It was a still September night just before the new century. Some residents of Newbury, Mass., were dancing at a late party. Some slept soundly while others felt restless because of an eerie calm. Then the 1799 tornado struck.
Growing up in Newburyport, Mass., in the 1790s, Sarah Anna Emery’s mother, Sarah Smith Emery, recalled some of the most important events and colorful stories of her age, including the story of the 1799 tornado in Reminiscences of a Nonagenarian.
She was a young girl on her family’s farm in what was then Newbury when the storm tested the small community’s courage and spirit.
The 1799 Tornado
Her father, she wrote, had reached his goal. He had secured the whole of the ancestral acres through industry and economy,
His heart was in his work; he was a good agriculturalist, and had given great attention to fruit culture. He had planted and grafted some two or three hundred apple trees; there was quite a variety of pears and a thriving peach orchard on the place. Grapes grew spontaneously. The stone walls were covered with vines which bore luxuriantly large, luscious clusters both of the purple and white grapes. There was a difference in the quality of this wild fruit, some being equal if not superior to that produced in our gardens at the present time.
The farm that September presented a tempting array of fruit, she wrote. “The trees never looked finer than on the twelfth of the month. The day was warm and cloudy; at dusk it began to rain.” Sarah had a piece of linen whitening on the grass. Fearing it might mildew, she went to take it in, and was struck by the sultry stillness of the night.
She went to her bedroom and sat for a while at the open window, enjoying the quiet, steadily falling rain. Around midnight the unbarring of the front door awakened her. She hear her mother scream, “Something terrible is coming!” as she hastily opened and closed it.
A Strange Rush and Roar
“At the moment a strange rush and roar struck my ear, rapidly advancing. I could liken it to nothing but wagons rattling over frozen ground, but it more nearly resembled the noise of a railroad train. Lightning flashed, thunder pealed, and rain poured in torrents. Springing from bed, I seized my sister, a girl of ten, and with the half awakened child descended the stairs, and passing through the front entry, entered the west room.
The rush, roar, crash and din are wholly indescribable, accompanied by such dense darkness, that not a thing was discernible. Half way across the front room, we were stopped by a terrible bang and crack, at the same moment a missile was hurled through the broken window, which, striking Susan, fell in the fire-place opposite. The child shrieked fearfully; dragging her by the arm, I rushed into the kitchen screaming, “Sukey is dead, Sukey is dead!”
“I am ruined!”
The whole family had collected in the dark room. In the fright and confusion, no one could find a candlestick. Sarah mustered enough composure to bring a candle from the box in the cellar-way and light it from the hearth embers. As quickly as she had done it, the tornado had passed by the time she put the candle in the candlestick.
As I turned to place the light on the table, the moon burst from the clouds, its beams falling brightly on the white floor. Father opened the back door. With the exclamation, “I am ruined!” he sallied back into a chair and buried his face in his hands. Pale and dismayed, we peered forth. At first nothing was distinguishable but one general wreck and ruin, unroofed buildings, prostrate trees and fences, mixed with the debris of broken farming tools and household utensils.
My father was not a man to long succumb to misfortune. Proceeding to dress, he bade the boys get into their clothes.
They first thought of the cows. As they went outside to look for them, they met her Uncle Thurrell, his son and hired man — still too confused to know the extent of the damages. The roof had partly come off the barn and the corn barn tipped over. The tornado had lifted the large, heavy cider mill from its foundation and carried it several rods.
The cows, however, were safe, a frightened group in the field. “The horse had been at pasture half a mile away,” she wrote. “But as the men and boys went out she came whinnying towards them. Whether she ran or blew home we never knew, but she evidently had a long story to tell, if it could have been understood.”
Damage From the 1799 Tornado
The tornado took nearly half the roof of the house, and a third of the long barn. It blew a large shed from the end of the barn and flung it against the house. She then realized,
The concussion, as this came against the wall, was the cause of my fright as I crossed the room with my sister. From seventy to eighty trees laid on the ground.
A cart loaded with hay, left the previous evening in front of the barn, had entirely disappeared. “Not a vestige of it was ever seen excepting one wheel which lay near the back door,” wrote Sarah.
The tornado had carried two heavy ox-sleds piled in the yard a considerable distance. It took barrels and boxes from the garret with the roof and scattered about the yard. Those included a basket of feathers, set down unharmed by the front door. A brass kettle hanging by the back door was found some weeks after, battered and bent, in a swamp a quarter of a mile away. The twister had blown the potatoes from the hills. The shed that had come from the barn had shielded the wood-pile, and they found the milk-pails at the end of the house hanging upon the stakes.
The Emerys discovered the tornado had uprooted about the same number of trees on Uncle Thurrell’s place as theirs. The Doles also sustained some injury to their orchard, but their buildings stood below the track of the hurricane. On Ilsley’s hill, the barn doors and the back door of the house were unhinged, and the cow-yard fence was thrown down.
Sarah then described how Jonathan Ilsley, going home from a party, to his surprise, found the cows in the corn field. As he drove them home, he saw the injury to the premises. Wrote Sarah,
Hastening into the house he awoke the family to learn what had happened, but not a soul could tell; their slumbers had been so sound, the storm had not awakened them.
Farther along, the tornado had entirely demolished Daniel Ordway’s barn. Daylight disclosed a straight line of prostrate trees, the path of the tornado as it had passed over Bradford woods, she wrote. After leaving Ordway’s, it had done little damage, but it had touched down on a wharf in Newburyport and overturned a small building.
It didn’t end there.
Havoc on the Hill
“The next morning we learned that a small house, about four miles above us in Bradford had been destroyed, one child killed and the rest of the family injured,” she wrote.
The furniture of this house was widely scattered. A bonnet belonging to the mistress of the place being found in the lower parish of West Newbury, some distance beyond Ordway’s barn. Before sunrise Mr. Stephen Noyes from the main road coming over Crane Neck Street, on his way to the grist mill at Byfield, to his consternation descried the havoc on the top of the hill. Scarcely crediting his sight, he drew rein at Mr. Pillsbury’s. The family had just risen; neither they nor that of then- opposite neighbor, Mr. Stephen Little, had been awakened by the tornado.
“In a body these neighbors hastened to our house. At that moment, David Goodrich, a young man residing a quarter of a mile below, rode furiously up the lane. The party that Mr. Ilsley had attended, had been at his house. Dancing had continued till past twelve; in the merriment no one had heeded the shower, and when the company dispersed the sky was clear, and the moon was shining. Going to the barn in the morning, and chancing to glance up the hill, to his utter amazement and fright, he saw the devastation.
Stopping neither for coat nor saddle, he mounted his horse and galloped to our aid. The neighborhood, and ere long, the whole town was aroused; many came from Byfield, and some from Newburyport. Bands were organized, and everybody went to work with a will to repair the damage. Amongst the first and most zealous, was Mr. Edward Hill. By seven o’clock he came in bearing his tools; with a perfectly rational air he quietly inspected the buildings, then set to work with an industry which continued until the premises were again in order.
Recovering from the 1799 Tornado
The men then rigged derricks and began the process of resetting the apple trees, she wrote.
The hurricane came Wednesday night; before sunset Saturday evening every tree had been replaced, and the buildings covered. Nothing remained undone, but the repairing of fences, and a general setting to rights of small things about the house and grounds. I believe that every one of those trees lived, some presenting rather a crooked and gnarled appearance, but year by year they bore a goodly burden, and several are still standing vigorous and fruitful.
This story about the 1799 tornado was updated in 2022.