During the High Tide Storm of 1723, the waters rose so high and so fast that worshipers were marooned in their meeting houses. In the Massachusetts towns of Marblehead and Salem, people climbed trees to avoid drowning.
The extraordinary tide overflowed marshes, changed the coastline and swept mighty haystacks out to sea.
Cotton Mather wrote a paper on the High Tide Storm for the Royal Society of London. In it, he called the damage to Boston ‘inexpressible.’
But the Boston News-Letter gave such a ridiculous explanation for the high waters that young Ben Franklin had a field day mocking it in his own New England Courant.
High Tide Storm of 1723
Mather noted in his paper that the moon had reached its perigee, that is, nearest to earth, on Feb. 23, 1723, the day before the storm.
The tide came in at night, and the next day rose two feet higher than anyone could remember. Mather’s fellow Puritans made it to the meeting house for Thursday Lecture, but couldn’t leave because seawater surrounded the building.
“There was a great fall of snow and rain, the temper of the air was cool and moist, and such as contributed unto a mighty descent of vapours,” wrote Mather. He speculated that ‘a cloudy atmosphere’ may have helped the waters swell, and he noted a high wind blew hard and long from the south. That pushed a vast quantity of seawater to northern shores.
Then the wind veered eastward, and brought the water from that direction. Finally the high wind moved north, bringing still more water.
The High Tide Storm ‘raised the tide unto an height which had never been seen in the memoray of man among us,’ Mather wrote. In fact, the tide in Boston reached a record 15.5 feet, a height not exceeded for 125 years.
Dedham minister Samuel Dexter in his diary called it “ye mightyest overflowing of ye sea.”
The tide rose two feet or three feet above Long Wharf, flowed over all the other wharves and rose to such a surprising height that Bostonians could sail in boats from Rowe’s Wharf to Merchants Row near what is now Faneuil Hall. The waters filled all the cellars and the floors of the lower rooms of houses and warehouses in the town.
The High Tide Storm caused the Bay side of Cape Cod to rise four feet and the Atlantic side to rise a dozen feet higher than ever recorded, Mather wrote. It destroyed Chatham Harbor and filled the cut in Gloucester (now the Blynman Canal). The cut remained closed for a century.
Rhode Island and Portsmouth, N.H., fared as badly as Boston. In Portland, the storm caused so much damage to wharves and warehouses that merchants didn’t recover financially for almost a lifetime, wrote Edward Rowe Snow.
Snow called the High Tide Storm of 1723 one of the ‘big four’ New England storms. They also included the Colonial Hurricane of 1635, the Great September Gale of 1815 and the Hurricane of 1938.
In Hampton, N.H., the sea broke over the sand dunes for many miles and continued running over for hours. Joseph Dow, in his history of Hampton, described how the High Tide Storm destroyed miles of flats and swept enormous hay ricks out to sea.
On a tract known as Huckleberry Flats, he wrote, hassocks had firmly frozen, and then the High Tide Storm struck.
“The surging waters soon found a way under the thick, hard-frozen crust on the flats, and raising and breaking up a large portion of it,” he wrote. Then they bore the fragments over the marshes, until they found a resting place, or swept them into the ocean.
The storm created a pond of several acres over the former Huckleberry Flats.
When the tides finally receded, the Boston newspapers reported on the High Tide Storm. To Ben Franklin’s delight, the Boston News-Letter speculated that Boston’s wharves had displaced so much water they contributed to the ‘Rise of Water.’
Franklin retorted, “some begin to blame the Dutch for damming out the sea, and sending the Tide over the Atlantic upon us.
“Some more reasonably conclude,” he wrote, “that a large Fleet of Ships have been sunk in the Storm off our Coast…which occasion’d the rising of the tide.”
This story about the High Tide Storm of 1723 was updated in 2023.