Memorable Tornado Outbreak of May 31, 1985Winds approaching 250 mph ripped through the Moshannon State Forest during the early evening. Unbelievable destruction was occurring in central Pennsylvania at this time, as a large tornado moved through. Yet, this was only one of dozens that would touch down in just a few hours across the region.
May 31st, 1985, is a date that will be remembered by many people who were living in Pennsylvania and surrounding areas at that time.... especially northwestern PA. At least 42 tornadoes, maybe more, touched down in Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York, and southeastern Ontario, Canada. It was an afternoon and evening of hell for people who went through it. Unfortunately, 88 people did not survive the violence. 64 of the 88 deaths occurred in Pennsylvania, with Ohio and Ontario each having 12. Many more people were injured, countless homes, businesses, and other structures were damaged or destroyed. This tornado outbreak would become the worst in this region, and the 13th worst in the United States!
All of the confirmed tornadoes in the United States will be detailed below. Enjoy!
There were four F1 tornadoes that touched down in Ohio during the outbreak. They are as follows:
1). In Adams county, an F1 tornado touched down near Ohio Brush Creek, 6 miles east of West Union. It took down trees as it moved in an easterly direction for a couple miles. 2). Another minimal F1 touched down in Madison county, just west of London. A few farm buildings were damaged, and some trees and power lines were blown down. The tornado was on the ground for only a 1/2 mile, and peak winds probably did not exceed 85 mph. 3). An even shorter F1 tornado touched down outside of East Sparta, in Stark county. The path length was extremely short, only about a 1/4 mile. During that time, it moved east through a rural area, damaging a few farm buildings and trees. 4). Another tornado touched down a couple miles west or northwest of Frazeyburg in northwest Muskingum county. It moved northeast, and entered Coshocton county, ending near Cooperdale. There is conflicting reports on this tornado, including the end location. It is uncertain how close to Cooperdale the tornado ended, but it is definitely within several miles. Another major detail that is undetermined is the F-scale rating. It could be anywhere from F1-F3, depending on what sources you are looking at. Several houses and farm buildings were destroyed, but it is not noted whether they are "real" houses, or mobile homes. It is also not stated whether they were destroyed by falling trees, or even what the construction methods of the buildings were. Because of this, it will be hard to rate the intensity. However, taking into account the information I have, and using experience, I would rate the tornado an F1 or low F2. Numerous trees were down along the path, in addition to the building damage mentioned above. 5 people were injured.
Some other tornadoes in Ohio include:
An F3 tornado touched down northwest of Johnstown in Licking county. It moved east-northeast and passed south of Utica, near Fallsburg, to around West Carlisle in Coshocton county. Several homes and farm buildings were destroyed along the tornado path, and trees and power lines were downed. Damage totals were several million dollars. 20 people were injured along the damage path, and one man was killed near Fallsburg.
An F3 tornado touched down southwest of Mesopotamia, in northwest Trumbull county, and moved east-northeast. It passed just north of North Bloomfield, and then moved into Ashtabula county for a short time, before ending southeast of Orwell. The total path length was 15 miles, and the width of the tornado was a 1/4 mile at times. Many buildings were affected. At least 40 homes were destroyed, and more were significantly damaged. Outbuildings were damaged or destroyed. Numerous trailers, cars, and trucks were also demolished. At least 30 people were injured, but the injury count may have actually been more than 50, as many of the damaged areas were populated by Amish... who usually refuse medical treatment if possible.
In Columbiana county, a minimal F3 tornado started a short distance south of Salem, and moved east-southeast, ending southeast of New Waterford. Many homes and outbuildings were destroyed, with damage totals in excess of 5 million. At least 20 persons were injured along the 15 mile long tornado.
There were four tornadoes that crossed the Ohio/Pennsylvania border. These will be explained next.
