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Saxby's Gale: The Worst Nor'easter Ever?

Saxby's Gale: The Worst Nor'easter Ever?

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Published by Charles Francis
Nor'easters bring more havoc to the Gulf of Maine on a regular basis than any other storm type. What was the worst nor'easter of modern times: the infamous Saxby's Gale, "the Perfect Storm" or another? Perhaps it is a matter of viewpoint.
Nor'easters bring more havoc to the Gulf of Maine on a regular basis than any other storm type. What was the worst nor'easter of modern times: the infamous Saxby's Gale, "the Perfect Storm" or another? Perhaps it is a matter of viewpoint.

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Published by: Charles Francis on Dec 01, 2008
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Saxby’s Gale: The Worst Nor’easter Ever?ByCharles FrancisLate in the fall of 1868, Lieutenant S. M. Saxby of the Royal Navy issued a pressrelease in London. In it, Saxby predicted a storm of “unusual magnitude wouldvisit the earth” at 7:00 a.m. October 5, 1869.Some eleven months later, as the fateful day approached, people up and down theeast coast of North America fearfully awaited what would be the nineteenthcentury’s “Perfect Storm.” And unfortunately, they would not be disappointed.Saxby’s Gale, as the storm came to be called, materialized off Cape Cod on October4. From Cape Cod, it swept north and east to make landfall on the shores ofPassamaquoddy Bay. Then it continued its path of destruction up the Bay of Fundyto finally dissipate in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.Saxby’s Gale is usually thought of a phenomenon that just affected the regionimmediately surrounding the Bay of Fundy. In fact it also affected almost theentire State of Maine. There virtually every bridge in the state was damaged bythe torrential rains that raised streams and rivers. On the Maine side of the St.Croix River, which empties into Passamaquoddy Bay, some 100 homes were flattened.There was similar damage on the New Brunswick side of the St. Croix.When Saxby’s Gale hit the Fundy region, it destroyed an untold number of vesselsincluding the Genii, whose crew of eleven perished within sight of St. Andrews,New Brunswick. The St. John River rose some three feet as far up as Fredericton.Roads and railroads in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick were blocked by fallen trees,a situation it took days to rectify. Not far from New Brunswick’s MemramcookRiver, a schooner was lifted over the dykes and dumped in Taylor Village. A canalhad to be dug to get it back to open water after the storm passed. In NovaScotia’s Horton Township on the Minas Basin, storm surge crested Horton Dyke.We now know that Lieutenant Saxby’s prediction was a fluke. He based his theoriesof meteorological prediction on misunderstandings of the effect of the phases ofthe moon and tides on climate conditions. There was to be a full moon directlyover the Equator as well as a perigean or extremely high tide on October 5.Coincidences such as these are now known not to cause storms.Saxby’s Gale has achieved mythical status. Part of the reason for this is thatsome nineteenth century sources say wind speeds exceeded 110 miles per hour. Othersources place wind speeds at around forty-five miles an hour. This was at a timewhen instruments for measuring wind velocity were extremely crude. The 110 plusmile per hour figure would place Saxby’s Gale in the Category II or III hurricanerange. Possibly because the gale’s winds have been described as hurricane force,Saxby’s Gale has been called a hurricane. It was a nor’easter. And, as such, ithas been called the worst nor’easter to ever hit the Bay of Fundy region.There are, however, a fair number of other contenders for the title of worstnor’easter ever. They include the Groundhog Day Gale of 1976, the gale thatserved to give the book The Perfect Storm its name and the Nor’easter of 1926, toname just a few. All of these nor’easters left their mark on the Bay of Fundy andfurther afield.Nor’easters generally occur between October and April. Their major components aremoisture, cold air and hurricane-force wind. The name relates to the fact that
 
the wind comes in from the northeast. Nor’easters are lows that start in theCaribbean and follow the Gulf Stream northward picking up moisture. When the lowmeets an Arctic high in the waters off the Maritimes and New England there ischaos, chaos which results in storms like Saxby’s Gale.The Nor’easter of 1888 is generally identified as the worst of the nineteenthcentury to have hit the United States. It centered over Block Island, RhodeIsland, where it stalled for three days in March 1888. In some areas of upstateNew York and in Connecticut, it dumped between forty and fifty inches of snow. 200people were killed in New York City as a result of the storm and 400 all together.In addition, 200 boats were either grounded or destroyed. The nor’easter of March1993 closed down much of the east coast of the United States. Some meteorologistsdescribed it as possessing the power of a hydrogen bomb.The Bay of Fundy is considered one of the most susceptible areas in the world forstorm damage. Part of the reason for this is its high tides. Another part of thereason has to do with the effects of storm surges as they relate to Fundy’sparticular geography.The Bay of Fundy is, in effect, a great rift valley. The valley begins in the areaof the Grand Banks. This is where the famous Fundy tides start. Even here and eventhough ships at sea don’t notice it, the Fundy tide is some three feet higher thanelsewhere on the continental shelf. The worst possible scenario for a Bay of Fundystorm is to have a storm surge occur at the same time as an incoming high tide.A storm surge is an elevated dome of water. It has a diameter of anywhere fromfifty to a hundred miles. The dome is created by a combination of winds and lowbarometric pressure. The surge moves ahead of the center of the storm. If a stormsurge coincides with a rising tide, as it did when Saxby’s Gale hit PassamaquoddyBay, sea levels increase substantially. This explains, in part, why the HortonDykes further up Fundy in the Minas Basin were breached.When the Nor’easter of December 1926 reached the Bay of Fundy, it did so to theaccompaniment of a high tide. Winds ranged from gale force to full hurricaneforce. This meant steady winds of forty to seventy miles an hour and gusts toeighty and more. The combination of tide and storm surge raised water levels inexcess of twelve feet as it pushed into Passamaquoddy Bay.1920’s weather forecasting was in no way as sophisticated as it is today. Inaddition, at that time, few vessels were equipped with radios. In short the Fundyregion and ships in the Bay of Fundy were unprepared for a storm the magnitude ofthe Nor’easter of 1926.The nor’easter of 1926 began as rain. Skies darkened and sheets of precipitationoften obscured Grand Manan off the mouth of Passamaquoddy Bay from the mainland.As the storm increased the wind rose to a steady seventy miles an hour. Theincrease in wind brought with it blizzard conditions.The worst damage the Nor’easter of 1926 did to vessels was that done to smallcraft in Passamaquoddy Bay which were torn from moorings and dashed on land. Bothshores of the bay as well as the bay’s islands were littered with debris andequipment from vessels their owners had felt secure against anything nature mightproduce.At one point during a break in the storm a ship was observed from Quoddy HeadLight in Lubec Maine being driven in the direction of Grand Manan. Much later,when the storm was over, she was identified as the A. F. Davidson. The Davidson, afour-master, was the largest ship driven ashore during the storm. She ended up on

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