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140 Year Anniversary of the Gale of 1878 in the Mid Atlantic

25 Oct 2018, 3:54 pm

[Flooding in Philadelphia after the Gale of 1878]

[NOAA] The Gale of 1878 was an intense Category 2 hurricane that caused extensive damage from Cuba to New England. More than 70 people were killed from the storm. It is believed to be the strongest storm to hit the Washington – Baltimore region since hurricane records began in 1851.

The cyclone developed in the western Caribbean and was not detected by the West Indies hurricane network before its movements west of the isle of Jamaica on October 18. Once its presence was known, the U.S. Signal Corps, a division of the War Department, tracked its progress northward just off the Florida coast into North Carolina and issued signals to warn of its arrival. This is a process the Signal Service had been tasked with since November 1870, and one in which it had enjoyed some limited success. The storm’s similarities with other major storms of more recent decades, such as Agnes (1972) and Hazel (1954) led to a more exhaustive search for information about its impact on the Eastern seaboard.

It is hypothesized that a tropical disturbance was present around October 16 in the southwestern Caribbean, and was lured northward by an approaching frontal system invading from the Gulf of Mexico. The cold front stalled late on October 19, in the vicinity of Cuba as a surface anticyclone drifted eastward through the Southeast. As the high pressure system continued its march into North Carolina, pressure gradients began to increase over south Florida as the cyclone edged north across Cuba. As the tropical storm moved through the Florida straits on October 21, a coastal front formed off the coasts of the Carolinas and Georgia, acting as a focus for rains well ahead of the storm.

An extratropical cyclone in the mid-latitudes was located over the Mississippi Valley on October 21. Its cold front accelerated south into the western Gulf, and the deep southerly flow ahead of the system acted to increase the forward motion of the hurricane into North Carolina late on October 22. As it linked up with a cold front late on October 23, the storm became nontropical, and its track bent to the east as it moved along the main cyclone’s triple point. This is also when the heaviest rains shifted from just east of the track to north of the low, in its cold conveyor belt circulation. The storms this cyclone compared the closest to include the September 1893 hurricane, the October 1899 hurricane, and Hazel in 1954.

As the hurricane made landfall between Wilmington and Cape Lookout, the pressure fell to 983.8 mb at Cape Lookout. However, the lowest pressure measured from the center of the storm occurred in the northern Chesapeake Bay, where the lowest sea level pressure of 974.6 mb was observed.

The map below shows the area where maximum sustained winds reached gale force (in orange) and hurricane force (in red).  It is believed that hurricane force winds lashed the Gold Coast of Florida due to the high winds seen at Key West, and the reports of hurricane conditions in Cuba.  Gales extended northward through the Mid Atlantic towards the Great Lakes.  Hurricane force winds were seen almost entirely to the east of the track, from approximately Wilmington, NC northward through eastern Virginia, Chesapeake Bay, Philadelphia, Delaware, much of New Jersey, and just off the New England coast.   It should be noted that most of the higher winds in New England occurred while the storm was still centered over the Mid Atlantic.

Along the coast, the Virginia barrier islands of Smith and Cobb went underwater for the first time in memory, taking all cattle out to sea. The five minute sustained wind reached 84 mph at Cape Henry, VA. Many of Virginia’s life saving stations were damaged, with one lifted from its foundation and moved half a mile. An account of the storm’s effects in the Norfolk area was provided by the Norfolk Landmark. A heavy rain and wind blew through Richmond for several hours after midnight on the 23rd.  Winds became “almost a hurricane.”  It was considered the hardest storm in years.  Trees, fences, and telegraph lines were downed across the city.  The schooner Brewster saw one of its passengers drown near Nanjemoy Beach (24).  One of the crew of the steamer Everman was washed overboard and lost (25).  Cobb and Smith Islands were completely submerged during this storm…higher than seen in at least 20 years. All livestock was swept clean from the islands. The steamer Theodore Weems lost its rudder and some of her joiner work. At least 22 ships met their demise in this hurricane.

The peak of the cyclone was seen in Washington, D.C. at 4:40 a.m. on the 23rd. After that, winds swung around the compass a couple times before settling on northwest by 7:15 a.m, the pressure fell to 975.3 mb (28.80″) at that time.  Trees were uprooted and buildings unroofed during the storm.  Fields of corn were submerged in the ensuing flood around the District of Columbia. Rock Creek became a raging river, but produced little damage. Many young shade trees in the city were leveled. Telegraph lines were felled between Baltimore and New York. Flooding from the Potomac inundated many basements downtown along Pennsylvania Avenue. County roads crossing the Stickfoot branch of the Anacostia River were washed out.

