SHINNSTON, W.Va. — “It just sounded like a hundred locomotives coming over the hillside towards Pleasant Hill. It was just a big, black funnel.”
The night of June 23, 1944 is forever a dark day for Don “Buzzy” Book and many other West Virginias. The most destructive tornado in the state’s history crossed north central West Virginia, leaving 40 miles of destruction in its wake and 103 West Virginians dead.
It’s known as the “Shinnston Tornado” because so many were killed in the Shinnston community.
“There was not a family in Shinnston that wasn’t affected by the tornado,” Maxine Weser, Bice-Ferguson Memorial Museum Director in the city said. “They either lost a loved one or lost their home, plus all of the property damage that was done.”
Sixty-six people died in Shinnston and the surrounding area.
Weser said the tornado came as a surprise to the residents, but a major event occurring at this point in history helped with the response, World War II.
The area had a plan developed in case the Germans bombed the city. After the tornado struck, the same civil defense plan was utilized.
“The drug stores took supplies in to the doctor’s office, they set up mourges in the churches, doctors, pharmacists, nurses, they all went to the doctor’s office, there were people who were mobilized to drive their own vehicles to take patients to the Fairmont and Clarksburg hospitals,” Weser said.
Beyond the priority of residents’ safety, attention had to be turned to the infrastructure destroyed by the cyclone. Power and telephone lines had been knocked down for miles, so no one could reach help if they were not in the immediate area of the responders.
Weser said the coal company stepped in to assist.
“The coal mine brought in emergency generators to run the telephone company so that the calls that were brought down, it was just a few minutes before they were back up,” she said. “Because [Shinnston residents] were prepared for the war, they were very well prepared.”
This preparation saved lives.
“Many more lives would have been lost, there’s no doubt,” Weser said. “Of course, you couldn’t do anything about the property damage, that had already happened, but yes, many, many lives were saved by their prompt response.”
Survivors of the tornado, including Book, who’s house was destroyed along with many others in his neighborhood, recall it took everyone by surprise.
“Nobody really knew what a tornado was,” Book said. “Of course, the war was going and everybody thought we were being bombed. When it came across what we called Lucas Hill, it came down and it just took those two story homes and it’s like they exploded and then it just sucked that West Fork River up. You could just see the mud and the water come up.”
The destruction and the number of fatalities were great near, at the time, 6-year-old Brook, but he also remembers the response and the outpouring of help was great too because “that’s just the way Pleasant Hill was.”
Others in the area like Barbara Locke were fortunate enough to not be in the path of the twister. However, Locke, who was 5 at the time, said evidence of the devastation was impossible to miss.
“From the highest on our hill, you could see the State Police headquarters,” she said. “There was furniture, clothing, toys, everything all over where the tornado had dumped them. We gathered it all up and took it down to the front yard, gave word in town that if anybody lost their furniture and stuff, they were welcome to come and look and see if maybe it was at our place.”
The cyclone moved across 40 miles and caused death and destruction in the communities off Wyatt in Harrison County where it formed, Pleasant Hill, Flemington, Simpson, and Montrose before the storm blew itself out on Cheat Mountain in Randolph County.
The tornado was the southern most of a series of tornadoes which paralleled each other and caused more than 1,000 deaths and 3,000 injuries across Ohio, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania.
The storm struck about 7 p.m. and didn’t stop until after 9 p.m.
Witnesses who saw the storm cross the West Fork River say so much water was sucked out of the river by the funnel cloud, the river bottom was clearly visible after it passed.
The Shinnston Tornado was estimated to have been an F-4 tornado, the second highest of the rankings currently assigned. F-4 storms produce winds faster than 206 miles per hour, capable of leveling houses and throwing automobiles.
A song was written about the disaster and kept by the Bice-Ferguson Memorial Museum.
Shinnston Tornado sung by the Scott Brothers
In the hills of West Virginia, near the end of World War II,
It was a lazy summer evening, then the darkness grew,
And there ain’t been nothing like it and may never be again,
When the Shinnston Tor-na-do came down and took our friends.
They say it was north of Shinnston when it first came to the ground,
And it tore and broke in pieces every obstacle it found
Just like the day of judgement, some were taken, some were spared
We all felt natures fury, we were helpless, tired, and scared.
Where do you run to when the noon is black as night
And you hear a rumbling freight train, but there isn’t one in sight
And you feel your body rising, though you say it can’t be so
Well I’m telling you it happened in the Shinnston Tor-na-do.
Can you feel your body rising? Does the thought of dying make you so afraid?
Do you doubt the power of God when the storm surrounds you?
Get on your knees and pray that you’ll be saved.