A Multi-disciplinary and Inter-scientific Study of The Saxby Gale: an October 4-5, 1869 hybrid hurricane and record storm surge

(Editor's note: This abstract by Alan Ruffman, President, Geomarine Associates Ltd. is from an 1999 presentation at the Life Sciences Centre, Dalhousie University)


New England, New Brunswick, the Bay of Fundy shore, Chignecto Bay and the Minas Basin, the Noel Shore and Windsor areas of Nova Scotia had none of today's weather warnings to prepare them for the arrival of this late season tropical cyclone. There were no space observation platforms with a vast array of sensors in 1869 to document the steady progress of what David Ludlum called 'The Great Northeastern Rainstorm and Flood' up the eastern seaboard in the early days of October 1869. There were no aircraft with daring pilots to fly into the eye of the 'Saxby Gale' to measure the very low pressure of the cyclone as it first traversed the Caribbean in late September. There were no weather balloons for the weather service to launch in the areas peripheral to the tropical cyclone no aircraft drop sondes to sample the dangerous inner eye wall. Indeed, there was not yet a weather service in either the United States or in Canada. There were no telephone, wireless, cable television weather channels, or CNN, to send out a clear warning of an impending hurricane to the Maritime Provinces. And there was no Emergency Measures Organization to assist in cleaning up the mess that the Saxby Gale left behind. The understanding of the so-called 'circular storms' was in its very infancy in 1869.

So how do we know that there was a tropical cyclone perhaps as serious as a Category 2 hurricane, on the Saffir-Simpson Scale, on the evening of October 4-5, 1869? Well, in fact there were any number of observers on the ground, and out at sea, in the path of the storm and along its edges. And there were at least 50 daily and weekly newspapers reporting along the track of the storm in the eastern United States, in New England, Maine, and in the Maritime Provinces of Canada.

An exhaustive event-specific search, supported by the Atmospheric Environment Branch of the Canada Department of Environment, has been completed for the October 1869 Saxby Gale. The search has also documented an earlier September 8, 1869 very serious hurricane that came ashore in southern Maine. Most of the primary sources from Atlantic Canadian and Maine newspapers have been captured, along with later articles and some personal accounts of the day. The original Stephen Martin Saxby (1804-1883) letters to The Standard of London, England on December 25, 1868 and on September 16, 1869 have been recovered, wherein he predicted, on a worldwide basis, not only a very high 'spring' (or perigean) astronomic tide, but that it would be accompanied by 'equinoctial gales' at 0500 local time on October 5, 1869. Saxby wrongly believed that the weather was controlled by the phases of the moon and was actively promoting this view in the 1860s. He was fortuitously proven right in the Bay of Fundy and Maine though the cause was a tropical cyclone that came in from the Gulf of Maine and made landfall at about the Maine-New Brunswick border area on the evening of October 4, 1869 and raged in the Bay of Fundy area through to next morning of the 5th.

While no scientific studies were done at the time, a forensic analysis of newspapers and other primary reports of this storm is beginning to reveal its parameters, its widespread effects, the damage, and a large loss of life. The study is now allowing Atlantic weather forecasters (or should we say hindcasters?) to begin to understand a unique middle latitude type of "hybrid" storm and the circumstances which can allow a tropical cyclone, or hurricane, to reintensify, and to gain energy by combining with a continental baroclinic weather system. These rare, but extreme, events are thought to have led to Hurricane Hazel in October of 1954 which did so much damage in the western Toronto area when over 200 mm of rain fell in less than 24 hours.

The tropical cyclone of September 1775 that affected eastern Newfoundland and Saint-Pierre et Miquelon may have been such a hybrid event and may have cost up to 4,000 lives.

A late August 1873 hurricane event in the Gulf of St. Lawrence cost in the order of 600 lives and may have been such an event, and the hurricane of October 1869 is beginning to look like such a re-intensification of a tropical cyclone. It should have been in its normal decay mode as it left the warm, energy-giving, waters of the Gulf Stream and passed north northwestward over the colder Gulf of Maine, then over the coastline at about the United States-Canadian border; instead it was still a very powerful storm as it came ashore.

