Back Story: Late-season hurricanes aren't unheard of in Md.

Great October Gale of 1878 was deadly and destructive

November 01, 2012|By Frederick N. Rasmussen, The Baltimore Sun

While late-season hurricanes are something of an anomaly, they are not unheard of, as Hurricane Hazel in 1954 and the recently departed Sandy proved.

By the time Hazel finished raking the Carolinas, Mid-Atlantic and New York, it had killed more than 1,000 and caused an estimated $420 million in damages.

Many decades before that, the "Great October Gale" was spawned off the coast of Jamaica on Oct. 18, 1878, and then roared northward after passing over Cuba.

Weather historians have labeled it a Category 2 storm that was similar in track and type of storm to Hazel, which arrived 76 hurricane seasons later.

Before the "Great October Gale" — or the "Cyclone of the Atlantic Coast," as The Sun billed it — blew itself out in New England, it had killed 71 and caused $2 million in damages.

"A cyclone, the severest known in this neighborhood for some time, swept inland from the Atlantic coast early yesterday morning, leaving destruction in its trails on all sides," reported The Sun on Oct. 24.

As the storm approached the city, the barometer fell below 29.9 inches and heavy rains of nearly 3 inches fell as the "wind blew a mile a minute," reported the newspaper.

Heavy winds blew down telegraph wires, which cut off contact with Philadelphia, New York and other northern cities. The only communication was with Washington.

Trains from the north entering the city over the Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore Railroad were delayed because of a rising Delaware River, which washed out the roadbed and downed telegraph wires and trees.

The Baltimore & Ohio, Baltimore & Potomac and Northern Central railroads also suffered delays from downed trees and falling telegraph poles that snapped wires.

"Havoc was created among the chimneys, roofs, shutters, trees, fences, &c., in the suburbs, and in the parks a good deal of damage was done," reported The Sun. Racing at Pimlico was canceled because the track was flooded.

"On the heights around the city, north and west, where many new buildings are in progress, the damage was also extensive. Tin roofs were scattered about almost as thickly as the leaves, which is generally the case when there is a blow," reported the newspaper. "Very many houses in exposed areas were unroofed, while in the low grounds, near the wharves, there was a great deal of flooding, and the premises of many people were overflowed."

While originally reporting no major disruption to shipping on the Chesapeake Bay, The Sun reported in its Oct. 25 editions of the loss of the steamer Express of the Potomac Transportation Co. It was "literally torn to pieces by the hurricane," reported the newspaper.

It foundered between Hooper's and Barren islands, 60 miles from Baltimore. Ten of the 30 passengers and crew died.

Another wreck was the A.S. Davis, a sailing vessel out of Maine, that was driven aground by the storm near Cape Henry. Nineteen died; there was one survivor, William H. Minton.

The Sun reported that he eventually made his way to the beach, wearing only a shirt. He dug a hole in the sand and covered himself, with the exception of his head, to keep warm and remained embedded in the sand until being discovered by a patrolman.

The gale eventually headed to New England, where it merged with a tropical storm before turning away from the coast and dying in the Atlantic on Oct. 25.

President Rutherford B. Hayes visited Cumberland on Oct. 25. In remarks, he praised the change in the weather, welcoming the balmy air and clear skies, and compared the recent hurricane to storms that surround human affairs.

"We are, however, rapidly marching forward to the period when all sections are to have equal rights, the States equal rights under the Constitution, and all citizens equal rights, whether wise or ignorant, poor or rich. ... This storm is passing away," he said.

He added: "Five years ago there was a financial panic, followed by depression in business, and that, too, is passing away."

Hurricane record-keeping began in 1851, and at the time it hit, the "Great October Gale" was the worst storm to buffet Maryland, weather historians said.

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