The History of Long and Brier Islands

Predicted Saxby’s Gale 1869

by | Oct 19, 2021 | Brier Island, Long Island, shipwrecks | 0 comments

Saxbys Gale, October 1869

In 1863 an Amateur Astronomer named Steven Martin Saxby wrote a book called “Saxby’s Weather System”.

The Saxby gale of 1869 brought death and destruction to Maine, New Brunswick and western Nova Scotia in particular. Still, after 152 years, the storm might have slipped out of our memories were it not for the fact that it had been predicted in advance. Therefore, stories are still told of the event, both in remembrance of a tragedy and as a matter of historical lore.

They started putting people’s names to hurricanes in 1953, women’s were first used, then in 1978 both men and women’s names are used.

Three warnings that Storm was going to hit the Eastern Seaboard almost a year in advance

  In December of 1868, Stephen Martin Saxby, a navigator in the British Navy and amateur astronomer, first wrote to a London newspaper warning of a storm that he predicted would hit the eastern seaboard of North America on October 4th or 5th, 1869.

In his prediction, Saxby predicted that the position of the sun and the moon, relative to the earth, on those dates would cause extremely high winds and huge tides that would cause severe flooding in the affected areas. Very little attention was paid to Saxby’s warnings and the people living along the Fundy Coast, who would suffer the most when Saxby’s prediction came true and a storm did indeed strike on that date, would not become aware of Saxby’s prediction until after the storm.

Lieut. Saxby was still worried in September of 1869 and wrote a second letter warning of ‘atmospheric disturbances’ to come. This warning applied “to all parts of the world; effects may be felt more in some places that in others.” By October 1st, the Halifax monthly The Evening Express was relaying the warning to the public here: “Apart from the theory of the moon’s attraction, as applied to meteorology, – which is disbelief by many – the experience of any careful observer teaches him to look for a storm at next new moon; and the state of the atmosphere, and consequent weather lately, appears to be leading directly not only to this blow next week, but to a succession of gales during next month. Telegrams from points to the South West of us might give notice of the approach of this storm, and I trust this warning will not be unheeded.”

Most people were not concerned. After all, high tides and storms were common. The consequences had been borne before, and could be again. From our perspective today, these relative positions of the earth, the moon and the sun would indeed result in high tides but would have no affect whatever on the weather.

To the Editors of the Express

Halifax, 30th September 1869

Gentlemen:

My attention has been drawn to a letter of Capt. Saxby, R.N., to the Standard of London in which a remarkable atmospheric disturbance is predicted for the coming 5th of October, as the result of the relative positions of the Earth, the Sun, and the Moon, on that day.  It may be remembered that a similar prediction of weather likely to occur about the same period , based on similar reasoning, was given to the world some months ago, by an observer in one of the West Indian Islands. Other calculations from district sources point to like conclusions. I have been asked my opinion with regard to these forecasts; and would thus state it publicly, in the hope of doing some good.

I believe that a heavy gale will be encountered here on Tuesday next, the 5th Oct., beginning perhaps on Monday night, possibly deferred as late this Tuesday night; but between those two periods it seems inevitable. At its greatest force the direction of the wind should be South West; having commenced at or near South.  Should Monday, the 4th, be a warm day for the season, an additional guarantee of the coming storm will be given. Roughly speaking, the warmer it may be on the 4th, the more violent will be the succeeding storm. Apart from the theory of the moon’s attraction, as applied to meteorology, — which is disbelief by many — the experience of any careful observer teaches him to look for a storm at next new moon; and the state of the atmosphere, and consequent weather lately, appears to be leading directly not only to this blow next week, but to a succession of gales during next month.  Telegrams from points to the South West of us might give notice of the approach of this storm, and I trust this warning will not be unheeded.

The Evening Express
Halifax, Nova Scotia
Friday, October 1, 1869

October 4th 1869

On the date predicted, thunderstorms carrying moisture were moving West to East across the North American Continent. At the same time, a tropical storm from the Caribbean, was moving up along the Northeastern Seaboard heading towards New Brunswick.

Unfortunately, even as the Halifax paper was being distributed, a hurricane was making its way up the eastern seaboard of the United States toward the Bay of Fundy. It remained out to sea until contacting Cape Cod, then made landfall around the Maine/New Brunswick border in the Grand Manan/Saint Andrews area.

