When the first settlers arrived in the 1600s, among the things they were unprepared for in Connecticut was the weather. Owing to its geographical location, the new land they were seeking to inhabit produced an ever-changing array of meteorological varieties and extremes they could not have imagined. Sure, they had experienced cold and snow in Europe, but not this cold and snow. The same could be said for thunderstorms, hurricanes, winds, unrelenting rains, summer hail and waves of scorching heat. And then there were the tornadoes.
The tornado was so new to the settlers that they didn't have a name for it. Instead, they described the terrifying funnels as hurricanes, windstorms, cyclones, typhoons, whirlwinds and tempests. Still, by any other name, the tornado was not diminished.
Although there may have been confusion over what to call tornadoes, the Connecticut Courant, after its launch in 1764, often provided detailed accounts of these furies.
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Wait Robbins was away from his Wethersfield farm on Aug. 15, 1787. Along with two of his sons he was on his way to New Hampshire to enroll one of his boys at Dartmouth. Not that it would have mattered much if he had been at home when at about 3 p.m there appeared:
"A black column from earth to the cloud, of about 30-rods diameter, so thick that the eye could not pervade it, whirled with amazing velocity and a most tremendous roar — it appeared luminous and ignited and was charged with broken pieces of fences, and huge limbs of trees, which were continually crashing against each other in the air or tumbling to the ground."
At first, those remaining behind at the Robbins' farm — his wife, four other children plus a 5-month-old, an elderly servant, and a hired laborer — were not overly concerned about the approaching storm. That changed when they saw one of the horses picked up and tossed a significant distance.
Courant correspondent J. Lewis continues his account of what happened next:
"Mrs. Robbins with her babe in her arms, and two little boys and the labourer fled to the distance of about 35 yards, where the labourer passed her a few paces and was overtaken by the hurricane, thrown over a fence into a garden and escaped with little hurt. Near the place where the labourer passed them the two little boys were found, amidst the rubbish of the demolished buildings — the oldest, about 10 years of age lifeless — the other it is feared mortally wounded — Mrs. Robbins with her babe still in her arms is supposed to be hurled by the violence of the hurricane twenty yards back toward the house for there she was found dead, with her babe lying a few paces distant, wounded but not badly — The servant with the other two children fled a different course; they were all wounded but likely to recover."
The Robbins' house, barn, several outbuildings and an orchard were destroyed. Debris vacuumed up by the tornado was scattered far and wide. Two silk dresses belonging to Mrs. Robbins were carried across the Connecticut River and dropped three miles away — on the doorstep of a home in Glastonbury, her brother's.
"The philosopher will undoubtedly take notice that this hurricane is of a sort somewhat singular, partaking in part of the nature of the typhoon and the preller, but of neither wholly, not of a uniform mixture of both. The man of seriousness will consider that the voice of such providences is the voice of God, awfully denouncing his anger, and calling to consideration.
"I am, Gentleman with respect, your humble Servant, J. Lewis."
Over the next 100 years or so, tornadoes regularly appeared without warning, cutting narrow paths of devastation. As is still the case today, most Connecticut tornadoes occurred within the geographical boundaries we know as Hartford and Litchfield counties. Judging from reports, the majority of tornadoes were at the less severe end of the scale, probably containing wind speeds in the 73 to 112 mph range.
It is impossible to determine how many tornadoes raked Connecticut during our early history because record keeping was nonexistent and identifying storms as such was subjective. But it is probable the modern average of one or two a year is close.
Also, there are many instances in which conditions produced more than one tornado on a given day. The 1787 tornado chronicled above was one of four that hit the state on that date.
Tornado records improved with the creation of the U.S. Weather Bureau in 1870, although forecasters possessed little in the way of storm identification and tracking technology
Interestingly, the word tornado was not officially used until 1950 because the weather service feared using the term in forecasts would cause the public to panic. Even after the Weather Bureau relented, the Federal Communications Commission forbid its usage for the same reason until 1954.
In the early evening hours of Aug. 9, 1878, a violent tornado touched down in unsuspecting Wallingford and in a matter of minutes 34 were dead, scores were injured, and the town was reduced to rubble.