Nova Scotia

150 years since 'perfect storm' Saxby Gale blindsided Maritimers

CBC Meteorologist Ryan Snoddon has a look back at the destructive Saxby Gale, which hit the Maritimes on Oct. 4 and 5, 1869.

A closer look at the powerful storm that hit the Maritimes on Oct. 4 and 5, 1869

Summary of impacts from the Saxby Gale in 1869. (Ryan Snoddon-CBC)

There were no satellites 150 years ago, no radar and no way of knowing that one of the most destructive storms of all time was about to hit the Maritimes.

In late September and early October 1869 a hurricane tracked out of the Caribbean and then turned toward the Maritimes. The original storm was weakening as it moved northward, however as it merged with an incoming low from the Great Lakes it transitioned to post-tropical and strengthened.

The Saxby Gale, as it's known now, struck the region as a powerful system on Oct. 4 and 5, 1869.

Maritime residents should have known it was coming.

It was nearly a year earlier that Stephen Martin Saxby, a navigator in the British Navy and amateur astronomer, had written to a London newspaper warning of a storm he predicted would hit the eastern seaboard of North America on Oct. 4 or 5, 1869.

Saxby predicted that the position of the sun and the moon on those dates would cause extremely high winds and huge tides that would lead to severe flooding in the affected areas. Little attention was paid to his warnings.

The Saxby Gale strengthened when a hurricane merged with a low moving into the region from the Great Lakes. (Jim Abraham/Environment Canada )

While his prediction became a reality, it was due largely to chance rather than solid scientific observation.

The region was indeed set to see a period of perigean high tides (which occur three or four times a year, in both spring and fall), however a storm moving in at the same time was just unfortunate timing.

The track and timing of the Saxby Gale at fall high tide brought incredible and destructive storm surge to the Bay of Fundy region. While most of the coastal Fundy region was hit with flooding, low lying marshlands were hit hardest as many dykes failed.

Below are just a few reports as told by historian Norman Creighton on his CBC radio program in 1979.

In the town of Annapolis, N.S., water was knee-deep on George Street. At Grand Pré, N.S., the water breached the Great Horton Dyke, flooding 1,200 hectares and drowning herds of cattle.

Windsor, N.S.'s Water Street was like a canal in Venice and the Windsor Baptist Church had two metres in the vestry.

Spring tide — popularly known as a 'King Tide' — refers to the 'springing forth' of the tide during new and full moon. (Oceanservice.noaa.gov)

In Moncton, N.B., 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 Bore View Park, along with a plaque indicating the height of the tide just before midnight on that fateful 4th and 5th of October.

A painting depicting the destruction of Gunningsville Bridge in Riverview, N.B., caused by the Saxby Gale. (Albert County Museum)

The greatest destruction of all took place on the Tantramar Marshes. Cattle and sheep were still out to pasture, but well-protected it seemed by the outer dykes 7½ metres 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 marshes. Many animals were killed and some of the men lost their lives.

The probable Saxby Gale flood limit. (Jim Abraham/Environment Canada)

One-hundred-and-fifty years later, this storm is still a good reminder of the vulnerability of our region to storm surge and flooding.

Since then, sea levels have been rising steadily and if this same storm hit today, the impacts would be even more severe.

A perfect storm scenario like the Saxby Gale should be top of mind as we continue to prepare for continuing sea-level rise in the coming years and decades.

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About the Author

Ryan Snoddon

Weather

Ryan Snoddon is CBC's meteorologist in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.

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