 Wind gusts at sea during the storm reached 200 kilometers per hour. Many of the vessels out at sea were lost, along with their crews. 

 The storm caused severe flooding along the Fundy Coast as the normally high tides at that time of year and the high winds caused by the storm combined to create a surge of water. Over the next two days as the storm traveled up the funnel shaped Bay of Fundy the low lying areas of Albert County and surrounding counties continued to be flooded. The storm brought with it the highest tides ever recorded along the eastern seaboard, along with high winds and heavy rain. Some areas received over 300mm of rain in one day.

The Saint Andrews area was the first place in New Brunswick to feel the destructive force of the storm, where over a hundred vessels were beached. About eighty buildings were destroyed on Campobello and the roof of the armory in Saint George was torn off and moved a hundred yards out of place. Deer Island, and Eastport and Calais in Maine were also damaged. A man was picked up by the wind in Saint Stephen and redeposited on the other side of the street. More than a hundred buildings were lost at Saint Stephen. Other vessels in other ports were also destroyed, together with the docks and piers against which they were thrown. It was later reported from Eastport that vessels, wharves, stores and fish houses were smashed to atoms. Twenty-seven vessels are ashore in Rumney Bay. The schooner Rio was lost in St. Andrews Bay with all on board,17 in number. Grand Manan is swept with all its weirs and smoke houses. The towns of Lubec, Pembroke, and Perry lost heavily.

All around the Bay of Fundy, major damage to shipping was reported. Of the nineteen vessels at anchor at Westport harbour when the gale commenced, eleven were driven ashore and one foundered at anchor.

Shipping caught at sea in the Bay sustained damages too. A schooner belonging to Jonesport, Maine, was found after the gale, drifting on beam ends, all hands lost. Another caught out in the Bay in the gale, was badly strained, disabled and leaky; she was located by a tug and taken to Saint John for repairs. Meanwhile, the brig M. T. Ellsworth was dismasted in the Bay and later towed in, and the brig Raven was capsized off the mouth of the Bay of Fundy, losing the mate overboard.

The new, 500-ton barque Genii had arrived at New River on Saturday morning, October 2, to load deals for Liverpool. When the Saxby Gale struck on Monday, some of the crew were ashore, but seven stevedores from Mascarene (near St. George) were on board to load deals. That night, in the fury of the gale, the barque broke from her anchors, struck New River Ledge broadside and rolled over, hurling all on board to their death. The new barque ended up on shore, smashed up and upside down. Lost were Captain Bayley (of Westport, Brier Island), the officers and the seven stevedores from Mascarene. The Genii had just been launched at St. Andrews only three weeks earlier.
In St. Andrews, a dozen schooners in port at the time sustained damages in the gale. The sloop Matilda was picked up by the storm surge and set on top of the wharf, high and dry.

Then, about noon, at the entrance to Yarmough (N.S.) harbour, whitecaps began to appear, while a light  breeze from the southwest gathered strength. As the afternoon advanced, the breeze increased steadily, while the heat became oppressive. Out by Yarmouth lighthouse, or at The Churn, on the way to Cape Forchu, you could hear the waves beginning  to boom. Toward the south, the sky loomed dull and leaden, growing darker as the afternoon wore on, with the rising wind  riding the sky on a witches’-broom of scudding storm clouds. By five o’clock the wind reached hurricane force. By six, trees were falling, as if felled by an axe. By nine o’clock the raging, terrifying Saxby Gale was at its height

It was a night of “inky blackness”, when “a large number of trees were uprooted and a number of barns unroofed throughout the County”, as reported by the Yarmouth Herald”. Water Street in Yarmouth was flooded over for several hours, while the waves beat and tore the waterfront and everything in its path. “Gardner’s Mill was overturned and demolished. A considerable amount of hay was carried of the marshes at Argyle, the dyke gave way at Tusket Wedge, and out of 130 stacks of hay only about 15 were saved. At Pubnico several vessels were driven ashore, and 100 stacks of hay went adrift”.

October 4, 1869 was a normal morning in Saint John. The fog cleared around midday and conditions were pleasant. The wind began to pick up in the afternoon and strengthened to gale force. The rain began around 6:00 pm and by 9:00 the winds had strengthened to a Category 2 hurricane force. At one point, the waves broke against the top of the Sand Point lighthouse, which was more than 30 feet high. Warehouses, bridges and fishing weirs were destroyed and many vessels were torn from their moorings.

