Monday, April 13, 2020

It’s a Twister! A Twister!

by Erin Doane, Curator

Reading Susan’s post last week about the “Welcome to Elmira” sign on West Church Street reminded me that we also had a welcome sign on West Water Street up until 2012. On July 26 of that year, a tornado swept through Elmira, and that welcome sign was one of the casualties.

Google Street View of the Welcome to Elmira sign on
West Water Street near Kennedy Valve from May 2012
New York is not particularly tornado-prone, but there have been more than 400 recorded tornadoes in the state since 1950. The earliest reference to a tornado in Chemung County that I found was on September 25, 1881. American Architect and Architecture, a publication by J.R. Osgood & Company, reported that year that:
A terrible hurricane struck Elmira, N.Y., at 4:30 p.m. accompanied by a severe storm of rain. A vast amount of damage was done in about two minutes, the duration of the storm. Entire roofs, with their heavy timbers, were blown hundreds of feet; the Rathbun house was unroofed, and the spire of Hedding Methodist Church was blown across the street into a yard. About two tons of bricks were deposited in the organ of the First Presbyterian Church. Several brick buildings had holes blown clear through them. The storm was preceded by an earthquake.
While the publication called it a “hurricane,” a contemporaneous newspaper report called it a “cyclone,” and it is clear from the description that it was a tornado.

Jumping forward 131 years, Elmira was once again struck by a tornado. The twister touched down at Harris Hill Manor off Route 352 just before 4:00 p.m. on Thursday, July 26, 2012. It traveled east through West Elmira then into the city, crossing the Clemens Center Parkway near Water Street and continuing to Jerusalem Hill. The EF-1 tornado with 105-110 mph winds was on the ground for nearly nine miles, and left $10 million of destruction in its wake. It knocked out power to about 24,000 homes and businesses, dropped trees on building and vehicles, and blew off the roof over the ladies room at Dunn Field, but there were, surprisingly, no injuries reported.

Aerial view of damage in an Elmira-area neighborhood from the 2012
tornado, Star-Gazette, July 28, 2012, photo by David Wivell
The 2012 tornado was just one of several to have hit Chemung County over the last few years. Just a year earlier on April 28, 2011, and EF-2 tornado with winds up to 135 mph touched down in the Town of Erin. The twister was about a quarter mile wide, and was on the ground for nearly three quarters of a mile. It was part of a massive storm system with high winds (though not a tornado) that caused significant damage at the Millport Cemetery. Two other funnels that were part of the storm touched down in the towns of Danby and Ithaca in Tompkins County. The one that hit Erin destroyed houses and barns. In one case, it picked up an 11,000 pound camper, and threw it over a five-foot tall fence into a neighboring property. Despite all the destruction, no major injuries were report.

Star-Gazette headline, April 29, 2011
On Tuesday, September 2, 2014, an EF-1 tornado touched down in the Town of Baldwin at around 7:10 p.m. It was on the ground for about 5-10 minutes on a six-mile-long track from just east of Elston Hollow Road, across Breesport-North Chemung Road to Federal Road. It damaged homes, ripped up trees, completely destroyed at least one barn, and threw a pickup truck about 12 feet, but, again, there were no reported injuries.

Photo of tornado damage in Baldwin, Star-Gazette, September 4, 2014
There were several injuries when a tornado tore through parts of Chemung and Tioga Counties in New York and Tioga County, Pennsylvania back in 1983. The most severe damage happened in the Town of Chemung. The twister reached the intersection of Hilliker Road and Rotary Extension in Chemung at around 8:00 p.m. on Monday, May 2 on its 15-mile path through the three counties. There were actually two funnels that touched down in the town. They caused extensive property damage, including the destruction of nine house trailers. Six people were injured, and $1.2 million in damage was done in Chemung alone.

Path of the 1983 tornado, Star-Gazette, May 4, 1983
Many harrowing stories from the 1983 tornado appeared in the Star-Gazette in the days that followed. Frank Olmstead and his wife Pat were at home on Dry Brook Road with their two children when the tornado struck. Their 12-year-old son Shawn, who was standing by the door, was caught by the wind and whipped out of the house. Pat chases him into the yard and jumped on top of him to shield him from the swirling winds and flying debris. In another home, 19-month-old Ricky Bellows was sleeping peacefully as his house trailer was torn apart around him. He was found, still sound asleep, under a collapsed wall that had protected him from the storm.

Do you have any stories to tell about local tornadoes? Share them here in the comments, and we’ll add them to the museum’s archive!

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