The most violent tornado of the outbreak was a rare F5. It first touched down a little over 1 mile north of Charlestown, in east-central Portage county, Ohio. The tornado moved east and entered extreme southern Trumbull county, Ohio. Newton Falls, northern Lordstown, Niles, and far northern Hubbard were affected by this major tornado. Some of the small towns/villages that were hit include Hakes Corners, Coalburg, and Petroleum. Almost all of Newton falls was demolished, as was most of the above named areas in the tornado path. As the Storm Data publication put it, "the storm path was continuous, and destruction was total in many areas". 10 people died and more than 250 were injured as a direct result of the tornado in Ohio alone! At least one woman died after the storm from a heart-attack when she looked over the complete destruction of her home. This death is NOT included in the 10 listed above, as it is an indirect death. Hundreds of houses were completely destroyed, with over 1,000 damaged. Schools, businesses, and other public places were also severely damaged or destroyed. As the tornado crossed the OH/PA border, it entered far southern Mercer county, Pennsylvania. Although the tornado passed just south of downtown Farrell, it smashed into its southern suburb of Wheatland. "The destruction at Wheatland was so complete that most of the town resembled that of a bombed out battle field", as it was written in the Storm Data publication. And even most battle fields would look better than this tornado destruction. 95% of the towns industry was destroyed, leaving hundreds of people without jobs. Businesses were either very badly damaged (needing to be torn down) or simply destroyed. A large trucking company building had its roof and walls ripped apart, with its steel-girder frame twisted beyond recognition! Although this is indicative enough of F5 damage, more amazing phenomenon occurred; Numerous sections of asphalt was peeled off of the parking lot ground!! Pieces of metal from the demolished trucking company was found wedged underneath the remaining parts of the asphalt!! More than 50 homes and a church were also demolished. This was a "double-hit" for many residents, as they have lost not only their jobs, but also their entire house and belongings. Tragically, 7 people died and dozens were injured in the small town of Wheatland. As the tornado continued to move east, it hit southern suburbs of Hermitage. Several businesses and over 70 homes were heavily damaged or destroyed in this area. A construction/maintenance building which had 20 vehicles in it was torn to pieces. Some of the vehicles were priced at tens of thousands of dollars! The twister then moved past the Hermitage Airport, destroying a hangar and 4 planes. One plane wing was carried 10 miles! The last major destruction occurred in and around Greenfield, where at least 15 more homes were destroyed and 30 damaged. The tornado finally ended 2 miles south-southwest of the town of Mercer, after a 47 mile long track! The total death toll from the entire tornado's path was 18, with 310+ injured.
The second violent tornado that crossed the OH/PA state line was an F4. Almost all of the twister's path was in Pennsylvania. It started in extreme northeast Trumbull county (OH), even farther east than the small village of Cornelion, remaining in the state of Ohio for just several hundred feet. In that time, a few farm buildings received damage and trees were downed. The tornado entered PA and moved along the Crawford/Mercer county line until it reached the Jamestown area. It moved through northern sections of Jamestown, and destroyed several homes along the northern edge of town and just outside of it, with more damaged. The tornado crossed route 322, and destroyed a number of homes and businesses along the highway. A tavern was among the destroyed. Also, two mobile homes were blown off their foundations and across the road, landing 100 feet away in a ravine. A car and pickup truck were overturned as well. On Snake Road, a side road off of route 322, a trailer and 4 houses were destroyed and a church had all of its roof blown off. The tornado continued moving just north of due east in far southern Crawford county. The small town of Atlantic took a direct hit. Most of it was completely destroyed by F4 winds well in excess of 200 mph. 5 people were killed in one house. The Atlantic Feed and Grain Mill was leveled, along with a factory, post office, and old school. As you would expect with F4 winds, houses and trailers were also destroyed. Just east of Atlantic, about 1 mile, a strong, well-made communications tower standing 312 feet tall also became a victim to the tornado. It was knocked to the ground, being built to withstand 200 mph winds!! Since F4 tornadoes have winds in excess of 207 