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Tempest in a teapot calms into Tornado

Lawrence Pierce
Jann Bowles of Durant's Grocery in Tornado said she's pleased with a decision by the federal Board on Geographic Names's decision to keep the town's stormy name.
Lawrence Pierce Although officially named Upper Falls until recently, Tornado institutions like its post office and fire station embraced the town's popular, if unofficial, name.
Lawrence Pierce Tornado's proximity to the Upper Falls of the Coal River contributed to confusion over the community's name. The Coal River Group's headquarters building can be seen on the river's far shore.

TORNADO, W.Va. -- Residents of the Coal River town of Tornado seemed relieved Friday that a whirlwind of controversy surrounding their town's stormy name has finally been resolved.

On Thursday, the U.S. Geological Survey's Board on Geographic Names voted to officially recognize Tornado as the name of the Kanawha County community located near the Upper Falls of the Coal River. The 13-member panel voted 11-1 in favor of making Tornado the official name of the community, with one member abstaining.

Since 1909, USGS maps have identified the town as Upper Falls, although its post office, volunteer fire department and at least one church use Tornado in their names. Sometime after 1958, the USGS's Geographic Names Information System (GNIS) included two name entries for the community -- one for Tornado and one for Upper Falls.

The two name entries remained in place until a few years ago, when Robert Thompson of the Upper Falls Community Association asked the Board on Geographic Names to remove Tornado as the community name in favor of Upper Falls. Thompson also asked the board to name and list several unpopulated geographic features, including Upper Falls Channel, Upper Falls Crossing and Upper Falls Point, on the GNIS database.

"These names were verified on authoritative sources and added to GNIS as unrecorded names," according to the text of the docket prepared for Thursday's Board on Geographic Names hearing. "An additional 14 names, submitted by the same proponent but not found on published sources" were added to a review list and will be considered for adoption by the board at a later date, according to the text.

While the official U.S. Postal Service name for the post office serving the community is Tornado, the town's official mailing address is Upper Falls, although only a few postal patrons use Upper Falls in their correspondence, according to the town's postmaster.

Adding to the confusion, the U.S. Census Bureau, sometime during the past decade, changed its official place name for the community from Tornado to Upper Falls, acting on a request by the Charleston office of the West Virginia Regional Intergovernmental Council.

According to a posting by the Upper Falls Community Association at www.tornadowv.webs.com, "labeling our community 'Tornado' makes us a laughingstock" and "conjures up an extremely derogatory image.  . . . Managers do not risk investment capital in places named Tornado, West Virginia."

A majority of town residents, though, seems to disagree.

The Board of Geographic Names recently received a petition bearing the signatures of 228 residents of the small community, seeking to make Tornado their town's official and undisputed name. A number of those who signed commented that they were "unaware of the existence of the Upper Falls Community Association until this issue came to light," according to the docket text.

"My understanding is that it is just one fellow," said Jann Bowles, who was working the cash register at Durant's Grocery in Tornado on Friday.

Do Tornado residents feel embarrassed by the town's cyclonic name?

"Heavens, no!" she said. "People like it and don't want it changed."

Terry Eads, the great-grandson of town founder Roman Pickens, who built a gristmill on the Upper Falls of the Coal River and served as Kanawha County sheriff from 1894 to 1898, was among those attending a Kanawha County Commission meeting dealing with the town's name two weeks ago. After hearing from town residents, the commission voted to support an effort to have the Board of Geographic Names officially make "Tornado" their town's one and only name.

"In my 65 years, I've never heard anyone complain about the name 'Tornado,'" Eads said Friday. "To those who live there, it's always been known as Tornado. Upper Falls is generally considered to be the falls area on Coal River -- not the town's name."

Eads, who lives in Teays Valley and grew up in Tornado, said controversy surrounded the town's name in its early days.

"My great-grandfather and his business partner, J.D. Gray, became involved in a dispute over what to name the new post office," which opened in 1886.

According to "Tornado Remembers," a history of the town, the two men argued so fiercely over what the name should be that "the people in the community said, 'Since there's been such a storm raised, let's call it 'Tornado.'" The name stuck.

"It could be an urban legend," Eads said, "but there was quite a brouhaha over what the name should be."

Bill Currey, co-founder of the Coal River Group, headquartered across the Coal River from downtown Tornado in Meadowood Park, was among those pushing for Tornado to be the town's official name.

Having the name designated and denoted on official maps "will be tremendously helpful to us in this era of GPS and smartphones," Currey said.

"Hopefully, 'Tornado' will be appearing instead of 'Upper Falls' in everyone's navigation systems in the next few weeks, since we're getting ready to order 30,000 Coal River Water Trail brochures. It will be nice for everyone to find us. Without the name change, if would be a different situation."

The Board on Geographic Names acknowledged that it received notices of support for making Tornado the town's official name from Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., the Kanawha County Commission, the Kanawha Metro 911 coordinator, the Tornado Volunteer Fire Department and the West Virginia State Names Authority.

Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelhammer@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5169.


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