200th Anniversary of the Great September Gale

Engraving by Schell & Hogan of the Great Gale of 1815 ()

Engraving by Schell & Hogan of the Great Gale of 1815 in Providence Harbor (“The Providence Plantations for 250 Years” (1886) p. 73)

On the morning of September 23, 1815, a severe storm struck Long Island and New England.  It had been 180 years since the last recorded hurricane had hit the area so the term ‘hurricane’ had fallen out of use and the newspapers referred to the tempest as a “Great Storm” or “Great Gale”.

The prior history of this hurricane is not known, as it does not appear to have affected any ships or islands previous to its main landfall.  The storm was observed by John Farrar, a Mathematics and Natural Philosophy (Science) Professor at Harvard.  In a description of the storm published four year later, he noted that the hurricane was preceded by rains that began the previous day, but the barometer did not begin to fall quickly until the morning of the 23rd.  He and some friends ventured out into the storm to take observations and noted that, “While abroad, we found it necessary to keep moving about, and in passing from one place to another, we inclined our bodies toward the wind, as if we were ascending a steep hill.”  He recorded that the, “Charles River raged and foamed like the sea in a storm, and the spray was raised to the height of sixty or one hundred feet in the form of thin, white clouds, which were drifted along in a kind of waves like snow in a violent snow storm.”

Prof. John Farrar (Harvard)

Prof. John Farrar (Harvard)

He made particular note of the changing direction of the wind, shifting from NE to SE and then S.  When the wind was out of the south, he noted that the rains slacked off and that clear sky was observed even as the winds were at their worst.  This indicates that Boston experienced the eyewall with the eye visible to the west.  From accounts from New York he learned that the storm had hit there two hours previous to Boston and that the winds had backed counterclockwise there instead.  This led Farrar to conclude that the storm “appears to have been a moving vortex, and not the rushing forward of the great body of the atmosphere.”  The prevailing assumption of that time held that hurricanes were great forward, straight-line surges of wind that originated in the Tropics that came rushing northward until they encountered land then blew themselves out.  Farrar’s notion of a moving vortex would not become fully accepted until nearly twenty years later with the publishing of a paper by William Redfield.

The hurricane did considerable damage to the foliage and to roofs in Boston, but the worst destruction came from an 11-foot (3.4 m) storm surge that pushed up Narragansett Bay into Providence, RI and wrecked many ships in the harbor.  38 deaths were attributed to this storm and an estimated US$12.5 million (roughly US$160 million today) in damage was done throughout the region.

References:

Farrar, J., 1819, “An Account of the violent and destructive Storm of the 23rd of September, 1815”, American Philosophical Transactions, Article XIII, p. 102-106

Redfield, W.C., 1831, “Remarks on the Prevailing Storms of the Atlantic Coast of the North American States,” American Journal of Science and Arts, 20, p. 17–51

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