mph, it makes sense that it couldn't hold up. Just south of Halls Corners, or about 5 miles north of Sheakleyville, a person was killed as a motel and tavern were severely damaged. Even farther east, now in southeastern Crawford county, the Cochranton area also experienced damage as the tornado began to slightly weaken. A church, among several other buildings, was heavily damaged in the town, with two people left dead. The tornado entered Venango county, as it affected the Cooperstown area and badly damaged a trailer park. 3 people in that area were killed. Two houses and nearly a dozen trailers were destroyed between Dempseytown and Cherry tree, with 5 deaths reported. Shortly after passing this area, the tornado turned its direction of movement, from slightly north of due east, to southeast. The tornado continued on this southeasterly direction for quite a few miles, as it crossed the county border and entered Forest county. The tornado finally ended 3-4 miles south of Tionesta. Luckily, the area from near Cherry tree to south of Tionesta was largely forest. From beginning to end, this tornado had a 56 mile long track! Sadly, 16 people lost their lives to the violence in this one tornado, and at least 125 others were injured. 8 of the deaths and 75 of the injuries occurred in Crawford county, and 8 deaths and 45 injuries occurred in Venango county. 5 of the injuries were seen in the tiny area of Mercer county that was affected. At least 370 homes were destroyed or damaged. More than 5 million dollars in damage resulted, with amounts possibly exceeding 8 million.
The third tornado that crossed the OH/PA state line was also an F4. It was on the ground for 14 miles, starting about 2 miles west of the OH/PA border, in Ashtabula county, Ohio, south-southeast of Monroe Center just north of Hilldom Road. During the short time it was in the state of Ohio, 10 mobile homes were destroyed or damaged, and trees and utility poles were sheared off. The tornado continued moving northeast, and entered Pennsylvania right at the Erie/Crawford county line, then continued into Erie county. It passed a couple miles northwest of Pennside, then continued through the center of Albion. A 2 block wide by 8-10 block long section of Albion was completely destroyed, and two trailer parks in the town were also leveled. 9 people in the town were killed, with more injured. The tornado ended a short time later, about 3 miles east-northeast of Cranesville, but not before striking two more trailer courts... leaving 13 trailers destroyed with even more damaged. 3 people died in these areas, bringing the tornado's total death toll to 12, with at least 82 injured. 309 buildings along the path were destroyed or damaged.
The last tornado to cross the OH/PA state line was an F2. Unlike the previous two tornadoes, most of this path was in Ohio, with only a short distance in Pennsylvania. It touched down in Ashtabula county, OH, between routes 307 & 193 just northwest of Dorset (or 5 miles southeast of Jefferson). It passed near Steamburg and just south of Pierpont as it moved east-northeast, shredding farm buildings and small single family homes, while damaging other homes. Extensive tree damage also occurred, and widespread power outages were experienced. It turned in a more eastward direction as it approached the OH/PA state line, and ended 1 mile north of Pennline, Pennsylvania (Crawford county). 15 injuries occurred along the path of this 15 mile long tornado. All injuries and more than 14 miles of the twister were in Ohio.
Next I will explain the tornadoes that touched down in Pennsylvania. Most of the tornadoes in the outbreak were in PA, so here we go:
In western Crawford county, an F2 tornado touched down on the north side of Pymatuning reservoir. It moved east-northeast and came ashore, ending north of Linesville... making for a path length of 4 miles. More than 75 campsites were damaged, as were a number permanent homes. One woman was killed, as she was crushed under her trailer.
In central and eastern Crawford county, a 23 mile long F3 tornado moved east-northeast from 2 miles south of Saegertown to 2 miles east-northeast of Centerville. A ranger's home at the Army Corps of Engineers Station was hit as the tornado moved past Woodcock Creek Lake. Among other damage, the ranger's car was rolled 100 feet! Two people were killed in Centerville, as the tornado passed through that location. Building damage information is limited in that area, for unknown reasons.
Another F3 tornado in eastern Crawford county started 2 miles west-southwest of Centerville. It moved east-northeast for about 8 miles, ending 1 mile east of Buell Corners. A state transportation building worth a half million dollars was destroyed. Ten houses, one trailer, and several barns were also destroyed.