The first-hand newspaper accounts -- as well as family and folklore knowledge -- present an often graphic view of the eye of the hurricane making landfall in the area of Passamaquoddy Bay. Winds on the 'righthand' side of the storm track were strong enough to cause a large amount of forest blowdown and then an increased forest fire hazard in the years following. Significant building destruction and damage were reported in the area immediately adjacent to both sides of the border, with roads and railways blocked by fallen trees and debris. Many vessels blew ashore in the Eastport, Maine-St. Andrews, New Brunswick area including the barque GENII with the loss of eleven lives. As the storm came ashore it may still have been a category 2 event with sustained winds in the 154 to 176 km/hr (96 to 110 mph) range.

The counterclockwise flows around the eye drove the storm surge up the Bay of Fundy to overtop most, if not all, of the Acadian dykes in the Minas Basin and Chignecto Bay, and flooding lowlands such as the Tantramar Marsh and areas of the present-day communities of Moncton, Sackville, and Amherst, in addition to Truro, Great Village, and Maitland. The Dominion Atlantic Railway, which was still under construction to the Annapolis Valley of Nova Scotia, suffered significant erosional damage from the very high water levels. The storm surge was able to drive up the Saint John river against the river current and apparently the water rose three feet at Fredericton. On the 'lefthand' side of the storm track, huge amounts of rain were unloaded in the northern New England states through to eastern New York State. One Maine farmer recorded 8.25 inches (210 mm) of rain during the "freshet" (Farmington Chronicle, Vol. XXIV, No. 46, p. 2, col. 3 (middle)). Virtually every bridge in Maine went out and over a million logs escaped their booms and went downstream. The tally of the total deaths from this hurricane is currently approaching 100 in the United States and Canada.

The ocean's astronomic tides can be hindcast with a high degree of accuracy. The Saxby Gale 'storm surge' arrived on top of a very high perigean or 'spring' tide, hence the Saxby storm surge arrived at almost the very worst time; however if it had arrived two to three days later the perigean astronomic high tide would have been up to 0.6 metres higher. Out of the newspapers and other accounts is emerging a number of recoverable points to document the actual water level of the 'Saxby Tide'. These points can be levelled-in by surveyors and tied to the geodetic datum and then used to estimate the maximum height of the Saxby Gale storm surge above the astronomic tide. The geodetic levelling-in by the Canadian Hydrographic Service of the Saxby storm surge mark on the plaque in Tidal Bore Park in Moncton gives +10.1 m geodetic level for the storm surge level, suggesting a storm surge in the order of 1.7 to 2.0 metres added onto the perigean astronomic tide of that October 4-5, 1869 night.

In the Minas Basin area a newspaper tells us of a house in Great Village (the Boomer[sic] = Bulmer House), that still survives as a Provincial Heritage Property, that was surrounded by water at the height of the Saxby storm surge. Commonly-known local folklore in Maitland has it that the surviving Frieze and Roy General Store in Maitland -- which still stands -- had its lower shelves and groceries wetted, while a surviving house in Maitland on Cedar Street (the Brown House) was not quite flooded and provides an upper limit to the height of the storm surge. Mr. W. Bell Dawson, the famous early tidal officer, made an estimate of the height of the 'Saxby Tide' at Noel River in a 1917 publication using a locally-recorded mark. Recently-recovered family recollections indicate that the maximum level of the Saxby storm surge on the Webber farm on the road to Burntcoat Head reached into a small group of Russet apple trees just to the northeast behind the barn. In Parrsboro, Nova Scotia the square-rigged vessel of Captain Durant sailed with blind luck safely over Light House Bar into the safety of the harbour. The community of Minudie was cut off by the storm surge, as was 'The Point' in the Walton area. Each of these locations gives one an important estimate of the 1869 elevation of the storm surge.

