December 15, 1909
The Great Storm of December, 1839
First One Occurred Seventy Years Ago Today--
More Than 50 Vessels Wrecked, Dismasted or Carried to Sea--
Over 200 Lives Lost, 50 Being in Gloucester Harbor--
One Member of Rescuing Crew Still Alive
There was recently discovered in a Provincetown garret a
small, blue-covered pamphlet (from the press of J. Howe, No. 39 Merchants row, Boston,
1840), entitled "Shipwrecked of December, 1839", which
shows that the toll of ocean along the shores of Cape Cod and Massachusetts bay in the
month named, 70 years ago was approximately equal to that of the awful
"Portland" storm of November 27, 1898.
Babson's history of Gloucester refers somewhat briefly to
the storm and its terrible effects in this harbor, and also of the solemn funeral of all
whose bodies were recovered, but the pamphlet referred to tells in detail of the storm and
the losses caused thereby in this vicinity.
Few are alive today who witnessed the gale and saw the
vessels dash to pieces on the rocks or drift out of the harbor, but one member of the
crews which manned the life boats and assisted in the rescue of several crews is still
alive and vigorous despite his advanced years. Capt. John Parker, who at the time was a
young man not quite 21 years of age.
According to the pamphlet the first gale began on the night
of Saturday, December 14, about midnight, with a violent snow storm, which raged until
Monday. About 2 p. m. Sunday, rain commenced, and the wind rose to a gale; at 11 p. m. a
hurricane broke. Until 2 or 3 o'clock a. m. of Monday it continued. It blew hard all
Monday and Monday night, but the most damage was done on Sunday night. A long list of
vessels were wrecked or damaged.
Alluding to the disasters at Gloucester the pamphlet says
Such a scene of terrific and horrible ruin has not been
witnessed in that harbor within the memory of the oldest inhabitant, a man 104 years of
age, who has always lived there. More than 50 vessels were either driven ashore,
dismasted, or carried to sea, and the loss of lives could not have fallen much short of
Wreckage strewed the Beach, with here and there a mangled
and naked body. In one instance that of a woman was found lashed to the windlass bitts of
a Castin schooner.
The pamphlet writer was unable to name all of those who
manned the life boats that day, but names Andrew Parker, Jr., John Parker, Addison
P. Winter, Carter, Charles P. Wood, Gideon Lane and D. H. Hartley.
The greatest destruction took place at Gloucester. Many
craft sank at their anchors. Others dragged ashore, and others drifted to sea and
The sch. Eliza and Betsy of Mt. Desert
sunk at her anchors; her crew perished.
Just as the custom house boat boarded the Mary
Francis of Belfast, her last cable parted, and she went to sea; the boat took off
the crew and two passengers.
The schooner Walrus of Bucksport was
wrecked at Pigeon Cove; her crew perished. The schooner Brilliant of Mt.
Desert was lost with three men. Schooners Milo of Bristol, Splendid
of New Castle, Sally of Wiscassett were lost with loss of life.
The schooner North Carolina of Calais, James Barter, Jr., for
Newport, cut away masts and rode out the gale. Schooner Cooper' s Fancy Bridges,
of Mt. Desert, vessel sunk, crew saved. Schooner F. Severs, lost on
Norman's Woe. Sch. Eagle of Bowdoinham went to pieces; crew saved.
At Sandy Bay, a schooner struck a reef while entering
harbor and went to pieces instantly. Four bodies came ashore.
At Ipswich, sch. Deposit of Belfast went
ashore on Lakeman's beach; four lost; two men and one woman saved. At Essex, a schooner
went on Patch's beach; six persons lost; one saved.
Fifteen or 20 vessels were injured at Newburyport.
The schooner Mary Frances drove out of
Gloucester harbor, and went ashore Tuesday on Marshfield beach.
The schooner Antioch of Ellsworth drive
out of Gloucester, brought up on Nichols rock, Cohaset.
Gale Was Followed by Two Others a Week Apart
The second gale occurred on Sunday and Monday,
the 22nd or 23rd of December. Many vessels were lost or greatly damaged and again the
death roll assumed alarming proportions.
The third gale commenced about 11 o'clock p.
m., Friday, December 27, with the wind from the east, and blew a hurricane until near
sunrise of the 28th. vessels were in difficulties in Boston, Salem, Newburyport,
Gloucester and at Cape Cod. At Gloucester, the wife of Capt. Drinkwater
of the brig Richmond Packet, was drowned in attempting to reach the shore
off a spar while the brig was going to pieces.
In summing up, the pamphlet had to say:
It appears that one bark, 17 brigs, 68
schooners and four sloops were lost in the three gales, and the estimated number of lives
destroyed at the same time are from 150 to 200. It was supposed 50 were lost at Gloucester
alone in the first storm. Beside this, 23 ships and barks, 22 brigs, 169 schooners and
five sloops were dismasted, driven ashore in some way. The destruction of property must
have been near $1,000,000.
The brig Pocahontas, James G.
Cook, master, form Cadiz for Newburyport, was discovered ashore, dismasted, on
Plum island, on the morning of the 23rd. The Pocahontas' crew
The Gloucester Telegraph,
in its account of the storm says:
On Sunday morning, there were in our harbor
nearly 60 sail of vessels which had put in in anticipation of the storm. Of that large
fleet all that could be seen at anchor on Monday morning were about 20 and they having
every mast and spar cut away, a solitary pole on each only standing to beat aloft a signal
of distress, as for assistance. These tossing as they lay were like egg shells upon a
violent sea and exposed to the yet raging gale, liable every moment to part their cables
and be driven to sea with all on board, presented a scene melancholy enough, -- but when
the eye rested upon the long line of wrecks that had been cast upon our shore, and the
innumerable fragments of others, together with their scattered cargoes -- here and there
the attended corpse of a fellow creature and the suffering survivors, the feeling heart
was subdued, and almost made to bleed.
account gives in detail a list of 23 total wrecks, 23 vessels dismasted, drifted out of
the harbor, etc., and 20 ascertained deaths/ The account further says:
The noble caring and benevolent exertions of
those who went to the rescue of the men on board the vessels still at anchor on Monday and
brought them off at the imminent hazard of their own lives are above all praise. The boat Van
Buren was the first to put off, and was manned by Moses Tarr, Andrew
Parker, Jr., John Parker, Timothy McIntire, William Knight, Henry Pew, John Pew, Gorham
Riggs, _____ Rider, Benjamin Wells, Pettingill Hinckley.
The custom house boat followed and was manned
by William Carter, Daniel D. Hartley, Charles P. Wood, Gideon Lane, Isaac Story,
Addison Winter, William Rowe.
The bodies of 11 of the victims of the storm
were recovered, and the funeral took place from the Unitarian church the following Sunday,
the coffins being arranged in the yard in front of the church. The religious services were
performed by the pastor, Rev. Joseph H. Waite, Rev. Daniel D.
Smith of the Universalist church and Rev. Edmund Beebee of the
Methodist church. After the services a procession was formed consisting of between 2,000
and 3,000 people and extending to the length of a mile, followed the bodies to the town
tomb in the old burying ground.
A public meeting was called for the evening
following the gale, and the sum of $500 was promptly raised to meet the necessities of the
survivors and furnish them transportation home.
Of the storm of December 27, the Telegraph
says that the force of the wind far exceeded that of the previous storm, and but for the
fact that there were but few vessels in the harbor, the loss of lives and property would
have been exceeded. Four of six or eight vessels at anchor in the outer harbor went
ashore, but only one life was lost, that of the wife of the captain of one of the vessels,
whose body was afterwards found in the hold on another schooner, where it had been washed
by the sea.