The story of a tornado that tore through Port Republic, June of 1881

The storm of June 25, 1881.
Valley Virginian Newspaper
Valley Virginian Newspaper(The Virginia Chronicle)
Published: Jun. 23, 2023 at 12:17 PM EDT|Updated: Jun. 26, 2023 at 3:10 PM EDT
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PORT REPUBLIC, Va. (WHSV) - Official tornado records from the National Weather Service go back to 1950. However locally, we have had several tornadoes dating back into the 1800s. So how can we tell if damage was from a tornado or if was straight line winds? It all comes down to the detail in the newspaper reports. (Clippings are at the bottom of this story)

“The destruction was fearful.” June 25, 1881. A powerful storm led to damage from Mount Solon in Augusta County to the Shenandoah River, but the greatest damage was in Port Republic.

Per the newspaper reports, at the home of Misses Yost, “Crops destroyed, fences swept away, timber crushed and destruction everywhere.”

At Bernard Peale’s, “The corn and wheat crop was destroyed, entailing a heavy loss.”

A diary from Henry Smalls reads, “A most fearful storm passed through Port Republic. Injured Henry Harnsberger, about $1,500 dollars.

Property damage was reported at all of these locations:

All of the locations of the damage according to newspaper reports.
All of the locations of the damage according to newspaper reports.(Port Republic Museum)

In newspapers it was described as being widespread and extensive, but reading through the detail descriptions, this damage is much more suggestive of powerful straight line winds and hail damage. However once the storm crossed the river, the some of the damage descriptions suggested something more powerful happened.

CHERRY GROVE (Harnsberger Property)

At Cherry Grove, this was the property of Mr. Henry Baker Harnsberger at the time. The newspaper reports, a wood plank, a one by ten was picked up from about forty yards away and driven through the side of the tenant house on the property. That kind of force comes from a tornado. Mr. Harnsberger reported to the newspaper that the plank was “hurled through the tenant house, penetrating the weatherboarding and plaster tearing part of the fireplace mantle.” The plank landed against the chimney on the opposite side of the house. It’s this detailed description which leads us to believe that there was at least a short track tornado.

Frances Harnsberger Swope is the great granddaughter of Mr. Henry, and this family story was never passed down.

“You’re telling me Aubrey, of this tornado was the first I ever heard about it. Odds are, what they did is what most people did at that time. They picked up the pieces, repaired the damage and went on with their lives. The Harnsberger family has extensive property records and photos, and no one in the family knew about this event or at least the story was never shared.

The damage to the Harnsberger property included crops and buildings. Ms. Swope is reading one of the newspaper reports, “His wagon shed was also blown down, smashing his buggy, which was under it.”

After speaking with Ms. Swope, she told WHSV that while they never knew of the story, they were fascinated to find out about it.


At the home of Taylor Wagner, next to the Harnsbergers, the Staunton Spectator reports that his home was “Careened over and is a complete wreck.” The story goes, his wife was at home with their child who was 23 months old, and one of Mr. Taylor’s younger siblings. The storm and hail was so bad, that Mrs. Wagoner thought the house would blow away. So she did what she thought was best, she wrapped the two children in blankets, and held them as she ran to the neighbors. Mrs. Wagner and the two children were hit by large hail, and all were injured. They were all severely bruised.

It was reported in the newspaper that the Wagner daughter was so severely injured, that she would not survive. Looking at death records, the daughter did survive, but she died at the young age of 21. There were no future newspaper reports on the incident.

We don’t know exactly how large the hail was, however, it was described as being about 6″ deep on North Mountain, and thick enough to stay on the ground for reportedly 24 hours. One newspaper says that Mrs. Wagner described the hail at least the size of a hen egg, which would be about 2″ in diameter. That’s large hail for our area and it happens here, but rarely.

The Wagner house was “torn away by the fury of the blast and the main portions of the house turned on its foundation.”


This was likely the path of the tornado- the path was likely less than a mile. Likely the tornado started around the Harnsberger property (on South River Road), possibly along the banks of the river and traveled to what is now Port Republic Road. The main properties impacted were the Harnsbergers, the Wagners, and the Port Republic Train Depot.

The path was likely from the Harnsberger property to the Port Republic Depot, less than a mile...
The path was likely from the Harnsberger property to the Port Republic Depot, less than a mile long.(Port Republic Museum)

The tornado blew the roof off of the brand-new Port Republic train depot. According to the newspaper, “The roof falling upon a frame building and crushed it down.” After speaking with historians at the Augusta County Railroad Museum and the Norfolk and Western Historical Society, it was concluded that the debris was cleared from the tracks quickly to where the train schedule was not affected.

We have not found any photos of the actual damage. (Trust me, I’ve looked everywhere. A local historian also mentioned that photography at that time here was still not at all common.)

The passenger and freight depot in Port Republic
The passenger and freight depot in Port Republic(Port Republic Museum)

Here are documents and photos from Port Republic courtesy of the Norfolk and Western Historical Society

The train depot was repaired quickly, and it stood in Port Republic for many decades before being permanently removed.

This event was likely a line or a cluster of powerful storms with damaging winds on the leading edge. At times, you can get an embedded tornado within a cluster or line of storms and that’s likely what happened here.

If by chance you have a family story or information relating to this tornado, we’d love to hear about it. You can email Aubrey at

I would like to extend my gratitude to all of those who helped me research this story. Frances Harnsberger Swope, the Rocktown History historical society, Ellen at the Port Republic Museum, and the Norfolk and Western Historical Society, JMU Special Collections, and Marianne Hinkle and Caroline Kaestner. I would also like to thank Jennifer Narramore with Tornado Talk. -Aubrey

For more local tornado history:


The Newspaper description of the storm and the damage
The Newspaper description of the storm and the damage(The Virginia Chronicle)
The path was likely from the Harnsberger property to the Port Republic Depot, less than a mile...
The path was likely from the Harnsberger property to the Port Republic Depot, less than a mile long.(Port Republic Museum)