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Decades later, the trauma of the Shinnston tornado still resonates

By Stephen Smoot, The Shinnston News & Harrison County Journal

SHINNSTON, W.Va. — Natural disasters do not simply leave an impression on a community or a region. When devastation in lives and property occurs, the event sears itself into the consciousness. From then on, the impact and memory affects what comes after. It enters into how the area defines itself, how it thinks about the future and how it prepares for trouble.

Buffalo Creek, West Virginia remembers its dam failure. Franklin, West Virginia remembers the Fire of ‘24. The South Branch of the Potomac watershed remembers the Flood of ‘85.

And Shinnston remembers the tornado of 1944.

June 23, 1944 was a typical summer evening until 8:30 PM. At that point, violent storms birthed a powerful F 4 tornado near the town of Wyatt – the type of event that most believe cannot occur in the rugged, eroded Appalachian plateau and adjoining Allegheny ridges and valleys to the east. 

But it did.

The tornado commenced its macabre march through Harrison, Barbour, a short sliver of Taylor, and then Randolph until dissolving near Alta. The same storm brought severe damage to towns in Maryland and Pennsylvania as well. It traveled 153 miles with a path varying between 500 and 1,000 feet in length. 

At “8:30 in the evening,” according to a work written in 1958 by Kyle McCormick, “from the northwest a great black funnel-shaped cloud appeared, traveling at about 40 miles per hour.” At first, the image better resembled a black plume of smoke from a massive fire “until they noticed a heavy mass of debris, timbers, trees, etc., traveling before the cloud. Then they knew the worst.”

Tornadoes do occur in West Virginia, just more rarely than in flatter areas. The first to hit the Mountain State after statehood occurred in Ritchie County in 1875. The most active year for tornadoes has been 2024 with a total of 18 with Kanawha County alone experiencing five. The next highest total is 14 from 1998. 

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