New Brunswick History and Other Stuff

The Saxby Gale of 1869

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 The Saxby Gale 

Summers and summers have come, and gone with the flight of the swallow;

Sunshine and thunder have been, storm, and winter, and frost;

Many and many a sorrow has all but died from remembrance,

Many a dream of joy fall’n in the shadow of pain.

 From Tantramar Revisited by Charles G.D. Roberts

 The Saxby gale of 1869 brought death and destruction to Maine, New Brunswick and western Nova Scotia in particular. Still, after 143 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.

 Stephen Saxby was a British naval lieutenant and an amateur astronomer who wrote a letter to a British newspaper in December of 1868 warning of an upcoming event of worldwide consequence. He had calculated that in October of 1869 the orbit of the moon would pass between the earth and the sun, creating high tides worldwide. At the same time, the moon would be at its nearest approach to the earth; while the earth would be relatively close to the sun. For these reasons, tides would be extraordinarily high and, he thought, storms would be more likely than normal to occur. This was a potentially deadly combination that threatened “not only us in Great Britain, but all parts of the earth”. He recommended that emergency measures be taken, as best they could, to prepare for the event by repairing sea walls and dikes for example.

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.

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. 

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. 

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.” 

The 500 ton barque, The Genii, had been built in Saint Andrews and was on its first mission when it was moved to New River on October 2 to take on a load of timber deals for Liverpool. It sought safety at New River as the winds built up, but was ordered by telegraph to abandon that position and to head for New Harbour for added protection. The ship was driven against the rocks and sank with the loss of eleven men. 

The eye of the storm remained to the west of the Bay of Fundy, and the counterclockwise rotation created a storm surge estimated at six feet. That was on top of already extremely high tides, and low lying areas were inundated. For this reason, the Saxby gale became known to some people as the Saxby Tide. All-time records were set for water levels at Burntcoat Head in Nova Scotia and probably at other locations. At Amherst, “the tide must have been eight feet above the ordinary high-water level and four feet above the dykes.” On the Tantramar Marshes, cattle and sheep were at first hunkered down behind barns and haystacks but, when someone went to check on them, they found them roiled in a tsunami-like torrent of barns, hay, other debris. The dikes had been breached. Some people at the Tantramar Marshes lost their lives that night. 

Water was knee deep on some streets in Annapolis, 3,000 acres were flooded at Grand Pre, Windsor was flooded and seemingly countless cattle were drowned. 

Moncton was damaged also. The water rose nine feet over one wharf and destroyed the contents of a warehouse, and the tidal bore rose to a height of ten feet. It had taken three years to build the first Gunningsville Bridge, completed in 1867 over the Petitcodiac River, but it took only one night to destroy it. One family tried to escape the flooding on a raft, but they were driven across the river – six children missing. 

It was a fearsome night. “The extreme darkness, the constant roar and tumult of wind, the lashing rain, the groaning of great trees, the hail of debris, shingles, branches, objects large and small, falling everywhere, roofs carried aloft, whole buildings collapsing, all gave a paralyzing sense of insecurity and calamity.” Some neighbours were trying to help an old man out of his home and to a safer location when a telegraph pole smashed through the front door. 

My ancestral stomping grounds are in the central Saint John RiverValley and on the Oromocto River. None of these areas were as badly hit as the low-lying coastal regions. However, many trees between Saint John and Fredericton were blown over. Years later it was still possible to find remnants of this destruction – large trees all blown over in the same direction. There was a three foot storm surge even in Fredericton. It is said in one local history that there was no major damage in Fredericton Jct. (Hartt’s Mills), but it was a different story at other locations and closer to the Saint John River. Fredericton was a mess of branches and there was at least some destruction everywhere. A building on Northumberland Street was demolished as were many barns and woodsheds. Trees were down everywhere along the roads to Oromocto and Hartt’s Mills, where it seemed that every third house had been damaged. It was reported that one house lost its roof and that the chimney had collapsed into a children’s bedroom. 

Nettie Bunker was my grandmother and was just a baby in 1869. That family lived in Tracyville where there must have been a great wind. Windows were blown out, complete with their frames, in nearby Three Tree Creek. The Catholic Church in Cork was destroyed, as was the Baptist Church at Patterson Settlement. 

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. Having read these stories, it seems to me that the Saxby Gale was more than a curious story; too many people were consigned to that green profound Where the change of the soft tide makes no sound, / Far from the keels of the outward bound (from The Stranded Ship, by Charles G.D. Roberts).


Written by johnwood1946

October 13, 2012 at 6:59 PM

Posted in Uncategorized

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