An F1 tornado struck in central parts of Warren county. Little information is known about this tornado. It a few miles south of Youngsville, in the State Game Lands #86 area. It crossed a stream, Thompson Run, as it moved in a east-northeast direction, and was on the ground for a short time... probably about 5 or 6 miles.
An F3 tornado moved east, starting 3 miles west of Tidioute and ending 3 miles south of Cherry Grove. 32 buildings were damaged or destroyed, and 8 people were injured along the 17 mile long track. Almost all of the track was in the Allegheny National Forest, thus reducing injury, death, and building damage. However, many trees were snapped and uprooted in the heavily wooded area.
An F4 tornado started in southeast Warren county 4 miles south of Sheffield, crossed southwest McKean county, and ended in northeast Elk county in the Elk State Forest... making for a total path length of 29 miles. As it moved east-southeast, it passed through southern portions of Kane, East Kane, Burning Well, and through Elk State Park. The Kane area was worst hit, with three businesses destroyed and 99 homes damaged beyond repair (destroyed). Even more homes and businesses were damaged. The schools in the town were also badly damaged, with at least 3 million in damage just to those buildings! In East Kane, a church was leveled, as only the steps were left standing. Countless vehicles were destroyed, many by collapsed garages. 4 people were killed in the violent tornado, all in frame houses or trailers. At least 40 people were injured. Total damage amounts soared to 15 million dollars.
Another F4 tornado started just west of the Venango/Forest county line, a few miles west-northwest of Tionesta. It moved east for about 29 miles, ending near Pigeon...or about 7 miles northeast of Marienville. Places like Starr, Crystal Springs, Whig Hill, and Kellettville were also affected. 14 of the 17 trailers at a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center were destroyed. Throughout the path, more than 700 buildings were damaged, and 125 of them were destroyed. A car traveling on Highway 36 was blown 300 off the road, killing all three people inside. 4 other people were killed by this tornado, making a total of 7 dead. All were killed within a few miles of Tionesta. At least 30 other people were injured along the path of this violent tornado.
A *minimal* F2 tornado started in far eastern Forest county, 4 miles southwest of Chaffee, and moved northeast to near Lamont in northern Elk county, ending 8 miles east of Kane in McKean county. The path length was around 19 miles, but was not continuous like the other tornadoes in this outbreak. The tornado skipped up and down along the path, causing intermittent damage, mostly downed trees as the area was largely forest.
An F2 tornado struck extreme southeast Venango county. It traveled from 4 miles west-northwest of Emlenton to 2 miles northeast of Emlenton, for a total path length of about 6 miles. A couple trailers and 5 houses were destroyed or severely damaged in Scrubgrass township. 2 injuries occurred; a man and his son were badly hurt when their trailer was destroyed.
One of the weakest tornado's in the entire outbreak tracked very near to where the previous one struck. This F0 tornado started 2 miles west of Emlenton (extreme southeast Venango county) and crossed into Clarion county... ending 3 miles east of the Venango/Clarion county border. Some trees were down along the path of this tornado, with maximum winds probably not more than about 60 mph.
The only other F0 tornado in during this outbreak in PA occurred in east-central Indiana county. It started about 8 miles east of the town of Indiana, near Penn Run. It moved east-southeast for 6 miles... ending 1.5 miles from the Cambria county line... a short distance southwest of Alverda.
