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New England's Saxby Gale Hurricane: Lucky Guess or Something More?

There have been two hurricane seasons in New England that produced not one, but two powerful landfalling hurricanes. 1869 is the first of these two years. In early September, a hurricane known only as the 'September Gale of 1869' made landfall. This was one of the five major hurricanes that made landfall (1635, 1815, 1938 and 1954 being the other four). In October, a category two hurricane made landfall. The Saxby Gale was the name given to this storm.

This hurricane has one of the most unique nicknames of any hurricane, and the story behind how it got its name is equally peculiar. The origin of the name can be traced back nearly a year before landfall. Stephen Martin Saxby, a British lieutenant and amateur astronomer, made a bold prediction in December 1868. He predicted that on October 5th, 1869, at seven a.m., there would be an extremely high tide, which would be exacerbated by a destructive storm. He wrote to a newspaper on Christmas Day 1868. He titled his piece "COMING WEATHER". He wrote, in part:

"I now beg leave to the state, with regard to 1869, that at seven a.m., on October 5, the moon will be at that part of her orbit which is nearest to the earth. Her attraction will, therefore, be at its maximum force. At noon of the same day the moon will be on the earth's equator, a circumstance which never occurs without mark atmospheric disturbance, and at two p.m. of the same day lines drawn from the earth center would cut the sun and moon in the same arc of right ascension (the moon's attraction and the sun's attraction will therefore be acting in the same direction); in other words, the new moon will be on the earth's equator when in perigee, and nothing more threatening can, I say, occur without miracle. (The earth, it is true, will not be in perihelion and by some 16 or 17 seconds of semi-diameter.)
With your permission, I will, during September next, for the safety of mariners, briefly reminding your readers of this warning. In the meantime there will be time for the repair of unsafe sea walls, and for the circulation of this notice by means of your far-reaching voice, throughout the wide world."

His prediction was based on the fact that the moon's orbit would be at its closest point to Earth, so the moon's attraction would be at its strongest. Furthermore, the moon would pass directly over the Earth's equator. According to Saxby, this meant that at their maximum forces, the sun's and moon's attractions would be acting in the same direction. This would result in a record-breaking tide and significant flooding. People mostly ignored his warning since very high tides were rather common.

Saxby repeated his prediction in mid-September 1869, reminding those who had forgotten about it. He wrote:

"Therefore, one is justified in expecting (to say the least) quite as great an atmospheric disturbance early in October as we have had since 6th inst.; and I am sorry to say the same may be expected with equal uncertainty and intensity on the 1st to 3rd November next. The warnings apply to all parts of the world; effects may be felt more in some places that in others. It is painful to have to forebode evil; but better thus than to merit self-reproach under circumstances which might lead to permanent regrets. Could I save one life, it would be very cheaply purchased in making better known certain laws of nature. – I have the honor to be Sir, your obedient servant."

In early October, a hurricane raced up the east coast of the United States. The storm stayed well offshore until it made landfall as a category two storm on Martha's Vineyard, Nantucket, and Cape Cod. According to the Inquirer:

“The gale of [October 4th] was much more violent here than that of Sept. 8th, but did not do material damage.”

Vessels were driven ashore in both Buzzards and Narragansett Bays. One ship capsized off the coast of Fall River. This storm dumped a lot of rain on Massachusetts, with towns in north central Massachusetts reporting up to 7.5 inches. Canton, Connecticut received over a foot of rain (although the reporter believes a mistake may have been made as he could not believe that much rain could fall). Rhode Island was the only New England state that did not report a total of at least six inches.

A cold front was moving through the region as the storm moved north northeastward. At this point, the storm was most likely transitioning to an extratropical storm. According to the reanalysis of this storm, the hurricane was most likely absorbed by the baroclinic low over the area on October 5th.

Despite the transition to extratropical, Maine seems to be likely to have bore the brunt of this storm. Downeast Maine was particularly hard hit. An observer near Mount Desert Island reported:

“...wind increased till it blew a perfect gale from 7 to 8 P.M., cutting off chimneys blowing down barns, moving buildings from their foundations, driving vessels on shore…There was never such a gale hereabouts as this since the country was settled…the tide rose beyond all precedent.”

There was no evidence of an eye or a center as the storm tracked over Maine, according to reports. This increases the likelihood that the storm became extratropical over Maine. The surge situation in the state's northeastern corner was far worse than in the rest of New England. Tides were described as 'tremendous'. The worst of the surge hit Passamaquoddy Bay, which straddles the border between Maine and Canada. According to the Eastport Sentinel:

“This town was visited by a fearful hurricane last night, vessels, wharves, stores and fish houses were smashed to atoms…Twenty-seven vessels are ashore in Rumney Bay…The towns of Lubec, Pembroke and Perry lost heavily, the loss cannot be less than $500,000.”

In Calais, Maine, George Boarman reported:

“Nothing like it ever took place here. It appeared like a whirlwind…The universalist Church was a perfect wreck; the railroad bridge over the falls in front of my house fell into the river; also the covered bridge at Baring. More than one hundred buildings in St. Stephen were ruined…At Eastport and St. Andrew and about the islands the tide was very high and damaged the wharves much.”

In total, at least seventeen people were killed in Maine. The massive flooding and storm damage spread into Canada. In the Bay of Fundy, there was a record-breaking surge and flooding, as well as reports of massive damage.

Martin Saxby's prediction came true to the letter, right down to the day. Many consider Saxby's prediction to be a lucky guess, given that exceptionally high tides occur throughout the North Atlantic. Extremely high tides are not uncommon and can be predicted using astronomy. In addition, October is hurricane season, so a storm hitting during high tides is not unusual in this case.

So, the tides were predictable, and the storm that hit Maine and Canada was purely coincidental. Of course, one could argue that a storm of this magnitude striking this area on this specific day was more than a coincidence. Whether Martin Saxby's prediction was a coincidence or something more, there's no denying that he was correct.



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