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The Great Storm of 1839


Tuesday, December 15, 1903

Storm Anniversary
Many Wrecks in Gloucester Harbor Dec. 15, 1839
20 Men and a Woman Drowned
Graphic Description from Contemporaneous Pamphlet

It is a long while to hold in memory the weather of a given day, yet it is form vivid recollection that I speak of Saturday, Dec. 14, 1839, as one of rare beauty on the New England coast. Like the hectic flush of a lily-white cheek, it told of coming danger. But nature was in such fascinating mood that mariners, lulled into security, sailed from many ports. They had not our modern forecasts of the journey of a storm. That of today's anniversary was a swift traveler. It sent many coastwise vessels scudding into Gloucester harbor for safety Saturday night and Sunday morning. Its course was eastward, gradually exhausting itself. When so fierce here, as Sunday night closed in on awful scenes of wreck and perishing lives, there was no more than a moderate gale in Penobscot Bay, and its highest there, hours later, was much below the severity of it here. The real storm centre was Massachusetts Bay.

So great a calamity as this gale excited wide interest. The public had not become inured to tragedies by sea and land as are we who have come to accept them as a feature of current news.. All the papers told the sad story of "dreadful disasters at Gloucester," though rather tamely, tried by the huge type and screeching headlines of these days. Yet reading them now, one cannot but regret the lack of something of the modern reporter's skill in details. A pamphlet of 24 pages, with lengthy and imposing title, on this and two less disastrous gales of a week and fortnight after, was published at Boston. Edition after edition was printed to meet the demand. My Copy is of the sixth edition.

Its statement that "it was not until 11 p.m. that the unprecedented and devastating hurricane broke upon the ill-fated shipping" is far from fact. It could not apply to Cape Ann, surely, which is said to have had the brunt of the storm. An eye witness told me of hurrying from a shortened Sunday afternoon service to the scene of disaster, that alternation of beach and rock and cliff between the Cut and Cove. The thrilling spectacle drew many there, hard as it was to face the furious wind and stinging sleet that swept across the harbor. Till after nightfall heroic men traversed the tempest-beaten shore, eager to rescue the shipwrecked strangers. They had none of the life-saving appliances of today. But equipped with warm hearts, courageous souls, fertile brains, and strong arms, they saved many who else must have perished. How great the contrast between the closing down of night on that dismal day, and the sunny afternoon of last July 4th when hundreds in holiday attire gathered about that beach and clustered on those rocks to witness the feats of our trained life-savers.

Omitting its vessel lists, the pamphlet account of the first gale is as follows:

Disasters at Gloucester

"The calamities we have recorded were nothing in comparison to those which happened at Gloucester. The harbor was supposed to be very secure, and at the commencement of the storm a great many vessels (1) , especially coasters, put in there for shelter. Unfortunately, instead of anchoring in the inner harbor, as far at least as Five Pound Island, or in the South East harbor, in both which places the holding ground is good and the anchorage well sheltered, they generally anchored just north of Ten Pound Island and Ten Pound Ledge, where they were right in the teeth of the current of wind rushing in a gale from S. E. or N. N. E., between Rocky Neck and the Fort; in the range of the under-tow rolling over Dog Bar; and on very poor holding ground. Of course the most of them dragged ashore. Such a scene of terrific and horrible ruin has not been witnessed in that harbor within the memory of the oldest resident, a man 104 years of age, who has always lived there.

More than fifty (2) vessels were either driven ashore dismasted, or carried to sea, and the loss of lives could not have fallen short of fifty (3). From one end of the beach to the other, nothing could be seen but pieces of broken wrecks; planks and spars shattered into a thousand splinters; ropes and sails parted and rent; flour, fish, lumber, and a hundred other kinds (4) of lading and furniture, soaked and broken; with here and there a mangled and naked body of some poor mariner; and in one instance that of a woman (5) lashed to the windlass-bits of a Coastline schooner, lay along the beach, while off thirty yards, with the surf breaking over them every moment and freezing in the air, lay nearly a score of lost vessels; all together forming a picture which it is in vain to attempt to copy in words.

In the Midst (6) of this scene of terror, the hardy fishermen of Cape Ann fully proved that a sailor's jacket seldom covers a craven heart. They manned two boats, the Custom House boat and the Van Buren, and fearlessly risked their lives for the safety of their fellow creatures. Vessel after vessel was visited by them; they made their way over the tops of mountain-waves, and through the gaping chasms of the hungry waters; and from the very teeth of greedy death plucked many a poor, despairing, and exhausted fellow, bringing him safe to shore. Excellent, generous men! We would we could record all their names, that posterity might approve and emulate their deeds of daring. The boats (7) were manned as follows:

The Van Buren by Andrew Parker, Jr., John Parker and others
the Custom House boat by Messrs. Addison P. Winter, William Carter, Charles P. Wood, Gideon Lane and D. D. Heartly.

A public meeting (8) was called, at which it was resolved to choose a committee of relief to attend to the wants of all the sufferers and to the interment of the bodies. The meeting voted to have the bodies taken to some church and funeral (9) services performed, under the direction of the following committee, who were the committee of relief, viz.:

George D. Hale
G. H. Rogers
Alphonso Mason
Eppes W. Marchant
Eben H. Stacy
Samuel Stevens

Five hundred dollars was raised on the spot. Such was the devastation wrought by the first storm, one of unequalled fury and destructiveness.

  1. Nearly sixty, as estimated by the Telegraph

  2. On Monday morning, nearly thirty, says the same authority, remained at anchor with masts cut away, a solitary pole standing on each flying signals of distress.

  3. Generally believed at first to be about forty, finally, that all who perished at Cape Ann did not exceed twenty. Someone wrote the Boston Journal that he saw seventeen bodies on the beach, an emotional estimate perhaps. Editor Tilden related that on Tuesday nine had been found, besides four at Sandy Bay.

  4. Among this wreckage was a manuscript essay on Pride, dated October 5 previous. It was printed in the Telegraph as a memento of the tragedy.

  5. Mrs. Sally Hilton, from sch. Favorite of Wiscasset, Me.

  6. It was on Monday these brave men went to the help of the distressed crews of the dismasted vessels. Just as the Custom House boat took crew and passengers from one, her last cable parted. She drifted before the changed wind into the bay, striking on Marshfield shore. An hour after the crew left another, she broke adrift and was driven across the bay upon the Scituate rocks.

  7. Also, on the Van Buren, Moses Tarr, Timothy McIntire, William Knights, Henry Pew, John Pew, Graham Riggs, ______ Ryder, Benjamin Wells, Perthneill Hinckley. In the Custom House boat, Isaac Story, William Rowe. I also have an impression that the late Daniel Tarr Babson was among the life-savers on Sunday afternoon at Stage Fort.

  8. Monday evening at Stacey's Hall.

  9. The funeral was on Sunday afternoon, December 22, at the First Parish meeting house, Pastor Josiah K. Waite, Rev. Daniel D. Smith, of the Independent Christian Society, Rev. Edmund Beebe, of the Methodist Society, officiating. Eleven coffins, including that of the master of schooner Walrus, wrecked at Sandy Bay, were arranged in front of the meeting house. After the solemn rites, they were placed in vehicles prepared for their reception and appropriately shrouded in national flags. A procession computed of between two and three thousand people, followed the dead to the town tomb.


Or read the 1909 version of the storm, which includes the names of some of the vessels lost..


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