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The First Recorded Tornado Outbreak in US History Occurred in New England

The Midwest gets much of the attention when it comes to tornadoes. The area has long been called tornado alley as this part of the world sees more tornadoes on average than anywhere else on the planet. While New England is known for dealing with several types of storms, tornadoes generally aren't the first that come to mind. Despite this, the region has a long history of tornadoes. Part of this history includes the first recorded outbreak in the nation's history.

The first recorded US tornado outbreak occurred in New England. Photo: Alexey Demidov

On August 15, 1787, at least five tornadoes touched down across the region. Three tornadoes touched down in Connecticut, one touched down in Massachusetts (one of the Connecticut tornadoes also crossed into Massachusetts) and one tore through New Hampshire. There were also a handful of other severe weather reports that were unlikely to have been tornadic in nature (such as straight-line wind and hail damage).

Some may wonder how tornadoes (and tornado location) could be confirmed at such an early date. This is done by looking through written reports and journal entries of those who lived through the storms. The Hartford Courant (first published in 1764) also ran a story after this event detailing damage. The details used in these journals and articles can often be pieced together to figure out if a storm was a tornado or another form of wind damage.

These details in the journals that increase confidence of a tornado having occurred include descriptions such as "whirling with amazing velocity and a most tremendous roar" and "a black column from the earth to the ground." This was used to describe the tornado near New Britain, Connecticut. Several houses were "leveled with the ground" during this storm. In East Windsor, Connecticut, trees were said to have "twisted" down.

The longest tracked tornado of this outbreak was observed stretching from at least Killingly, Connectciut to at least Mendon, Massachusetts, passing through Rhode Island in the process. A house was "torn to pieces" with several other homes losing their roofs. This tornado likely traveled over 20 miles total.

The tornado that touched down near Northborough, Massachusetts was likely the most powerful of the outbreak. Residents noted seeing large debris, including pieces of buildings and many trees and branches flying through the air. Damage was noted to be contained to a narrow path, very indicative of tornadic damage.

The final tornado of the day occurred near Rochester, New Hampshire. A barn was said to have been "taken and entirely carried off". The barn was not found, as it was likely to have been reduced to a pile of splintered wood upon hitting the ground. The path of damage with this tornado was also reported to be rather narrow.

There were many injuries, but only two deaths during this outbreak. Both deaths occurred during the New Britain tornado. Deaths were likely limited due to the fact that, for the most part, tornadoes passed through uninhabited areas.

While it will never be known just how strong the tornadoes were, extensive damage was reported in areas where all five tornadoes passed through. While structural damage did occur (as read above), much of the damage occurred to trees and crops. This is on par with the EF-0 to EF-1 tornadoes that strike New England a handful of times a summer. Based on damage reports above, there's a good chance at least one tornado went up to EF-2 to EF-3 strength.

This outbreak is likely comparable to the 2011 outbreak that saw six tornadoes spawn across Massachusetts and Maine. That outbreak saw one EF-0 tornado, four EF-1 tornadoes and, of course, the EF-3 that tore through the Springfield, Massachusetts area.

Sources: Significant Tornadoes 1680-1991 by Thomas P. Grazulis; Hartford Courant; National Weather Service

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