In Taylor Village, New Brunswick, a schooner was lifted by the storm surge and driven over the dykes into an orchard; the 'canal' dug to free the schooner can still be seen today. In Windsor, Nova Scotia, the storm surge is said to have risen to a particular cross-street. All these points, and hopefully others still to be discovered, if recovered and systematically levelled-in, will provide estimates of the elevation of the water surface in the upper Bay of Fundy during the highest water levels of the 'Saxby Tide' or storm surge. Other points suggested such as a lower window lintel on the Custom House in Amherst now appear to be quite spurious, and others such as the locally-known Saxby flooding well up on the door frame of a house in Truro remain to be verified and checked out. It may be that, if there was an opportunity to examine the internal parts of the walls of the Truro house, of the Frieze and Roy General Store, or of the pre-1869 bank next door to it in Maitland, a clear, muddy-water stain may be found inside the wall to give an unambiguous level of the 1869 'Saxby' storm surge.

By capturing recoverable levels of the highest water levels on October 4-5, 1869 these can be corrected for eustatic sealevel rise over the past 130 years and for differential isostatic rebound to allow maps to be plotted showing the coastal areas that would be inundated today were such an event to recur. The 1869 salt water inundation flooded into parts of marshes, farmland, coastal lowlands, and lakes or ponds where no salt water had been known for perhaps more than 110 years, or since at least the 1759 storm and related storm surge that so impacted the early Acadian settlements in western Nova Scotia.

In 1869 the salt water lay in the lowlands for several days before it slowly drained back to the sea. In some cases the dykes took weeks to repair so the twice-daily inundation continued for some time. A careful examination of the microfossils and flora in cores in strategic locations may well find a thin Saxby Gale marker horizon and deeper in the cores a record of earlier major storm surges such as the 1759 event.

Provincial and municipal planners, flood plain advisory committee members, town councils, developers, citizens, shore property owners, EMO officials, police, and insurance firms ignore such data to their peril. They would be wise to assess the growing body of knowledge on the Saxby Gale and its significant storm surge. While these hybrid types of tropical cyclones are rare, they have occurred and they will recur. There are also a number of known historic winter and summer storms that have followed similar tracks to the Saxby hurricane, and some of these have led to reported flooding in low coastal areas in the Bay of Fundy area. And eventually these sorts of storm surges will recur when the astronomic tides are high, or even higher. Sea levels along the Nova Scotian coast of the Bay of Fundy are very slowly rising relative to the land. Arepeat of a Saxby Gale type of event and its storm surge will thus only become more serious in the future.

Selected References

Abraham, Jim, George Parkes and Peter Boyer. 1999. The Transition of the "Saxby Gale" into an Extratropical Storm [Extended Abstract]. 23rd Conference on Hurricanes and Tropical Meteorology, Committee on Tropical Meteorology and Tropical Cyclones, American Meteorological Society, 79th Annual Meeting, January 10-15, Dallas, Texas, Preprints, Vol. II, Paper 11A.3, Thursday, January 14, pp. 795-798.

Anonymous. 1969. Saxby's Gale. Museum Memo, Vol. 1, No. 3, September, New Brunswick Museum, Saint John, New Brunswick, History Department, pp. [3]-[5].

Anonymous. 1935. The Famous Saxby Gale. The Worst Storm in the History of the County. Recalled Possibly by Veteran Residents of the Community. The News & Sentinel, Amherst, Nova Scotia, Friday, June 28, No. 55, p. 11, cols. 1-5, reprint of circa October 7, 1869 newspaper account of a presently-unknown origin.

Dawson, W. Bell. 1917. Tides at the Head of the Bay of Fundy. in Tide Levels and Datum Planes in Eastern Canada, pp. 93-95.

Desplanque, C. and D.J. Mossman. 1999. Storm Tides in the Bay of Fundy [Abstract]. Annual General Meeting & Colloquium, Current Research in the Atlantic Provinces III, Atlantic Geoscience Society, February 5 and 6, Amherst, Nova Scotia, Program and Abstracts, p. 17.

