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June 9, 1953: New England's Most Violent Tornado Outbreak

When looking back at New England's weather history, June 9th, 1953 stands out as one of the most infamous weather days in the region's history. This day is often remembered for "the Worcester Tornado," a powerful F4 tornado which would become the strongest, deadliest, costliest and second longest track tornado in the region's recorded history (tornado records date back to 1950). This was, however, only one of multiple violent tornadoes to strike New England that day.


The June 9th tornadoes in New England were the final act of a three day outbreak that began across the central Plains. June 7th saw 34 tornadoes across tornado alley. June 8th saw 12 tornadoes across Michigan, Nebraska and Ohio. More than half of these tornadoes would be rated F3 or higher, including the F5 Flint-Beecher tornado. June 9th would see the final four tornadoes of this system touch down in Massachusetts and New Hampshire.



THE SETUP


A surface low formed on June 6th in the desert southwest and tracked northeast into the Plains. By June 8th, the system had tracked into southern Canada with an occluded front extending down into Wisconsin and Iowa and a warm front across the Great Lakes. This setup aided in the formation of a violent line of supercells.



On June 9th, the low continued pushing northeast, tracking to the north of New England during the day. This track lifted the system's warm front into southern and central New England with the cold front being dragged across the region later in the afternoon. Storms began to fire ahead of the cold front. The four main ingredients for severe weather were present across southern and central New England in excess. Extreme wind shear up to 100 knots was present along with dew points in the 70s in places.



That day, the National Weather Service of Boston opted not to use the word "tornado" in forecasts so as not to incite mass panic. The office instead used the wording "severe" for the first time in New England's forecasting history. The Boston NWS office wrote at 11:30am: "Windy, partly cloudy, hot and humid with thunderstorms, some locally severe, developing this afternoon.”


THE WORCESTER TORNADO


The first tornado of the day was the infamous Worcester tornado. The tornado dropped into the Quabbin Reservoir at 4:25pm and quickly began to track in a southeast direction. The tornado tore through the towns of Barre and Rutland while quickly gaining strength. The tornado began to cause devastation when it entered into Holden, completely wiping out an entire neighborhood.


Damage from the Worcester tornado. Photo: New England Historical Society

After Holden, the tornado, now 1 mile wide, entered into Worcester. The scenes of Worcester after this tornado resemble scenes from many of the United States' other extreme tornadoes. Large neighborhoods were completely destroyed. A large bus was picked up and thrown against an apartment complex.


The tornado would not stop after devastating Worcester. At maximum strength and still a mile wide, the tornado tore through Shrewsbury and Westborough. After 84 minutes of havoc, the tornado dissipated. It traveled a total of 48 miles, making it the second longest tornado track in New England history. This tornado held the record for longest tornado until the 2008 New Hampshire tornado. Debris from the tornado was found on Cape Cod. The National Weather Service wrote:


"Someone found a wedding dress from Worcester hanging on a telephone wire in Natick. A frozen mattress was found in Massachusetts Bay near Weymouth, and blueprints from a Worcester apartment building were found in Duxbury. Books and clothing were found at Blue Hill Observatory in Milton and on the outer portion of Cape Cod near Provincetown, Eastham, and Chatham."

Two of the very few photos of the actual tornado. Photos: Stanley H. Smith; Henry LaPrade


An observer at Great Blue Hill reported: "...It’s coming from great heights, shingles, small branches, paper … boards several feet long…I’m afraid there’s been a bad tornado somewhere.


This tornado would cause over 250 million dollars in damages and kill 94 people, making it the deadliest tornado in New England history. The tornado would injure well over 1,000 people. The tornado is estimated to have had a strength of a high end F4.



THE EXETER TORNADO


While the Worcester tornado was still on the ground, another significant tornado touched down near Exeter, New Hampshire. This tornado was much more brief than the Worcester tornado; it was on the ground for less than two miles. The tornado was rated as an F3 with winds of up to 150mph.


Damage in Exeter, NH.

