“In Silent Amazement” — The 130th Anniversary of the Saxby Gale

This is the time of year when Atlantic Canada undergoes its annual hurricane watch. Typically these tropical storms gather force in the Gulf of Mexico or the Caribbean Sea. Sometimes they veer inland, while in other instances their track is along the Atlantic seaboard; eventually funnelling up the Bay of Fundy.

In recent years, weather forecasting has become a more exact science and meteorologists are now able to warn, with a degree of accuracy, areas to be hit by such storms. So far as this region is concerned, the final path of 1999’s Hurricane Floyd proved to be an exception.

One of the worst storms to affect the Tantramar was the Saxby Gale of Oct. 4–5, 1869. Although formal weather forecasts weren’t available 130 years ago, the infamous Saxby Gale was predicted well in advance.

Almost a year earlier, in December 1868, an amateur astronomer serving in the Royal Navy, Lieutenant S.M. Saxby, wrote a letter to all major London newspapers. He suggested that there would be a storm of immense and devastating force on Oct. 4–5th 1869. At the time, Saxby’s prediction was widely publicized; however, most people dismissed his warning. It was widely believed that no one could predict such an event nearly a year in advance!

Oct. 4, 1869 began as a typical autumn day on the Tantramar. Along the Fundy coast, from Passamaquoddy Bay to the Isthmus of Chignecto, there was early morning fog, but this soon gave way to warm sunny weather. By mid-day it was oppressively hot and a southwest wind was gathering strength. Storm clouds were noted on the horizon and in late afternoon they reached the Isthmus. Immediately, hurricane force winds followed, accompanied by abnormally heavy rainfall. By 9 PM the Saxby Gale was in full force.

The storm lasted all night. Its scope and devastation are best revealed in the words of those who survived the ordeal. Setting the stage the Amherst Gazette reported: A tremendous tide swept over the whole of the marshes of Westmorland and Cumberland… At half past ten o’clock the dykes overflowed. The waters having gradually accumulated on the marsh… a wave similar to the tidal bore, swept up with a roaring noise and great velocity, carrying almost everything before it; stacks of hay, fences, and in many cases well filled barns.

The account continued: Four men who went to Fort Lawrence Creek to secure a schooner, sought shelter from the wind in a barn. The tide rising, they abandoned the barn and took to a fence which extended from it to the upland, and by passing along, they hoped to be safe. Two managed to save themselves, the others were drowned.

A clipping (undated) in a family scrap book was shown to me by Lee Lowerison. It revealed the terrifying story of a young child alone, and marooned by the storm. Fortunately he survived. In the morning his home was totally surrounded by water. There had been dry land the night before but during the night the predicted Saxby Gale had blown the waters of the Bay of Fundy across the marshlands.

An eyewitness account is taken from a letter, quoted in Edith Gillcash’s History of Taylor Village. Joseph R. Taylor wrote: Oct. 5, 1869 — on getting up this morning and looking around, we see quite a change in the appearance of things. We had a fearful gale of wind and tide last night… there’s not one hay stack to be seen on the marsh. (He then went on to list the damage to vessels and wharves along the Memramcook River from Dorchester Island to Taylor Village and beyond). The schooners Rosebud, Ida May and Independence were lying at the island wharf; the wharf, vessels and all went adrift… the Rosebud (a ferry linking Dorchester Island and Saint John) was caught up on the top of the dyke on Will Lamb’s marsh… The tide has damaged the railroad very much. The cars will not be able to run again for some time… Other places as far as we can hear have fared worse than we have.

The W. K. Bowser diary in the Mount Allison Archives gives us an overview of the damage. There was fearful destruction of property all through the New England states… doing great damage to the Sackville Marshes, and also all of the Bay of Fundy coast; destroying hundreds of tons of hay, washing away cattle of all descriptions, horses, oxen, sheep and pigs. Barns full of hay were taken on the water for miles. Sunken Island was literally covered with haystacks, cattle, sleepers, fences, telegraph poles, gates, boards, and numberless other articles, used by farmers on the marsh… In the morning all was quiet but rather foggy; the farmers looked towards their marshes in silent amazement.

One question remains. How was Lieutenant Saxby able to predict the ‘gale’ that still bears his name? The answer is provided in his letter to The Times of London, later reprinted in newspapers around the world.

With regard to 1869 at 7 AM on Oct. 5th, the moon will be at the part of her orbit which is nearest to the earth. Her attraction will, therefore, be at its maximum force. At noon on the same day, the moon will be at the earth’s equator, a circumstance which never occurs without marked atmospheric disturbance. At 2 PM on the same day, lines drawn from the earth’s centre would cut the sun and moon in the same arc of Ascension. The moon’s attraction and the sun’s attraction will therefore be acting in the same direction. In other words, the new moon will be at the earth’s equator when in perigee, (the point nearest to the earth) and nothing more threatening, can, I say, occur without miracle.

The date of the Saxby Gale was based on this positioning of the earth, sun, and moon, a situation that takes place roughly every 18 years. Had Saxby’s advice to repair and strengthen all sea walls been followed, less damage might have occured. In fairness, it must be reported that he didn’t give indication of the precise location where the storm might strike. However, Hurricane Alley along the North American eastern seaboard was undoubtedly one likely possibility. To place these matters in historical perspective, ancient Chaldean astronomers were aware of the same configuration of the planets as mentioned by Saxby. They called it the Saros Cycle.

I am indebted to Barbara Fisher for suggesting a Flashback on the anniversary of the Saxby Gale. It is worth noting that scientists and weather historians are still, 130 years later, analyzing this storm. Examples are papers written by Jim Abraham (Maritime Weather Centre) and Alan Ruffman (Geomarine Associates, Halifax).