Elliott, Shirley B. 1961. Novascotianna XXXIV The Saxby Gale. [Nova Scotia] Journal of Education, October, pp. 49-54.

Fernández-Partagás, José J. and Henry F. Diaz. 1995. A Reconstruction of Historical Tropical Cyclone Frequency in the Atlantic from Documentary and Other Historical Sources 1851-1880, Part 1: 1851-1870. Climate Diagnostics Center, Environmental Research Laboratories, National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, Boulder, Colorado, April, 173 pp. in three sections. Storms of 1865-1870 by José J. Fernández-Partagás, 71 pp.; Year 1869, pp. 50-57; Storm 10, 1869 (Oct. 4), pp. 56-57 plus map on p. 53.

Ganong, W.F. 1911. A Preliminary Study of the Saxby Gale. Bulletin of the Natural History Society of New Brunswick, Vol. VI, Pt. III, No. XXIX, read May 2, notes in the Ganong Collection, Archives, New Brunswick Museum, Saint John, New Brunswick.

Hutchinson, D.L. 1911. The Saxby Gale. Transactions of the Canadian Institute. Vol. IX, Part 3, No. 22, read November 18, pp. 253-259.

Ludlum, David M. 1963. Early American Hurricanes 1492-1870. The History of American Weather series, American Meteorological Society, Boston, Massachusetts, 198 pp., reprinted 1989. Saxby's Gale and The Great Northeastern Rainstorm and Flood of October 1869, pp. 108-111.

Parkes, George, Parkes, George S., Lorne A. Ketch, Charles T. O'Reilly, John Shaw and Alan Ruffman. 1999. The Saxby Gale of 1869 in the Canadian Maritimes, A case study of flooding potential in the Bay of Fundy [Extended Abstract]. 23rd Conference on Hurricanes and Tropical Meteorology, Committee on Tropical Meteorology and Tropical Cyclones, American Meteorological Society, 79th Annual Meeting, January 10-15, Dallas, Texas, Preprints, Vol. II, Paper 11A.2, Thursday, January 14, pp. 791-794.

Ruffman, Alan. 1998. The Saxby Gale Part III, Forensic Study of the Impacts [Abstract]. Thirty-second Annual Canadian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society Congress, June 1-4, Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, Program and Abstracts, Paper 1B3.6, Monday, June 1, p. 9.

Ruffman, Alan. 1999. The 'Saxby Tide' of October 4-5, 1869: A possible geological marker around the Bay of Fundy [Abstract]. Annual General Meeting & Colloquium, Current Research in the Atlantic Provinces III, Atlantic Geoscience Society, February 5 and 6, Amherst, Nova Scotia, Program and Abstracts, p. 37.

Ruffman, Alan. 1997. Hurricane Hortense: A Fortuitous Warning. shunpiking, Nova Scotia's Discovery Magazine, Vol. 2, No. 5, Issue No. 15, September, pp. 11-13.

Ruffman, Alan. 1997. The Saxby Gale Research Project on 1869 Saxby Gale Underway. Upshore Downshore A Celebration of Life on the Hants Shore, East Walton, Nova Scotia, Vol. 1, No. 2, December, p. 18.

All contents copyright © 1999. Earth Sciences. All rights reserved.

The Saxby Gale

Posted at http://heritage.tantramar.com/Newsletter_7.html

If you attended the presentation by Mr. Alan Ruffman on 21 October, you heard all the interesting technical details about a dramatic event in the history of Tantramar. And now, read on about how the press of the day viewed this great storm.