A total of 15 buildings had their roofs ripped off in the town. A majority of the damage occurred at the Exeter Country Club, which took a direct hit from the tornado. A women's golf tournament was ongoing when the tornado struck. The Exeter News-Letter wrote in a story published on June 11:


"A strange noise interrupted their idle chatter...Club professional Donald Lavigne asked, 'What's that?,' to which another replied, 'just a train?' Quickly turning toward the sound, Lavigne said, 'no it isn't, it's a tornado' and immediately bellowed, 'hit the deck!' When the storm hit the building, Mrs. Howard Stevenson was carried the length of the ballroom and managed to prevent a 15-foot fall to the ground by clutching what remained of a wall. Mrs. Robert Dushame told of being lifted off the fairway while clutching her caddy cart and was carried 10 feet with the swirling windstorm."

This tornado was reported to have injured five people in Exeter and nearby Fremont. Remarkably, no one was killed by this tornado. The tornado was reported to have a "double funnel," but only one was confirmed to have touched the ground. The Exeter News-Letter estimated the damage at around $100,000, though other estimates have the damage as low as $25,000. The tornado moved through the town in a matter of minutes. This was among the strongest tornadoes in New Hampshire history.


Damage in Exeter, NH

THE MILLBURY-MANSFIELD TORNADO


Ten minutes after the Exeter tornado touched down, yet another powerful tornado dropped into Massachusetts. This tornado touched down near Millbury in Worcester County, just to the southwest of where the Worcester tornado dissipated. The tornado caused significant damage in Wrentham, Foxborough and Mansfield.


This tornado tore a path over 20 miles long and was rated as an F3. The tornado caused significant tree damage, including uprooting an entire apple orchard as well as destroying a barn. Vehicles were overturned and some homes sustained serious damage. This tornado injured 17 people and caused an estimated 7.5 million dollars in damage.


Paths of the tornadoes in Massachusetts. Photo: American Meteorological Society

The area that this tornado moved through was not nearly as densely populated as it is now. Much of the damage with this one was to farms, barns and trees. Many of the victims from this storm were chickens. The tornado dissipated in Mansfield, just before reaching a more densely populated area near South Main Street.



THE ROLLINSFORD TORNADO


A much tamer tornado wrapped up the day for New England. In the early evening, a weak tornado briefly touched down in the town of Rollinsford in New Hampshire. The tornado was rated at F1 and was on the ground for a mile. This tornado was a much more typical New England tornado. The tornado crossed a farm and woodland. Total damages to the farm were estimated at $250.


MASSIVE HAIL


Aside from the tornadoes, other severe weather was recorded. This mainly came in the form of extremely large hail. Earlier this year, large hail of 1-2 inches in diameter came down across isolated parts of New England. This is equivalent to the size of a quarter to an egg. On June 9, 1953, hailstones the size of baseballs were seen in parts of the region in what was very likely the largest hailstones ever seen in New England.


Hail size chart:


The hailstorm in western New England preceded the tornadoes. In Colrain, Massachusetts, hail of up to 3 inches in diameter (slightly larger than a baseball) fell around 3pm. Northfield, Massachusetts would see baseball sized hail around 3:45pm, just over a half an hour before the first tornado touched down. Baseball sized hail was also reported in Masfield, Massachusetts around the time of the tornado. The main outbreak of hailstorms occurred near the area where Massachusetts, Vermont and New Hampshire meet.


After the initial cluster of hailstorms in west-central New England, the storms fanned out from this central area and continued through the afternoon, pushing eastward. Two main lines of large hail formed across the region. One line extended eastward across southern New Hampshire to the seacoast while the other moved southeastward through central Massachusetts to Cape Cod. As you'll notice, the bands of hail occurred on the same segments of the squall line as the tornadoes, providing a one-two punch of severe weather.


CONCLUSION


Since 1950, there have been over 600 tornadoes recorded in New England. Of these 600+, only 11 have become F/EF3 or higher. Three of these 11 happened on one day in 1953. The Worcester tornado was the first of just 3 F4 tornadoes in the region's recorded history (again, tornado records date back to 1950). It's worth noting that the F4 rating of the Worcester tornado on the original Fujita Scale could very well have been an EF5 rating on the currently used Enhanced Fujita Scale.


The most recent F/EF3 tornado in New England occurred on June 1, 2011, which also heavily affected Worcester county. A total of 6 tornadoes touched down in New England on that day. The most recent F/EF4 was the 1995 Great Barrington Tornado, which struck the Berkshires on Memorial Day of that year. 9 of the 11 F/EF3+ tornadoes in New England have struck Massachusetts.


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