New Brunswick

Saxby Gale brought devastating winds and 'drenching sheets' of rain 150 years ago

A devastating storm slammed the province 150 years ago this week, submerging wharfs, spreading debris all over coastal areas and tearing houses from their foundations.

Storm arrived a little before a British officer predicted it would 10 months earlier

A picture of Saint John and the harbour taken before the 1877 fire. In 1869, parts of the city, especially along the waterfront, were badly hit by the Saxby Gale. (Provincial Archives of New Brunswick)

A devastating storm hit New Brunswick 150 years ago this week, submerging wharfs, spreading debris all along the Bay of Fundy and tearing houses from their foundations.

Strangest of all? People had almost a year's warning it was going to happen. 

The warning, from British Royal Navy officer Stephen Martin Saxby, was a little vague about where the storm would hit and several hours off on the timing. 

But what became known as the Saxby Gale pounded the New England and Fundy coasts with strong winds and driving rains on Oct. 4 and 5, 1869.

People died in the gale, including crew members of a vessel that sank off Point Lepreau, but the estimates of the overall death toll in the two countries vary, from 37 to 200, the latter an estimate put together by the New Brunswick Museum from its archives. 

Amateur astronomer

In December 1868, Saxby wrote to a London newspaper, predicting a strong storm would hit the next year on Oct. 5

He based his prediction on astronomy, his hobby, writing that "the moon will be at the part of her orbit which is nearest to the Earth." 

Saxby wasn't specific about a location for the storm, saying that it threatened "not only us in Great Britain, but all parts of the earth."

Gary Hughes, a curator at the New Brunswick Museum, believes British naval officer Stephen Martin Saxby just got lucky when he predicted in a letter to a London newspaper that a powerful storm would strike in 10 months. (Graham Thompson/CBC)

About 10 months later, on Oct. 4, staff at the Saint John Daily Morning News, were preparing advance pages for the next day's newspaper and slotted Saxby's old letter for one page. At first, there was little in the air that day that suggested a powerful storm was on the way.

"The day of October 4 was a good day," said Gary Hughes, the New Brunswick Museum's curator of history and technology.

"It was sunny and warm. But as the day progressed the sky became leaden." 

That night, the storm began to lash Saint John.

"When we wrote the short introductory to the prophetic letter of Mr. Saxby … yesterday morning, we had no idea that we should have to record the actual fulfilment of the prophecy," the Saint John Daily Morning News reported on Oct. 5.

The newspaper, it seems, believed Saxby's prediction was accurate, but Hughes doesn't buy this.

"He believed weather was controlled by the phases of the moon," said Hughes. "He was fortuitous in that a storm did arrive, nothing to do with the phases of the moon.

"These things happen." 

When it hit

In Saint John, the first effects of the storm could be felt around 5 p.m. on Oct. 4, when a wind blowing from the east sent dust flying in the streets, causing "great annoyance" to pedestrians, according to the Morning News.

The wind speed continued to increase and at 7 p.m., the first rain hit the city "not, as usual, in drops, but in drenching sheets."

As the winds worsened, they damaged homes and trees in the city.

By 9 p.m., the newspaper said, the water in the harbour was at spring freshet levels, and high tide was still an hour and a half away.

The Wednesday, Oct. 6, 1869, edition of the Saint John Daily Morning News asks whether Saxby's prediction was fulfilled or if it was a coincidence. The paper sided with the former. (Saint John Public Library)

Wharfs were submerged and damaged in the "lower part of the city," and at least one business was lost.

"The fish house of Mr. Hancock was destroyed and its contents to a large extent washed away," said the newspaper. 

"Every wharf received more or less injury, the extent of which, however, it was almost impossible at the time to tell."

According to the paper, the hardest hit area was Carleton on the west side of the harbour. 

"The houses near the breakwater are a complete wreck, the water making a clean sweep through them, driving the inhabitants out, without giving them time to save anything, and filling them full of debris, one house being lifted bodily and moved six feet," the newspaper said.

Floating cattle 

The gale continued to cause havoc as it moved up the Fundy coast to the Moncton and Tantramar Marsh areas. 

In her diary, Ann Eliza Rogers of Hopewell Hill gave a description of the damage done to Albert County.

"The tides very high, a regular tidal wave," wrote Rogers. 

"It came up to the upland, six feet higher than ever known before. Nearly all the barns and haystacks on the Marsh were floated to the upland or taken out to sea."

Rogers said cattle drowned in the floodwaters and dikes were wrecked. 

The Daily Morning News outlining some of the damage from the storm. (Saint John Public Library)

In Hillsborough, Hulda Bray drowned while crossing a road by a lake, Rogers wrote.

She estimated that one half of that year's hay crop was ruined by the storm, and the losses for one man, a Mr. Thompkins, totalled $20,000.

"The railroad for both plaster and coal have been torn out," said Rogers.

"The bridges have been taken out over the Shepody River, Saw Mill Creek, Sodom Creek and Calkins Creek."

By mid-October, and with much damage left to repair, residents had another weather event to deal with.

"Snowing all day," wrote Rogers.

Inland carnage

The impact of the storm was felt well inland as well.

In Fredericton, the home of a Mr. Aiken was blown down, the St. John River rose a metre, and trees were uprooted.

A letter from farmer P.J. Welch to William F. Ganong details storm damage in Chipman, about 76 kilometres east of Fredericton. (Graham Thompson/CBC)

A letter from a farmer in Chipman to William F. Ganong also described the storm.

"The wind kept up a steady pressure of gusts and a sweeping roar like the falls of Niagara," wrote P.J. Welch, a Chipman farmer.

"I saw it pick up a heavy farm wagon and hurl it 100 feet or more."

150 years later

Hughes said the only storm in more recent times that came even close to the Saxby Gale's power was Hurricane Hazel, which hit the area in 1954.

"I don't recall reading about the damage of Hurricane Hazel being anywhere near what happened with regards to the Saxby Gale," said Hughes.

Many things have changed in Saint John since the gale 150 years ago. 

Many of the locations described in the Saint John Daily Morning News either no longer exist or are farther from the water because of the expansion of the port.  

Hughes said he can see another 'Saxby Gale' hitting the Fundy coast, but luckily, we can now predict storms more accurately. (Graham Thompson/CBC)

The climate has also changed, with scientists saying that more damaging storms could hit the area, with greater frequency and impact.

Hughes said he can see another storm like Saxby hitting the city, but our ability to predict the weather has improved.

"We would know about it sooner," he said. "What preparations we could make to ameliorate it, I'm not sure. But knowledge is a very important thing."

About the Author

Jordan Gill

Reporter

Jordan Gill is a CBC reporter based out of Fredericton. He can be reached at jordan.gill@cbc.ca.

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