An F3 tornado moved east-southeast from 2 miles west of Darlington in Beaver county, to 1 mile south of Sarver (near Sarverville) in Butler county. Total path length was about 39 miles, and the width was almost 850 feet at its widest point. It passed a few miles north of Beaver Falls, striking the Big Beaver Borough Shopping Plaza along Highway 18 just north of West Mayfield. 12 of the 14 shops were destroyed, and the remaining 2 were severely damaged, by tornadic winds in excess of 160 mph. Two people were killed and numerous others were injured in these stores, despite safety efforts. More than 100 vehicles were damaged or destroyed in the parking lot of the mini-mall. A short distance away, across the Beaver River, 16 antique cars were destroyed on River Road. As the strong tornado continued to move east-southeast, it passed over the intersection of Highways 588 and 65. A gas station, a drive-in theater, 2 other businesses, and 3 homes were destroyed at this location. Several people were injured at the drive-in, one critically. A man was killed when he was struck by flying debris in North Sewickley Township. The tornado went on moving east-southeast through the rest of rural northeast Beaver county, then entered Butler county, passing over Interstate 79 immediately south of Zelienople. A van was picked up and carried a 1/4 mile from the Interstate!! Luckily, the family inside fell out of the van before it was thrown far. They escaped with injuries, but were very fortunate to have been ejected from the vehicle before it was carried far at all. It is almost impossible, if not absolutely impossible, to survive in a vehicle thrown a 1/4 mile. A few more miles east-southeast, the tornado leveled a trailer park. Two men were killed in an obliterated trailer. Around and just south of Callery, at least 40 homes were damaged. A few minutes before the tornado arrived at that location, pink insulation, roofing materials, and pieces of metal fell out of the sky! Toward the end of the tornado's path, it struck areas just south of Saxonburg. 4 people were killed in this area, including a baby sitter and a young girl in a house which was hit by the twister. The tornado ended a short time later, just south of Sarver, near Sarverville. This tornado killed a total of 9 people, and injured at least 120 more. Damage was in excess of 10 million.
A violent tornado, rated at F4 intensity, tracked across the state
forests of central
Pennsylvania during the early evening... producing tornadic winds of
200-250 mph!! This
tornado was one of the most violent in the entire outbreak, and was also
notable for two other
things. One, it had the longest track out of all of the tornado's during
the outbreak, with a
path length of nearly 70 miles (officially 69 miles)!! Second, it also
had the widest paths of
any tornado in the outbreak, and actually one of the widest paths ever
recorded anywhere in the
country. Its measured path width exceeded 2 miles at times!! Amazingly,
almost all of this
tornado's path was in the Moshannon and Sproul State Forest. It affected
no populated areas,
despite an almost 70 mile long path (that just goes to show how large
PA's forest is). And
nothing would stop it either. It passed over 1500-2000 foot mountains,
and crossed the West
Branch of the Susquehanna River TWICE.
The same supercell thunderstorm that spawned the previously described
another strong tornado less than 30 minutes later in the Mid Susquehanna
Valley, this one of F3
to borderline F3/F4 intensity. Ironically, it passed over the very spot
that my house now
stands! Luckily, this house was not here then.
The thunderstorm that produced the previous 2 strong to violent tornadoes still had enough energy left by 9:45pm to produce one last tornado. It was an F1, and had roughly an 11 mile long path. The tornado moved east-southeast, starting near Wapwallopen and ending near Freeland. It downed a large sign along Interstate-80 when it crossed the highway near Edgewood. Trees were downed along the path, a barn was damaged, and several trailers/mobile homes were destroyed. This tornado was on the upper end of the F1 scale, unlike most F1's which are on the lower end. Peak winds with this F1 may have been near or slightly above 100 mph briefly. Damage was in excess of $50,000.
