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Historical Materials: Maritime & Other Industries & Facilities
Blizzard of 1839
In December of 1839 the New England coast was hit by three massive gales in the space of two weeks. The ones on December 15th and 27th wreaked havoc in Gloucester harbor, but did not involve Gloucester boats because the fishing fleet was hauled up for the winter. The casualties were coastal traders that tried to shelter from the hurricane force winds in the outer harbor between Ten Pound Island and Ten Pound Ledge where they were instead exposed to both the full force of the gale and the undertow churning over the Dog Bar—a spit of sand at the end of Eastern Point where the breakwater was built 65 years later. In the days of sail a seafarer was at the mercy of the winds—and the winds showed no mercy those nights. Despite attempts to save the mariners, the beaches and rocks from the Cut to Freshwater Cove were soon strewn with the wrecks of more than fifty vessels, together with their cargos and the bodies of the dead.
Cape Ann Museum Library & Museum, Gloucester, Mass.
This letter was written by Alfred Presson to his brother William, who made long voyages out of New York as a hired captain on traders to the West Indies and the North West Coast of Africa. William rarely returned to Gloucester and was always eager for news of his old hometown. Alfred was Treasurer of the Cape Ann Savings Bank and Secretary of the Marine Insurance Company.
"The present winter has been one of great severity to the shipping on our coast. I send you a paper containing an account of the destruction caused by the gale of the 15 Dec. in our harbor. There are some little inaccuracies in the acc. but is not at all exaggerated - the vessels came ashore at the Old Stage, Freemans Beach and at the Steep Bank - I was down there until dark and saw nearly all of them ashore - the vessels that rode out the gale cut away their masts after it came on dark.
The gale of the 26 Dec was perhaps equally severe for a short time, but fortunately few shipping in the harbor, 2 brigs & 2 sch’s drove ashore, the 2 Brigs were entirely lost, cargo of one partly saved, the Sch’rs were got off much injured - the Captains wife of one of the brigs drowned.
You will undoubtedly have heard of the death of Mr. Alphonso Mason and Capt. John G. Low of this town, by the burning of the Lexington, Mason was a valuable man in the community and is very much missed."
Cape Ann Museum Library and Archive
Accounts about the Blizzard of 1839:
15. Storm commenced last night—extremely pleasant all day till evening it increased and so continued thro’ this day with violence. never did I pass a more gloomy Sabbath. Fuller came in after tea wet through. he had been down to the wharfs and other places three four hours. he says it is dreadful storm and what makes it the worse people are drowning and no assistance can be rendered them the storm is raging so violent -
16. storm has abated some, and men are flocking by to assist the sufferers. many vessels ashore at the cove, steep rock and many of the men drowned. one woman found—and two women they dragged on shore alive and not much hurt—oh heavens what a storm this has been and how much distress it has brought. I hope Capt. Nickerson is safe if he came out of the Vineyard Saturday I fear he may not have reached the city before the storm came on. Father has been down to cove all day. he says it is a most dreadful sight.
17. pleasanter. had a meeting of the inhabitants last night and subscribed 4 or 5 hundred dollars for the poor shipwrecked mariners. poor souls how much they have suffered. many bodies have been found .
20. Mr Whaite is to preach the funeral sermon Sunday as the men will be buried from his church and Mr Smith delivers the prayers. there are 11 bodies.
27. oh what a night I past. the wind blew a hurricane worse than before—was up some time before light for it was impossible to sleep or feel easy
28. Miss Wharf came to help me try out my larder. a brig went all to pieces this morning about 4 o’clock in about the same place the others did. all on board was saved except the Captains Wife—three other vessels ashore at half moon beach—it has been a gloomy month . . .
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“Some of the vessels sunk at their anchors, and all hands perished. Others came upon the rocks, where, with the assistance [of Gloucester fishermen] most of the crews were rescued. All afternoon the vessels continued to drift ashore. . . .
Darkness came . . . the wind howling and the sea raging piteously all through the hours of the night. . . . The exact loss of life was never fully ascertained, but . . . twenty lives were known to have been lost in this vicinity.”