there.  At least 40 homes were damaged or destroyed between Mars and Callery.  Insulation, shingles, and pieces of metal fell, before the tornado struck this area.

In some publications, a map made by Fujita’s survey group shows this tornado has an F4 rating.  I have seen enough damage photos, that a low-end F4 rating does not seem out of the question.

Aerial photograph of the destruction at the Big Beaver Plaza. Source, Elwood City Historical Society.

A home in Middlesex Township that was demolished

A home that was leveled to the ground at the intersections of Rt 65 and Rt 588

Hummel’s Gas Station that was destroyed.

The following is paraphrased from an article entitled “Recalling the Tornado of 1985:  Just Another Friday Became a Day Never Forgotten in Beaver County.”

Dolores McCandless recalled seeing “black smoke” as she looked over the hill.  She stopped at Paul’s Market to grab a few groceries when she saw a tree fall and the “smoke” heading her way.  Her 1978 Oldsmobile that she was in was lifted and dropped into the Spotlight 88 Drive-Theater, which was destroyed.  She was covered in glass but found a ride home.  Her home was destroyed.  Dolores suffered hearing loss in one ear, which she thinks is from having the glass particles vacuumed out of her ear.  She has osteoarthritis, which she thinks related to the “squeezing” she felt from the tornado’s pressure.  She also said to the Beaver Valley Times, that for years after the tornado, she would pick tiny flakes of glass from her skin on the left side of her face, nearest the driver’s side window that shattered.  Her car’s title was found on the Hess Farm, near State College, 170 miles away.

Watsontown, PA
(9:25pm - 10:15pm)

  • Rating: F4
  • 6 Fatalities; 60 injuries
  • Path Length: 19 miles, Path Width: 1.5 miles

This violent tornado moved east-southeast from one mile west of Bastress in Lycoming County, downing hundreds of trees in the Tiadaghton State Forest, and ascended in White Deer Ridge.  The tornado lifted briefly over the Ridge, before touching down again.  It moved into Union County and widened to 1.5 miles as is crossed the Susquehanna River into northern Northumberland County.  In Union County, 48 out of the 60 campers were destroyed at the Hidden Creek Campground, and the rest were damaged.  In the Campground, two people were killed and 20 were injured.  An 83-year-old woman survived when her mobile home was thrown over an 80-foot cliff and landed in a tree.  A total of 48 campers, 8 homes, three mobile homes and 18 vehicles were destroyed in Union County, and five homes had minor damage. In Northumberland County, near Dewart, 30 mobile homes at the Spring Lake Village Mobile Home Park were destroyed.  Two business, 140 mobile homes, 77 homes, a church, 28 barns, 9 silos and 28 garages were damaged or destroyed.  A total of 190 structures and 50 vehicles were damaged or destroyed by the tornado.  Four school buses were destroyed. Thousands of trees were uprooted or snapped off.  Six people were killed, all female, two in each county.  And a majority of the 60 injuries occurred in mobile homes and campers.  35 farms were heavily damaged or destroyed, and farm machinery was destroyed. 12 cows were killed.

Rated F4 in Significant Tornadoes, NCDC, and on the NWS State College memorial page.  SPC lists it as an F3.  Fujita’s Group rated it F2.  I was unable to find any photographs of damage that show any F3 damage, let alone any F4 damage.  All damage photographs were of F1 damage to trailers and F2 damage to a few homes.  One photograph showed high-end F2 damage to a large house at a farm. 

Destroyed trailers at the Spring Lake Village Mobile Home Park, by Mandy Hartman
Destroyed trailers at the Spring Lake Village Mobile Home Park, by Mandy Hartman.

Video of the tornado damage that appears to show a maximum of F2 damage

Penn Run, PA
(9:53pm - 10:02pm)

  • Rating: F0
  • 0 Fatalities; 0 injuries
  • Path Length: 6 miles, Path Width: 30 yards

A weak, F0 tornado touched down in a rural area of Indiana County, 8 miles east of Indiana.  It tracked southeast along a 6 mile, skipping path, mostly at tree top level.  Damage was only to trees, with the tops being twisted off several of them.  The funnel lifted just a half-mile west of the Indiana/Cambria County border.  

Wapwallopen, PA to Freeland, PA
(10:45pm - 11:00pm)

  • Rating: F1
  • 0 Fatalities; 0 injuries
  • Path Length: 7 miles, Path Width: 550 yards

This was the final tornado of the outbreak.  It was an F1 that moved through Hollenback Township in southern Luzerne County along an 11-mile path.  It was imbedded within a swath of downburst winds.  Many trees were toppled, and a large billboard on I-80 was blown down too. Several barns and trailers were demolished.  

Works Cited

Berrington, Andrew. “May 31, 1985: A Tornado Outbreak out of Place.” U.S. Tornadoes, 31 May 2015, www.ustornadoes.com/2015/05/31/may-31-1985-a-tornado-outbreak-out-of-place/.

Fahr, Mariane. “Progressland Tornado Loss Put at $12 Million.” Clearfield Progress, 3 June 1985, pp. 1–6.

Farh, Mariane. “Tornado Hits Quehanna Plant.” Clearfield Progress, 1 June 1985, pp. 1–5.

Fuller, John G. Tornado Watch #211. Morrow, 1987.

Grazulis, T. P. “1985-1989.” Significant Tornadoes, 1880-1989: Volume II: a Chronology of Events, Environmental Films, 1991.

Greg. “Memorable Tornado Outbreak of May 31, 1985.” Pennsylvania Weather Page, Angelfire.com, www.angelfire.com/pa/pawx/053185.html.

Haas, H Jesse, and Herbert O Hass, editors. Killer Tornados May 31, 1985. The Area Shopper, 1985.

Hagen, Maximilian. “The List of the Strongest Tornadoes Ever Recorded: Part IV.” Extreme Planet, 27 Nov. 2012, extremeplanet.me/2012/11/27/the-indefinitive-list-of-the-strongest-tornadoes-ever-recorded-part-iv/.

Hamilton, Sam, and Joshua Sterling. “After 3 Decades, Memories of Frightening Day Still Fresh for Many.” Titusville Herald, 29 May 2015, www.titusvilleherald.com/news/article_59b7cecc-067a-11e5-9870-3f30216d6d25.html.

Prose, J.D. “Recalling the Tornado of 1985: Just Another Friday Became a Day Never Forgotten in Beaver County.” The Times, The Times, 31 May 2015, www.timesonline.com/article/20150531/Lifestyle/305319947.

Shirey, Jessica. “Survivors Remember Parker Dam Tornado 30 Years Later.” GantNews.com, 31 May 1985, gantdaily.com/2015/05/31/survivors-remember-parker-dam-tornado-30-years-later/.

US Department of Commerce, and NOAA. “May 31, 1985 Tornado Outbreak: 30th Anniversary.” National Weather Service, NOAA’s National Weather Service, 30 May 2015, www.weather.gov/ctp/TornadoOutbreak_may311985.

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