There was one tornado that crossed the Pennsylvania/New York border, and two tornadoes in NY. These will be explained now:
An F4 tornado started 2 miles east-southeast of Waterford, in Erie county PA, and moved east... passing just north of Union City. 4 homes and barns were destroyed on Highway-8 about 3 miles north of Union City. At one farm that was destroyed, nearly 3 dozen cows were killed. At least 2 people were injured in that area. Debris was carried for considerable distances; a wagon was found over a mile away! Another farm on Lyons Road experienced some of the most intense damage of the entire track. The farm, including the house, was completely leveled. The house was actually seen airborne for time!!! The tornado continued in a easterly direction, and passed just north of Elgin and Corry. More intense damage occurred here as well. 50 buildings were leveled, with even more sustaining damage. To show the power this tornado had, listen to this. A dump truck was picked up from a driveway and hurled through the air above roof level, landing in a field!!! 70 families, just in this area, applied for federal disaster aid! At least 15 people were injured in this disaster site just north of Corry, despite very good tornado safety rules being used. The tornado now turned northeast, upon reaching 3 miles north of Corry, and entered the extreme northwest corner of Warren county PA. It was only in the county for a very short time, as it entered Chautauqua county, New York, 3 miles southeast of Clymer. It began to weaken after crossing the state-line. But, it was on the ground in NY for 8 miles, downing hundreds of trees and damaging or destroying numerous homes. In total, this tornado had a 28 mile long path length, with 20 miles of it in PA. At least 17 people were injured. This tornado could have easily killed just as many people as others in PA that destroyed entire neighborhoods. Why didn't it? People knew what to do, AND took action. Just knowing what to do doesn't save your ass. YOU must act to protect yourself, sometimes with just a moments notice.
An F3 tornado touched down a few miles east of Clymer, in Chautauqua county NY, and moved east-northeast for 13 miles... ending near Poland. Places like Busti, Harmony, Kiantone, and Carroll were affected. The result was dozens of homes torn apart by this F3 tornado. 10 people were injured and hospitalized, 2 seriously. More may have been injured without hospitalization needed.
A lone tornado occurred in northern New York State. It was rated an F1, with peak winds probably around 90 mph. The tornado was on the ground for about 5 miles as it moved northeast, touching down near Norfolk in St. Lawrence county. The width of the twister was less than 200 feet. Several trees were downed, and a horse barn, garage, and silo were destroyed.
As stated at the top of this page, this outbreak of tornadoes was the worst on record in this region, and one of the worst in the Country. However, tornado outbreaks in this region, places like MD, PA, and NY, are not all that uncommon. They generally do not occur every year, but to have one every 3 years wouldn't be that uncommon. They are not like the 1985 outbreak, but an outbreak nonetheless. Remember, it takes 6 or more confirmed tornadoes in a particular area to have an "official" outbreak. The most recent tornado outbreak(s) as of this writing (February 19, 1999) took place back-to-back on May 31 and June 2, 1998. There were numerous tornadoes across PA and NY on these dates, including several F2's and F3's. A few towns in the path of these strong tornadoes were destroyed... including (but not limited to) Salisbury PA, Lake Carey PA, and Stillwater-Mechanicville NY. There were also a couple F2's and F3's in northeast PA (Pike county) that did not affect any towns. They destroyed thousands of large, healthy, and mature trees in the Delaware state Forest. NWS warnings were MUCH better during these outbreaks than they were in 1985. Combining both events in 1998, there were a few deaths... but nothing like 1985. This would make you think that the 1998 outbreaks were not that bad. WRONG! With each year, the average death toll is starting to decrease because of better and earlier warnings. Death tolls are always not a good way to judge the intensity of the outbreak. There actually didn't have to be any deaths in the 1998 outbreaks, if the few people that died would have sought appropriate shelter. ALL DEATHS WITH THE TWO 1998 OUTBREAKS OCCURRED IN VEHICLES OR MOBILE HOMES! In the village of Lake Carey (PA), which was destroyed by an F3 tornado, two people died in a mobile home. They did not leave it for a stronger shelter. All other people that were in mobile homes or people that did not have basements went to neighbors with basements and survived...
Can an outbreak like 1985... with numerous F4-F5 tornadoes... occur again? The answer is simply yes. Is it likely? No... the chance of an outbreak like 1985 occurring again is not very likely in PA. However, with each passing year, it becomes more likely that a repeat of 1985 will again happen. Still, the two 1998 outbreaks were serious, and caused a lot of damage across PA and NY. Another tornado outbreak (6+ tornadoes) is likely in Pennsylvania and/or vicinity within a few years. Next time, lets try to prevent ALL deaths. That would be a very good accomplishment... to have a tornado outbreak with not one death.