In 1868, S.M. Saxby of the British Navy predicted an exceptionally high tide for 7:00 a.m., October 5th, 1869, that would cause a "marked atmospheric disturbance" around the world. The prediction was printed in the London Standard and widely circulated. The appointed day saw little damage along Nova Scotia's Atlantic Coast, but contemporary press reports show Saxby's prophesy sadly accurate for the Bay of Fundy:

From Windsor: About 11:00 o'clock Monday night four dykes at Poverty Point, near Smith Island, gave way and ten minutes afterwards the lowlands for miles around were flooded, and their contents much damaged. The inmates were compelled to take refuge in the upper stories. Many cattle and sheep were drowned. Mr. P. Miles lost 34 sheep. The tide rose four feet higher than it was ever known before! At Falmouth and Newport the dykes were carried away, and the land flooded. At Horton, and upon the Grand Pre dykes, a quantity of hay was destroyed and numbers of cattle drowned, some of which drifted out to sea. Bridges were carried away or destroyed!

Halifax Chronicle, Oct. 8, 1869
From Cumberland: The tremendous tide swept over the whole of the marshes of Cumberland and Westmorland! When it was considered that almost every farmer adjacent to a tract of (dyked) marsh depends upon it for the principal part of his hay, and that this, after being cut, remains for the most part on the ground in stacks, or in exceptional cases in barns, to be hauled in the winter, the great extent of the losses may be more nearly approximated. But the loss of hay now, great as it is, embraces but a small portion of the damages to the proprietors of (dyked) marshes. The expense of repairing, and in many cases renewing miles of heavy dykes; and the injurious effects upon future grass crops for years, through the action of the tide, to swell up the account of losses! At half past 10 o'clock on Monday night the dykes overflowed. The water having gradually accumulated on the marshes to the depth of from one to two feet, a wave, similar to the tidal bore, swept up with a rearing noise and a great velocity, carrying almost everything before it; stocks of hay, fences and in many cases, well-filled barns succum bing to its power. Four men who went to Fort Lawrence 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 which they hoped to be safe. The waves swept away the fence. Two of the men managed to reach some poles and save themselves. The others were drowned. An old man named Steward, belonging to Minudie, engaged in cutting grass at Minudie Point, was in the habit of spending his nights in a barn there. On the Terrific night, finding the barn afloat and breaking up, he succeeded in clinging to a passing haystack. After being for some time at the mercy of the wind and the tide, hope almost failed as he was being fast borne seaward, when his life-buoy grounded on the top of the dyke, seemingly at the very brink of destruction. He was rescued by means of a boat on the following day. A horse which was in the barn was drowned.

Amherst Gazette, Oct. 18, 1869
From Windsor: Ten days after the Gale: The floods have abated. On Tuesday the last field was left dry, and now nothing but a barren scene meets the eye in every direction. The beautiful green afterfeed of the dykes is turned into a muddy brown marsh, which produces an unhealthy dismal fog and a sickening smell; fences are lying strewn in every direction; haystacks are racked and ruined, and occasionally the carcass of a dead animal is seen bleaching in the sun. A meeting of dyke-holders voted to repair the Tragothic or Big Dyke. The Town Dyke at Avondale will not be repaired, as the rates are so high that it will not pay them for their trouble. It seemed to be resting on quicksand and was constantly settling. In 1860 it was decided to abandon the structure and build a new one about two hundred yards up the river. Two years were taken to finish the work, and in the meantime, the old aboiteau was kept in repair, which gave much better facilities for working at the new one. When the Eastern Extension Railroad was constructed (1872), a right-of-way was secured by the company over the new aboiteau, and later when the road came into the hands of the Dominion Government, an arrangement was made with the commissioners of the aboiteau for maintaining the work!

*Note: Name of newspaper not given
The arrangement with the railroad has continued into the 1980s. The tracks along the top of the dyke, which protect 820 hectares of farmland as well as a stretch of the Trans-Canada highway just inside it, between Amherst, N.S. and Sackville, New Brunswick.

"The Saxby Gale" In : Maritime Dykelands: the 350-year Struggle. The Nova Scotia Department of Agriculture and Marketing. 1987. Halifax, Nova Scotia. 81 pp.