It was at its heaviest in the western Bay of Fundy, striking Charlotte County, New Brunswick, in the evening of October 4, 1869. Winds of over 100 miles per hour damaged, capsized or beached a total of 160 vessels in the Quoddy Bay. Seven schooners were driven ashore at Flagg’s Cove, Grand Manan, during the Saxby gale. A schooner was reported foundered at Flagg’s Cove; ten bodies washed ashore. Two schooners went ashore at Pettes Cove, where nine bodies washed ashore. Parts of the wrecks of two small vessels were driven ashore between Grand Harbour and Seal Cove, Grand Manan; the crews supposed lost.

The storm also produced waves which, combined with the storm surge, breached dykes protecting low-lying farmland in the Minas Basin and the Tantramar Marshes, sending ocean waters surging far inland to inundate farms and communities. Sailing ships in various harbors were tossed about and/or broken up against wharves and breakwaters which were also destroyed. Farmers trying to rescue livestock from fields along shorelines drowned after dykes were breached; over 100 people were killed in the Maritimes alone. The gale destroyed miles of the newly completed Windsor and Annapolis Railway along the Minas Basin near Horton and Wolfville, Nova Scotia.

In the town of Annapolis, water was knee-deep on Lower St .George Street. At Grand Pre, it breached the Great Horton Dyke, flooding 3,000 acres, and drowning herds of cattle. Windsor’s Water Street  was like a canal in Venice, and the Windsor Baptist Church had seven feet of water in the vestry.

It was reported that at some places in Nova Scotia “the tides rolled in great walls of thundering water, reaching record heights at over 100 feet and more … Property losses on land and sea ran into hundreds of millions of dollars”.

At Moncton, at the foot of South King Street, the tide rose nine feet over the Harris wharf  up onto the warehouses, destroying supplies of salt, flour and other perishables.  If you’re driving through Moncton you can see a marker at Boreview Park, along with a plaque indicating the height of the tide, just before midnight, on that fateful 4th and 5th of October,1869.

The greatest destruction of all  took place on the Tantramar Marshes  (border between N.B. &  N.S.). Cattle and sheep were still out to pasture, and as the wind rose to gale force, they huddled in the lee of the many hay stacks and hay barns that dotted the marshes, well-protected, it seemed  by the outer dykes  25 feet high.

Some owners, however, grew worried and decided to go out and inspect their hay barns only to discover that the dykes were crumbling.  A great tidal wave inundated the Tantramer Marshes sweeping before it hay barns and hay stacks and struggling animals. Some of the men lost their lives.

We, today, can have no idea  how frightening this gale must have seemed,  to people cut off and alone,  with no means of communicating with their neighbours – no telephone,  no radio,  no electric light to snap on.  Many homes without even a kerosene lamp  and hard enough to keep a candle burning in the drafty rooms.

Highest Tides in the World

Burntcoat Head at the head of the Bay of Fundy has a public wharf that has been the location of a tide gauge since the 19th century. The tide gauge at Burntcoat Head was operated by the Canadian Hydrographic Service and has recorded the highest tidal range in the world. Currently, the tidal gauge is no longer in operation. Tides at Burntcoat Head average 55.8 ft (17.0 m), with the highest being set during the 1869 Saxby Gale at 70.9 ft (21.6 m)

The Guinness Book of World Records (1975) declared that Burntcoat had the highest tides in the world.

The Saxby Gale passed into the Gulf of Saint Lawrence on October 5th, and nobody knows how many people were left dead. Estimates range to over one hundred.

The “Saxby Gale” of October 4-5, 1869 is a definitive storm in the Canadian Maritimes.  The storm was a hurricane that transformed into a deep extratropical depression that caused dozens of fatalities, set rainfall records in New England that still stand today, and was responsible for the world’s largest known “tidal” excursion at the head of the Bay of Fundy… Maximum water levels in the Bay of Fundy are achieved when large storm surges are coincident with perigean spring tides; but these circumstances are rare.  The Saxby Tide was such an event. Saxby’s prediction, while dismissed at the time as pure coincidence, helped pave the way for modern forecasting.

1919 Fifty-Years after the Saxby Gale

Digby Courier: Oct. 10th 1919

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