Surrounded by hundreds of yards of uprooted and snapped off trees, five survived the violent May 31, 1985 tornado that rumbled and chewed through Parker Dam State Park.
Howard Hunt and his two sons were on a Boy Scout outing 30 years ago today at the park. They were accompanied by another father and son from their Boy Scout troop.
“It was sunny and nice out,” said Hunt’s son, Ken, who was age 7 at the time. “[The forecast] only called for possible thunderstorms and showers that evening.”
Ken Hunt said typically on Boy Scout outings, they camped out in tents. However, his father stopped at the park office for the key to the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) cabin.
“We were going to camp out in the woods there, but I heard there was a chance for rain later on that evening,” recalled Howard Hunt. “I knew the park ranger and stopped in for the key. It’s a good thing that I did.”
Ken Hunt said when the scouts got to their eight-sided cabin, they started unloading his father’s pick-up truck and building a fire inside. After, he was standing on the front porch with the two fathers.
Ken Hunt said it wasn’t long before the wind started to pick up, and there was absolutely no warning of the violent tornado.
“It sounded like a freight train and not one but a whole bunch of them coming at you all at the same time,” said both father and son.
Howard Hunt said the other boys who were listening to Ghostbusters inside the cabin came running for the doorway. “We made it from the porch to the doorway,” he said. “That’s how far we made it.”
Ken Hunt recalled the wind blowing his brother’s hat off of his head. He said, “We held on to anything we could get a hold of to keep from being blown away.”
“I was holding onto my youngest son’s (Ken’s) hand, and the other father was holding onto his other hand. He was just swinging up and down in the air,” said Howard Hunt.
Both father and son said it seemed like “eternity” and “forever” for the tornado to blast through the park but in reality it was only like 90 seconds to two minutes.
Ken Hunt said being only 7 years old, he had no idea what was happening around him. “I was scared and just wanted to go home,” he said.
After, he said they opened the cabin door to observe the tornado’s destruction. He said the trees surrounding the cabin were uprooted and snapped off.
“[That day] we didn’t hear about any tornado outbreak,” said Ken Hunt. He said people never thought a tornado could traverse the mountains of central Pennsylvania.
Howard Hunt recalled that his pick-up truck was parked next to the cabin. He said it took a tree right through the driver’s side window; it put the window even with the truck’s seat. Howard Hunt said his truck was also filled with dried-up leaves and other debris.
Later on Howard Hunt said a friend and his boy showed up to camp out with them at Parker Dam. However, they couldn’t drive back to the cabin and had to get out and walk.
That night he said both of his boys wanted to go home. On their way out, he said they climbed over blown down trees and probably live utility wires to get out of the park.
“It was quite an experience. I remember it so vividly even though it’s been 30 years. It’s not something that I’ll ever forget,” said Ken Hunt. His father said fortunately, there were only five of them participating in this Boy Scout outing.
Throughout the remainder of his childhood years, Ken Hunt said he didn’t like to hear about severe thunderstorms. Nowadays he said they don’t bother him so much.
“I know what it’s like to live through one and today, we have more warning. Back then we had no warning – none.”
The Moshannon State Forest tornado was among those that swarmed on May 31, 1985 in Ontario, Canada and Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York.
The tornado struck Parker Dam at 7:45 p.m. It leveled many towering, majestic trees during its two minutes of destruction, leaving only the CCC cabin standing in the ravaged park.
The tornado, a violent F-4 on the Fujita scale, touched down near Penfield and traversed 69 miles in 90 minutes with wind gusts reaching up to 250 miles per hour. An F-5 is the most violent tornado rating on the Fujita scale.
Carey Huber, environmental education specialist, said some evidence of the tornado remains in Parker Dam 30 years later. He said downed trees are still on the ground and haven’t rotted away completely yet.
He said where some root balls were pulled up and roots rotted away, there are small mounds of dirt/rocks. He said that, “Someone with a keen eye for forests would be able to tell that for the most part, the forest is not yet a mature one, and continuing through its process of succession.”