In Maryland, Annapolis saw the winds swing from northeast to southeast at 5:45 a.m., blowing with great violence. Its lowest pressure of 976 mb (28.82″) was measured at 7:30 a.m..  The storm was compared by some to a tornado.  All telegraph communication was cut off, except to the District of Columbia.  Many homes were unroofed; several were destroyed.  Waters in Jones’ Falls began rising during the storm, and flooded the surrounding sections of Baltimore.  Wharves were submerged.  Horse racing at Pimlico was suspended due to the weather.

On the Chesapeake Bay, the storm was considered “terrific”, and was felt worst between the mouth of the Patuxent River and Barren Island. Immense waves broke over the upper deck of the steamer Express. Winds reached hurricane force at 4 a.m.. The ship then wandered through the middle of Chesapeake Bay. The barometric pressure fell to 974.6 mb (28.78″). Shortly after 5 a.m., when the winds shifted to the southwest, waves tore away the saloon deck and flipped the ship on her side. After rolling completely over, survivors gathered timber to make a tiny escape craft. It sank immediately near Point No Point in St. Mary’s county in Maryland. The Quartermaster was rescued at noon that day, twenty miles from the scene of the wreck. Five lives from the vessel were lost (30).

On Delaware Bay, this storm was one of the worst ever experienced up to that time. Large numbers of vessels, of all shapes and sizes, were driven ashore. The tempest was very destructive in the First State.  Many trees and fences fell victim.  Telegraph lines failed.  Buildings were unroofed statewide.  High winds led to floods along the Delaware, Christiana, and Brandywine Rivers.

Much of South Wilmington, was flooded; flood waters reached as high as midway up the first floor.  A large area southeast of the city was described as a “vast sea.”  Buoys from the Government wharf at the lighthouse were seen floating upriver.  Two houses in Pickelville floated off their foundations with their occupants along for the ride.  A washout at Shellpot delayed trains on the P., W., and B. railroad north of Wilmington.  The Knowles’ woolen mill in New Castle burned to the ground ($30,000 damage).

In Pennsylvania, damage from this hurricane was widespread. At Scranton, trees were uprooted, houses were “dismantled”, and many residences lost their roofs. In Philadelphia, a strong east wind raged from 2 a.m. to 8 a.m., before shifting to the south. Half-hourly observations were taken at the Signal Corp office between 5 a.m. and noon. These revealed the lowest pressure measured as 986.1 mb (29.12″) and a southeast wind of 72 mph at 7:40 a.m.. Oaks fell throughout downtown.  At least 700 buildings were destroyed while nearly fifty churches lost their spires.  Train sheds at the Pennsylvania Railroad Depot in West Philadelphia were demolished ($32,000 damage).

Flooding submerged the first stories of buildings along the river front; the height of the flood occurred at noon on the 23rd.  Great damage was done to buildings and the dykes around League Island, at the junction of the Schuylkill and Delaware Rivers.  The bridge at the falls of the Schuylkill was swept away ($30,000 damage).  The tide around the island exceeded the highest known before by a foot by 10 a.m….almost the entire island was submerged.

In New Jersey, Camden suffered greatly with 150 buildings unroofed.  The storm set in at 2 a.m. with strong east winds, waking up the populace.  By 7 a.m., increasing winds began to unroof buildings, topple smoke stacks, down telegraph lines, and level sturdy buildings.   The pressure fell to 29.40″.  Damage throughout town totaled $16,200.

Along the Camden & Burlington railroad, considerable damage was witnessed around Moorestown.  A train was lifted from the tracks below Kaigh’s Point by flood waters, and capsized.  The roof of the hotel at Wenonah blew off, as well as several other buildings in town.  A grove near the train depot in Glouchester was leveled.  Glouchester City’s Iron Works had its roof peeled off by the winds ($3,000).  The West Jersey railroad was undermined along the Newton Creek Flats.

Big Timber Creek overflowed its banks, inundating thousands of acres of land.  Considerable damage was also reported from Union, Essex, Salem, and Hudson counties.  Trees were uprooted at the Salem Presbyterian Church, which also saw its share of destruction.  Near Sharpstown, a man was killed when his chimney crushed him on his front doorstep (62).  A brick house near Hancock’s bridge was blown down; one child fell victim to its collapse (63).  Woodbury’s town hall was unroofed.

Cape May sensed the beginning of the cyclone at 1 a.m., when a good northeast breeze developed.  When winds reached 65 m.p.h., an “extraordinarily high tide” invaded the area.  The highest winds preceded the storm, as easterly winds of 84 mph were measured at 5:45 a.m..  This drove the increasing tides between the city and the mainland, covering the railroad track with three feet of saltwater. Barnegat recorded a southeast wind of 72 mph while Atlantic City reached a peak wind speed of east at 56 mph.  Very high tides ravaged the coast as the storm approached.

Seventy-one people perished due to the Gale of ’78 in the eastern United States.  Those that were lost to the storm were taken due to shipwreck and river flooding. In Philadelphia alone, $2 million in damage was exacted in 1878 dollars, when over 700 structures failed.

Edited for WeatherNation by Meteorologist Mace Michaels

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