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Friday, 16 November 2012

The Great September Gale

By Marc Leavitt of Marc Leavitt's Blog

It’s almost 4:30 on this rainy Tuesday afternoon in New York on September 3, 1821.

Nearing the end of the business day, Canal Street is crowded with raincoat-clad men and women scurrying about on their errands under the steady downpour that started yesterday and shows no sign of abating.

Despite the rain, lower Manhattan is humming with activity. Heavy wagons, drawn by sweating horses are delivering goods to the thriving stores on the street. Sales clerks are struggling with boxes and barrels filled with goods ranging from clothing to salted herring while other clerks are serving a steady stream of customers.

Shoppers rush in and out of the stores, stepping over puddles accumulating on the cobblestone street, hurrying to make their purchases, get home and out of the rain.

Suddenly it becomes still. The breeze dies. The rain slows. The sky darkens. Weary horses at the curb-side nicker and snort as their drivers try to calm them. Pedestrians look curiously up at the murky sky.

A furious wind roars up from the south, knocking down some pedestrians, overturning several heavy wagons. Horses begin screaming as glass from storefront windows shatters, cascading into the street, jagged shards littering the road.

Chimneys lean crazily, several toppling, as slates from roofs crash down into the crowd. A three-story building begins to tilt, sliding off its foundation.

The East and Hudson rivers overflow and merge, drowning Canal Street under more than two feet of water. People panic, running north, shoving and jostling each other in their rush to escape.

On both sides of the island, the storm sweeps away wharves. Sailing ships, ferries and steamboats are ripped from their moorings, smashing together, some sinking beneath the rising tide - the merciless wind driving them hither and thither in the swift-moving current.

At the Battery, a 13-foot storm surge rises from the harbor engulfing the tip of the island while the wind continues to knock down everything in its path.

The storm rages for four hours.

And then, at 8:30PM, it passes out of the city to the northeast, leaving behind a scene of destruction and death.

* * *

The “Great September Gale” of 1821 barreled down on the northeast without warning, wreaking havoc on the region. Twenty-two people died and the gale cost an estimated $200,000 (1821 dollars) in damages. Many residents were left homeless; businesses, parts of the waterfront and ships were destroyed. The cleanup and work of rebuilding took months.

In Jersey City, a U.S. Navy ship foundered; seven sailors drowned. New Jersey, Long Island and Connecticut all suffered severe damage.

* * *

It’s easy to dismiss the “Great September Gale” in light of what Hurricane Sandy accomplished 191 years later in the tri-state area where 20 million people suffered its effects. But everything is relative; perception is reality, and to the folks back then, the storm was every bit as devastating as Sandy was to us.

To get a feel for what it was like in 1821, let’s take a ride in our time machine and see what the good citizens are doing, talking about and what happened not so long ago and what they may expect in some of the years ahead.

On September 3, the day of the storm, President James Madison sits in Washington completing the first year of his second term in office. Washingtonians still remember vividly how the British burned down the White House during the War of 1812.

John Adams and Thomas Jefferson will both die five years from now, on July 4, 1826, exactly 50 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

New York, with a population of 124,000, is the largest city in the United States. Missouri was just admitted as the 24th state of the Union. Emperor Napoleon died recently in exile, far away in the South Atlantic, on the island of St. Helena. George IV is king of England – Victoria won’t be queen for another 17 years, until 1838, the same year when inventor Samuel Morse will demonstrate the new telegraph. Photography is just around the corner, in the 1840’s.

Today, near the end of 1821, Americans own four million slaves, most in the south. The issue of slavery, built into the Constitution which recognizes a slave as “three-fifths” of a human being for purposes of the decennial census and already tearing the country apart, will erupt violently 40 years hence, in 1861. Nearly half a million men and boys will die in that conflict which historians will later ineptly name, the “Civil” War.

People go about on foot, horse or horse and wagon. The age of the railroad is about to begin nine years from now, in 1830. It takes at least three weeks by fast clipper ship to sail to England and because of currents and prevailing winds from the west, about five weeks to return.

The first passenger steamers will begin service nine years from now, in 1840, but most people don’t travel. They live and die pretty much where they started out, except for the hardy souls setting out to conquer the West.

* * *

The “Great September Gale” of 1821 was the last time such a storm hit the New York tri-state area until Hurricane Sandy roared up the East Coast. Meteorologists tell us storms of this magnitude are very rare in the area but they do happen.

In 1821, satellites weren’t tracking the “Great September Gale.”

[INVITATION: All elders, 50 and older, are welcome to submit stories for this blog. They can be fiction, non-fiction, poetry, memoir, etc. Please read instructions for submitting.]

Posted by Ronni Bennett at 05:30 AM | Permalink | Email this post


Marc, for those of us who enjoy history this is s delightful piece. Your description of the gale in the present tense is very engaging. I would like to see more of your historical narratives. Thank you.

That was very interesting. I really do not know how people nearly 200 years ago functioned. Surely their lives were much harder, and shorter too. Do you think in 200 more years a storm will have much impact? Perhaps they can just strap on their jet packs and fly off til it is over. Nice job.

A marvelous comparison of then and now, something I never contemplated before. Thanks so much for bringing all the facts to us readers. As to future storms, who knows, maybe we'll all climb into space ships and ride it out in the sky.

Thank you for this history lesson, most informative. More, please.

Thanks Marc, wonderfully wrought piece.

Well told! I always think of those large panes of glass falling down on the people below....Shudder. Nowadays the glass is supposed to crumble away to nighting. Back then, glass was a a horrible thing in a storm.

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