At the same time, Huber said that “the average visitor” might not be able to discern the forest that had been destroyed from another.
“Pretty much all of the damage within the park was in the northern third. The storm just missed the maintenance area and the park manager’s residence. It did hit what was then known as the Cabin Classroom, or Camp Shawnee,” said Huber.
“The cabin was not completely destroyed but suffered some major damage. Five people on a scouting trip were just getting unpacked for the weekend at the Cabin Classroom when the tornado hit. All survived, which is amazing considering the tornado was later determined to be an F4-strength and that it leveled pretty much every tree around the cabin for hundreds of yards.”
According to Huber, they had to cut the road open with chainsaws because there were so many trees snapped off and thrown about in all directions. He said that the roof was replaced on the Cabin Classroom and other repairs were made, as well. Huber noted that it is still one of the reserveable cabins in the park.
He said that salvage timber cuts were made on the east side of Mud Run Road in the park. However, on the west side, he said they let the trees as the storm left them to observe the forest’s natural recovery following such a disaster. He said that some trees were planted after the tornado near the Organized Group Tenting Area to help replace some of what had been destroyed.
“Many of these look like a part of the maturing forest at this point all these years later,” said Huber. He said that a new trail, the Trail of New Giants, was located through part of the destroyed forest, replacing the previous Trail of Giants of which many of the trees had been destroyed by the tornado.
Parker Dam State Park Tornado
A date to remember here in Central PA is May 31st, 1985. Pennsylvania was hit with its worst tornado outbreak.
Matt Riddle says this about a cabin in Parker Dam State Park, “In the 1930s the Civilian Conservation Corp. built this octagonal cabin behind me. But on May 31, 1985 it did serve as a storm shelter for a local boy scout troop as an F4 tornado roared through the area.
The violent tornado ripped through the northern portion of the park at just before 8 at night. This part of the park is mostly forest and thousands of trees snapped.
Carey Huber, an Environmental Education Specialist at Parker Dam had this to say, “You know a mature forest, everything was snapped off. You looked down upon it and it looked like matchsticks or toothpicks laying in different directions all over the place.”
As the twister roared through, one cabin was in its crosshairs. A cabin occupied by a scout troop that was about to be put through the most terrifying moments of their lives.
Here is what Ken Hunt, a former Boy Scout, had to say in 1995, “It sounded like a bunch of freight trains coming at you. It was so loud you couldn’t hear anything at all.”
He was right in the tornadoes path.
“Was it scary yes it was scary,” said Ken.
Carey Huber says, “The cabin was damaged. It basically… the cabin is an 8-sided octagonal cabin, built out of logs like the ccc did. It was pretty strong we theorize, which helped not completely destroy the cabin, but it did have a cupola on the top. So, part of that got blown off. Some other damage to the cabin that way, but it wasn’t completely flattened or anything like that.
Mud run road bisects the park north to south and the east side of the road was salvage cut for the timber that was there, but the west side of the road was untouched to see what nature would do after this event. Now 33 year later both sides of the road look similar, but there are some small differences.
“What you see now is maybe a few big old rotting logs that might still be there. A lot of mounds of dirt where the root balls were tore up and the roots have rotted away and the dirt is now just a mound on the ground. And some evidence of some of the species in that part of the park forest is changing from early successional species to a more mature species of trees in that section in that part of the forest. So, it is not as thick as it once was.” States Carey.
The tornado also destroyed an important piece of local history. This used to be the trail of giants in the park. A walking path where folks could go to learn about trees over a century old. Now the trees are gone, the history was lost, but a new tradition has emerged. You can walk the Trail of New giants.
Carey on this trail “So, as it got renamed the Trail of New Giants, as those trees mature and become giants. People can kinda watch as the forest grows up if they hike it year after year.
If you would like to visit a piece of this area’s history the trail of new giants is open at parker dam state park now.
