When the Great September Gale struck New England in the fall of 1815, few could remember the last time such a devastating storm had hit. That was the Colonial Gale of 1635, which almost killed Richard Mather, the influential Puritan minister.
Historians place the September Gale of 1815 somewhere between a Category 3 and a Category 4, with winds that gusted up to 156 mph.
New England has experienced only three other Category 3 hurricanes since the colonists arrived: the September Hurricane of 1869, the Great New England Hurricane of 1938 and Hurricane Carol in 1954.
The September Gale of 1815 damaged crops, buildings and ships, killed livestock and people, toppled forests and caused a water shortage for as long as six months in some places. Only the New England Hurricane of 1938 was more destructive.
But, unlike the other hurricanes, the Great September Gale of 1815 ushered in a second devastating weather event: the 1816 Year Without a Summer.
No wonder New Englanders began migrating west in great numbers.
The Great September Gale
It began on September 22 as a nor’easter, with torrential rain falling along the Atlantic coast for 24 hours. Then a fierce tropical hurricane collided at right angles with the rainstorm and made landfall on Long Island. It proceeded to wreak havoc in Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and the eastern half of New Hampshire.
Some people noted a respite between the two storms, then a hot, heavy wind that began to blow. In Abington, Mass., a sailor from the West Indies started frequently as if he knew what was coming. When asked why, he said there was a crackling in the air, just the way it had before a terrific wind.
John Farrar, science professor at Harvard, experienced the September Gale in Cambridge, Mass., and described it in a scientific journal.
He wrote that between 9 am and 10 am on Sept. 23, the hurricane began to cause alarm as it toppled chimneys and trees and hurled flying missiles – shingles, slates and wood fragments — down the streets.
“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,” he wrote.
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., experienced the storm as a seven-year-old living in Boston. Later in life he recalled ‘a general impression of a mighty howling, roaring, banging and crashing, with much running about, and loud screaming of orders for sudden taking in of all sail about the premises and battening down of everything that could flap or fly away.’
Nine-year-old John Peabody was standing near the edge of the mill pond in Boxford, Mass., when a gust of wind picked him up, carried him 30 feet and dunked him in the water. His family rescued him.
The wind blew so strongly that people couldn’t keep fires lit inside their homes. It wiped out all kinds of structures from churches to sheds and uprooted orchards and forests.
Falling trees killed some people, while others drowned in shipwrecks along the coast. An estimated 38 people died in the storm, but the death toll was probably much higher.
The tempest smashed vessels from Eastport, Maine, to New York.
It swept away wharves, blew down steeples, destroyed 60 vessels in Boston Harbor and drove a schooner up Main Street in Cambridgeport, Mass.
In the port of New Bedford, the winds drove every vessel but two ashore. The newspapers reported they didn’t have enough room to record the maritime losses.
The wind knocked down 5,000 apple trees in the town of Dorchester (now part of Boston), destroyed the Neponset River Bridge and ruined the First Parish Meeting House beyond repair.
In Danvers, Mass., the Endicott pear tree, planted by Gov. John Endecott around 1630, lost half its branches.
The September Gale hit Providence hardest, as the wind blew directly up the Providence River. The storm surge caused an extraordinary tide 12-14 feet above high water. Stores and houses reeled and tottered, then plunged into the floodwaters.
Boats and scows struggled against the churning waters to rescue panicked women and children as the water reached their windows. Vessels smashed against the bridge connecting the two parts of Providence until it swept it away.
The tide forced the ship Ganges against the third floor of the Washington Insurance Building. It drove a brig loaded with livestock onto a wharf, where it stuck. The trapped crew finally took the risk of abandoning ship and crawled along the roiling debris toward buildings still standing. Some people dragged the sailors into their homes through the second-story windows.
The September Gale completely destroyed 500 buildings in the city and left tangled heaps of furniture, lumber, candles, flour, cotton bales, coffee, grain and wrecked boats. When the storm ended, 300 armed men were stationed in Providence to prevent looting.
A Mr. Webb found a sloop standing up at his front door, while Gen. Lippett found a ship in his garden
Salt and Sand
The September Gale drove saltwater 40 miles into the country side. Houses turned white, and the leaves on the trees seemed lightly frosted. Wine grapes harvested in the aftermath of the Great September Gale tasted like salt.
Along the coast and in some places inland, the September Gale caused a shortage of fresh water for weeks, even months.
In Buzzards Bay, the tide rose so high that it covered farmers’ fields with sand. The saltwater made wells and streams brackish for months and killed corn, grass and trees in cedar swamps.
In Stonington, Conn., the tide rose 17 feet and deluged the town. It demolished the wharves, destroyed all 20 vessels in the harbor and left the town unrecognizable. Gardens and fertile fields turned into sandy beaches. The storm reduced a nearby island of several acres to a small rock.
The September Gale also caused considerable damage in New London, Groton and even Norwich up the Thames River.
No Angry God
By 1815, science was undergoing a transition. People began to pay attention to weather as a scientific phenomenon, rather than a reward or punishment from an angry god.
John Farrar was probably the first to write that the September Gale was a moving vortex and not, as previously thought, ‘the rushing forward of a great body of the atmosphere.’
Oliver Wendell Holmes made a more prosaic observation in his 1836 poem, The September Gale.
It chanced to be our washing-day,
And all our things were drying;
The storm came roaring through the lines,
And set them all a flying;
I saw the shirts and petticoats
Go riding off like witches;
I lost, ah! bitterly I wept,–
I lost my Sunday breeches!
This story was updated in 2022.