By Maralisa Marra
June 23, 1944, changed Shinnston forever, and 78 years later, the community still honors the lives lost to the level F4 tornado and those who devoted their time to assisting the injured, restoring the town, and memorializing lost loved ones.
An F4 level tornado has estimated winds of 207-260 miles per hour, with the National Weather Service describing the intensity as, “Devastating damage. Well-constructed houses leveled; structures with weak foundation blown some distance; cars thrown; large missiles generated.”
On June 23, on the anniversary of the tornado, the Shinnston Historical Association recognized the tragedy at the Bice-Ferguson Memorial Museum.
Debra Herndon, director of the museum, provided an introduction. Herndon said the tornado is “one of the things that our community is known for.”
Herndon also noted that the devastation of the tornado was coupled with the anxieties of World War II. Although, she said, “News from the war front was looking positive…positive for the allies. The biggest worry that a lot of people had was whether their loved one was going to come home.”
Herndon said, “If a disaster was going to happen here, it was going to be a mining disaster,” in reference to the Katherine No. 4 Mine Explosion that took place on March 24 that same year. The citizens were unfortunately familiar with mining disasters.
The storm took place on a Friday night and residents went about their nightly routines. Some worked in their gardens, others fixed dinner, some were even at the movies or Bible study, and parents were putting their kids down for the night upon the tornado’s arrival; many observers described the sound as “100 diesel engines,” according to Herndon.
“From a distance many thought a great train was coming towards the town,” Herndon said, “The tornado was traveling at 30 to 40 miles per hour, and its path varied from 300 feet wide to 1,500 feet as it came up and down in the atmosphere.”
As the tornado devastated the area, Herndon said that some citizens did not run from the destruction, but instead, “an amazing number of them immediately started to make their way to the affected areas.”
She also said that the groups of people who started to help became “very organized very quickly.” They broke up into teams—some teams were dedicated to clear the debris while others were responsible for bringing bodies and the injured to the roadway to be recovered from the debris and identified, according to Herndon.
The power was out in the surrounding medical centers, so the injured were examined in candlelight and oil lamps, Herndon noted.
Herndon said, according to the accounts of the local doctor at the time, the injured were covered with black dirt that the tornado embedded into people’s skin. The soot prevented doctors from seeing injuries and wounds because of how deeply implanted it was into the skin.
Eventually, word made it to the Clarksburg and Fairmont hospitals about the injured, and Herndon said funeral homes and other businesses dispatched their vehicles to transport the injured.
“Countless ordinary people worked hard into the next day,” Herndon said. Many accounts say that citizens searched for people through the night and well into the next day.
The First United Methodist Church was set up as an emergency first aid station, and The Shinnston News became the headquarters for the Red Cross, Herndon noted.
“It seemed there were people trained, ready, and eager to help in any way,” Herndon said.
It took days to recover all those who were lost, and the last victim was found in the Monongahela River in Masontown, Pennsylvania. She was identified by her class ring.
“Much of the pain and suffering of living through this event was alleviated by the quick response of both those trained and untrained,” Herndon said.
After Herndon’s introduction, Shinnston Historical Association President Bobby Bice spoke about those in the Shinnston community who have first-hand knowledge about the disaster.
Bice shared this snippet of irony and history with his audience.
“In the last couple of years, I found an 1888 Clarksburg Telegram Newspaper,” Bice said, “So, in the January 1888 edition of the Clarksburg Telegram, it mentions a drugstore in Shinnston…that drugstore was named The Cyclone.”
Bice also said that during WWII, weather news was considered a threat. “If the enemy out there knew which direction your wind was blowing, that could be any kind of threat to whatever they’re going to plan to make their next attack,” Bice said. Therefore, weather news was banned during the time the twister hit.
“They didn’t know a storm was coming back then. You had to look out the window,” Bice said, “My great grandfather up on Pleasant Hill, they were out doing something in their garden, and he said, ‘It’s a twister,’ so that’s when you knew. You didn’t plan for it.”
According to Bice, there were different tornadoes that took place over a two-day period on June 22 and 23 in 1944, called the Appalachian Tornado Outbreak. This outbreak consisted of four tornadoes that took the lives of 150 people across Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Maryland.
Out of the 150 people, Bice said at least 72 of them were from the Shinnston area. Shinnston was hit the hardest, but that was only a quarter of the number injured.
Over a number of years, Bice took the time to interview many citizens that had first-hand accounts of the storm, and he compiled a booklet titled “They Said It Couldn’t Happen: Memories of the Shinnston Tornado,” which he made reference to during the program.
“When I went around talking to people years ago trying to get their stories, a lot of people varied on the time,” Bice said, “Everybody’s story and description of what the sky was like that night was the same, but time was always different.”
When titling the book, Bice said he interviewed at least six people who said, “They always told us tornadoes couldn’t happen in West Virginia.”
He said that the times varied anywhere between 8:30 and 9 p.m. Since it was getting dark, everyone was searching through the debris in the dark and more than likely worried about whether or not another storm would hit.
Bice also noted that many children’s lives were spared that night because they were at the Baptist and Methodist churches for Bible school.
Bice reflected on many other stories like Geraldine Wiseman’s who was a telephone operator during the time of the storm, and Nancy Biggs’ account as a Girl Scout who helped find bandages for the wounded and assisted the ladies of the community with cooking.
He also shared Jack Tetrick’s story of what it was like to be a Boy Scout during the aftermath of the storm. The Scouts helped search for bodies the next day.
Melba Harmer was working the ticket booth at one of the Clarksburg theaters, and since the power went out, they had to refund the tickets for the evening, so they went around collecting candles, kerosene, and oil lamps to take to St. Mary’s Hospital in Clarksburg for more light to treat the injured, according to Bice.
Bice said the Harmer family shared stories of how funeral directors came together to assist in the tragedy, as well.
The full stories of these accounts can be accessed in the book referenced.
“Several people had said that the river was literally parted,” Bice said. He also said the outskirts of Shinnston, including Enterprise, experienced intense hailstorms. “A lot of people picked up the hail, froze it, and made homemade ice cream with it. They didn’t know a tornado had happened in Shinnston immediately because there was no way to know immediately,” Bice said.
Bice concluded his talk with interesting oddities. He said some barns were wiped out entirely, but the animals inside were left unharmed. In one instance, a tablecloth was pulled off of the kitchen table, but the butter that was on a plate was also left unharmed on top of the table.
The program concluded with members of the audience like Wanda Ashcraft and Maxine Weser sharing stories and accounts of the twister.
Ashcraft said she was 11 years old when the tornado touched down. “I had a box, a cigar box, and it had my rings and paper dolls. I carried that all night long. So, we stood there, and I can remember very vividly. We prayed because Grandpa told us it will take the house probably,” Ashcraft said.
Recovering from the horror of a Kansas-style twister took strength and resilience. Ashcraft was asked if she believed the tornado is one of the reasons why Shinnston is such a close-knit community, and she said that it could be. “Whatever it is, they come together…it’s a wonderful, together community. Whenever there’s trouble they’re there, and any differences are put aside,” Ashcraft said.
News clippings and pictures pertaining to the tornado will be on display at the Bice-Ferguson Memorial Museum during regular hours until July 23 for the public to view.