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Unique cabins and lodges for winter stays in Pennsylvania state parks
Although most campgrounds, cabins, cottages, yurts and walled tents in the Pennsylvania state park system closed to overnight stays by mid-December or earlier, and will remain so until mid-April, some unique lodging and camping options are available across the state.
Modern cabins, which have modern bathrooms, electric heat and outlets, and sleep 6-8 people are available at Black Moshannon State Park at Philipsburg, Canoe Creek State Park in Frankstown Township, Blair County, French Creek State Park near Elverson, Gifford Pinchot State Park near Lewisberry, Hills Creek State Park near Wellsboro, Hyner Run State Park at North Bend, Keystone State Park at Derry, Linn Run State Park in Cook and Ligonier townships, Westmoreland County , Little Buffalo State Park near Newport, Moraine State Park at Portersville, Nockamixon State Park near Quakertown, Prince Gallitzin State Park at Patton, Pymatuning State Park at Jamestown, Raccoon Creek State Park at Hookstown and Ricketts Glen State Park at Benton.
Rustic cabins, which have gas heat and fireplaces, are adjacent to modern shower house and sleep 4-8 people and stand adjacent to modern shower houses, are available at Linn Run State Park in Cook and Ligonier townships, Westmoreland County, Parker Dam State Park near Penfield and Worlds End State Park at Forksville.
Camping cottages, which have electric lights and outlets, are near modern shower houses, and sleep 4-6, are available in French Creek State Park near Elverson and Ryerson Station State Park at Graysville.
Yurts, which are rounded tents with wooden floors and electric lights and outlets that sleep 4 and are sited near modern shower houses, are available in French Creek State Park near Elverson.
The Nature Inn at Bald Eagle State Park at Howard, Centre County, is unlike anything else in the Pennsylvania State Park system. With its 16 overnight guest room, meeting spaces and green infrastructure, amenities and services, it's been voted the No. 1 Eco-Lodge in the U.S.
Ole Bull Cabin in Ole Bull State Park near Cross Fork is a one-and-a-half-story log cabin with a modern bathroom that sleeps 10-12.
Tyler Cabin in Parker Dam State Park near Penfield is an octagonal log cabin with an electric stove and refrigerator.
Brooks Run Cabin in Sinnemahoning State Park at Austin is a 2-story house with a modern bathroom that sleeps 12.
Twin Fawn House in Blue Knob State Park near Imler has a modern bathroom and sleeps 8.
Caledonia Lodge in Caledonia State Park near Fayetteville is a 2-story house with a closed-in porch. It has one-and-a-half modern bathrooms and sleeps 10.
The Paymasters Cabin in Pine Grove Furnace State Park at Gardners is an historic stone house with a modern bathroom that sleeps 6.
Shawnee Lodge in Shawnee State Park at Schellsburg, with an expansive porch and a modern bathroom, is located on an island in the middle of Shawnee Lake. It sleeps 8.
Trough Creek Lodge at Trough Creek State Park at James Creek was built in the mid-1800s. It has a modern bathroom and sleeps 10.
Copper Kettle Lodge in Laurel Hill State Park is specially equipped for the winter season. It has a modern bathroom, a fully equipped kitchen and a rec room outdoor deck, and sleeps 8.
Hufman Lodge in Laurel Hill State Park near Somerset is a 2-story, 5-bedroom, two-and-three-quarter- bath house with a rec room, fireplace, laundry and outdoor deck that sleeps 14.
Lake Lodge in Raccoon Creek State Park at Hookstown has a large living room with a fireplace, 3 bedrooms and a laundry and sleeps 10.
Reservations for all of the cabins, cottages, yurts and lodges are available through the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources online reservation site.
Are you a camping lover? Me too! My camping life began in Pennsylvania the Key Stone State. One of the most beautiful states full of mountains, rivers, and unpredictable weather.
My parents began taking me camping …. well at around two weeks old. I have traveled all over my wonderful state. So I would like to encourage you to do so too. PA is full of many amazing and beautiful parks, there are 121 parks, not all for camping. Some of these parks are for day trips. My goal is to write on each state park. Today we begin with my favorite. Parker Dam State Park.
