Lives lost in 1900s twisters that hit Wilkes-Barre City, Twp.

By Ed Lewis - [email protected]
This image from the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader of Aug. 22, 1914, shows damage on Blackman Street in Wilkes-Barre Township. -

The high-end EF2 tornado that tore through the Arena Hub Plaza on Wednesday night was not the first twister to hit Wilkes-Barre Township.

Deadly tornadoes struck the township and Wilkes-Barre City in 1914 and again three years later in 1917, according to the Times Leader and Evening News archives.

The Evening News reported Aug. 20, 1914, a tornado was first spotted near the Wilkes-Barre and Hazleton railway tunnel on Wilkes-Barre Mountain, then crossed near the Stanton Coal Breaker near Blackman Street. It continued to Mayflower Field in Wilkes-Barre before dissipating in the Heights section of Wilkes-Barre.

The tornado tore through Blackman Street, Joseph Lane, plus Hillside, South, Northampton, Sherman, Sheridan, Taft, Empire, New Market and Logan streets, the Evening News reported.

Witnesses told the paper the tornado was funnel-shaped and swept up roofs, trees and chicken coops.

Church steeples were toppled and many houses were destroyed in the twister, The Evening News reported.

The storm also destroyed the Laurel Silk Mill near Empire Street, killing four female employees, when brick walls collapsed. Two others were killed and more than 60 people suffered injuries, the newspaper reported.

In a 2014 Times Leader column marking the tornado’s centennial, historian Tom Mooney described the panic and chaos which gripped the area.

As the storm descended, two electric trolley cars lost power near the mill when the overhead wires came down at East Northampton and Hillside streets, Mooney explained, and were soon being pelted by branches and shingles.

One car’s two-man crew, along with five passengers, narrowly escaped injury by diving under the seats as a 12-foot-long piece of wood crashed through the trolley’s windows. Motorman Leo Stortz said the tornado lasted four minutes, Mooney reported.

Officials praised a culm bank at the old No. 4 slope of the Lehigh & Wilkes-Barre Coal Company from sparing the Mollinckrodt Convent near East South Street, Wilkes-Barre. The large culm bank, a mountain of waste rock from coal mines, protected the convent from high winds and blowing debris.

Refugees took shelter in what was reported as a “tent city” set up in a field at Dana and Meade streets in Wilkes-Barre.

Workers at the Stegmaier Brewing Company assisted with cleanup efforts by removing furniture, tree limbs and roofs from streets, and the Sheidon Axle Works and Vulcan Iron Works loaned trucks to haul away debris.

1917 twister

Three years later on Jan. 3, 1917, the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader reported a terrific windstorm struck the same area and caused damage in the Georgetown section of Wilkes-Barre Township.

Roofs, chimneys, porches, fences and chicken coops were swept away. Three people were crushed to death, the newspaper reported.

The tornado was first spotted on Laurel Run Mountain in the township and came into the valley damaging the Empire Silk Mill and houses on Empire, South Grant, Northampton, and South streets.

Wilkes-Barre Township High School had its roof damaged and windows smashed in the 1917 tornado, the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader reported.

Earlier storms

The earliest reported tornado to hit the area from researching newspaper archives occurred decades before the Civil War.

As reported by the Wyoming Republican & Farmers Herald on May 10, 1837, a tornado touched down in the village of Centerville near Tunkhannock, Wyoming County, destroying shacks and cabins, and carrying horses, cows and people on May 5, 1837.

A church was lifted off its stone foundation and the roof of another church was damaged, according to the Wyoming Republican & Farmers Herald, a Kingston-based newspaper published from 1837 to 1839.

For more on Wednesday’s tornado, click here.

This image from the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader of Aug. 22, 1914, shows damage on Blackman Street in Wilkes-Barre Township. image from the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader of Aug. 22, 1914, shows damage on Blackman Street in Wilkes-Barre Township.

By Ed Lewis

[email protected]