Parker Dam State Park is located in Penfeild, PA. Nestled on the edge of the Appalachian Mountain range, full of history, and life. It is also conveniently located 25 minutes away from Du Bois, a small town with restaurants and stores.
The park features a small man made lake “Parker Lake” created by the CCC, Civilian Conservation Corps. Parker Dam sees all four seasons of PA. Each season bringing new activities to enjoy at the park.
Every year in the summer Parker Lake is stocked which makes it great for fishing. Personally I find fishing for catfish quite easy but your usual blue gill and bass are found as well. They have a wonderful beach, great for all kids and adults alike. Plenty of space to spread out, and great sand for castles.
Fall brings one of my favorite times of the year. Maple Syrup, the park actually makes and sells its own syrup. during the fall you can join the rangers in tapping the trees, collecting sap, and cooking up the syrup. I want to mention the Syrup is worth buying. If you do find yourself listening to Ranger Eric explain the different colors of syrup be sure to tell him Kara says hi. Fall in the park is absolutely stunning, with the change of the leaves. Early fall may just be the most beautiful time in the park. If you’re lucky you may hear the bugle of Elk.
Keep in mind fall also brings with it the hunters. There are plenty of places for families and hikers to safely roam, but some of the trails do intersect with hunting areas of the national forest that surrounds that park. Be sure to grab a map from the park office.
Winter brings what my mom calls, her only vacation of the year. My family has an affinity to make sure we grab Cabin Three in the winter. Parker Dam has some of the best cabins in the state in my opinion, also built by the CCC. All of the cabins feature comfortable beds, gas heat, a stove, and a fridge. They also have great functioning fire places, and ode to the Kodiak Stoves that once heated the cabins not so long ago. Parker Dam also has several dog cabins, nice cabins too. The park is a great place to bring your four legged family members too.
Cabin Three however is the best cabin of them all, the Cabin has three rooms and a loft. It can sleep 8 people (sometimes 10 if you don’t mind being close). Walking into the cabin you enter the main area, with its kitchen, fire place, and table. To the left is a room with two Bunk beds and to the right a room with a double bed. Next to the door is a ladder that leads up to the loft, three mattress line the loft for sleeping. My family has used this cabin for as long as I can remember. This cabin is a hot commodity in the park, be sure to book it as soon as you can.
In the early winter you can still participate in the maple syrup, or if you’re like my family. Send your kids out into the deep snow to play and enjoy some peace and quiet. There is always a good game of Scrabble to be played. Winter always brings a peaceful quiet to the park, the snow sound proofing the ground around you. The park is always dark enough to enjoy the Milky Way and every star you can imagine.
Spring brings the opening of the camp ground, and some of the best trails in the park. Hiking is a large part of the park, including the Quehanna Backpacking Trail. One of the more exciting trails I think is the Trail of the New Gaints. If you pay close enough attention you can see the story the trail has to offer. May 31, 1985 an F4 tornado ripped through the park. Taking out the giants that once stood, also sucking the roof off of Tyler Cabin. Tyler Cabin is a group cabin, that on this day held a boy scout group that survived the ordeal. There had been a trail that led you through the trees up the mountain to a point above the park called “The Vista”. After the tornado all that was left where giants lying across the side of the mountain. Some trees survived being left only with their sand blasted silver skin. My Dad went to the site two weeks after the storm. He described it as an alien land scape, with not a noise to be heard. Just silence.
The trail has since then began to regrow, the new giants now not the small trees I remember as a child have begun to recreate what once was. Now you can take a hike through the trees seeing what is left of the tornados evidence. You can still make your way to The vista that over looks Parker Lake. To this day it is my favorite hike of the park.
Im sure you the reader can tell, that this park will always be near to my heart. My family takes three yearly trips to Parker Dam and it never once has gotten old. There is not another park in PA like it.
Cabin parker dam tyler
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