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DURING the first two weeks of December, 1839, the weather was uncommonly pleasant, and without the least intimation of the terrible storms that were about to ravage the New England coast. Saturday, the fourteenth, was very mild, with a perfectly clear sky, and many vessels on our northeastern coast left their havens bound for Boston, New York and other southern ports. Soon after midnight snow began to fall and the wind to blow from the northeast, and they were driven down the coast, with the mist that ever exists in the Bay of Fundy, which shielded the breakers and bars from sight. The warning rays of the lights along the shore struggled to penetrate the heavy fog that shrouded the turbulent billows.

The wind suddenly changed to the southeast, and during the night and the next forenoon many of the vessels that had left the ports of Maine and New Hampshire the day before were run into the nearest port for refuge. At noon the wind had greatly increased in violence, and in the afternoon it blew a gale in many places. The ocean has rarely been seen in such violent agitation, and possessed of such terrible power. Accompanied with mingled rain and snow, the storm continued all day; and all along the coast the harbor scenes consisted of the vessels tossing on the darkened stormy waters, and blown by the wind and thrown about by the waves, being watched with intense interest and anxiety by the dwellers along the coast, who saw the fate of the hapless mariners in the awful breakers on the lee shore. Many people with willing hands and noble, stout hearts hastened to afford assistance if chance should offer, or it could avail. One after another the vessels were seen to drift, and apparently hurry on to destruction, while many silent, earnest prayers ascended from the throngs on the beaches in behalf of the impotent mariners. Some of the crafts turned over and went down at their anchors bottom up, with the crews, who were seen no more. The fearful end of many vessels, however, was checked by cutting away the masts. Others were steered for sandy beaches, upon which the wind drove them, and with assistance from the people on shore, the lives of most of the sailors were saved. Several of them were dashed upon rocks and shivered to atoms in a moment, in some instances the crews being saved in various ways by the strong arms of mariners who had battled with the waves and storms for years. As night came on the storm seemed rather to increase than diminish and the wind blew more violently than it had before during the storm, darkness with all its gloom settling down over the scene that was never to be effaced from the memory of those that witnessed it. The wind blew with mighty power and the sea raged all through the long night. Many persons remained on the beach during those dreadful hours to render aid, but they were rarely able to do so for the fury of the storm. About two o'clock in the morning the wind veered to the northeast, and the gale somewhat abated. It continued to storm and the sea to rage, however, until late Monday night, but most disaster was caused Sunday night. The exact loss of life was never known, but it must have been great. The whole shore of Massachusetts was strewn with wrecks and dead bodies, and the harbors of Newburyport, Salem, Marblehead, Boston, Cohasset, Plymouth and Cape Cod were almost literally filled with disabled vessels. But on the shores of Maine and Connecticut the storm was less severe. On the land the force of the wind was terrific, many buildings being blown down and hundreds of chimneys overturned. The tide rose higher than many of the highest water-marks then known. Inland as far as northwestern Massachusetts the snow fell in great quantities, and its depth rendered travelling almost impossible, the deep embankments in many places extending to the second story of houses. This was the first snow storm of the season.

At Boston, the tide rose higher than the old water-marks, and swept completely across the Neck, the force of the wind being so great that at the south part of the city on Sunday there was no apparent fall of the water for three hours. Many chimneys, signs and blinds were blown down. A corner of the roof of the Maverick house and a part of the roof of the car-house at East Boston were blown away. Several vessels in the harbor had their masts carried away, and many were badly chafed. A ship and a brig were sunk at their wharves. Many vessels dragged their anchors, causing collisions, which sank small crafts and greatly damaged large ones. The schooner Hesperus, which belonged in Gardiner, Maine, broke her anchor chain, and was driven by the wind against a dock, carrying away her bowsprit and staving the end of her jib-boom through the upper window of a four-story building.

On the rocky shores of Nahant, at about four o'clock Sunday afternoon, the schooner Catherine Nichols, commanded by Captain Woodard, and bound from Philadelphia to Charlestown with a cargo of coal, was literally dashed to pieces. They had run in under the lee-shore, but the wind veered and drove them out. Thirty minutes later they had parted their cables and were driven on the peninsula. With great difficulty and the assistance of the people of the town, the captain and three of the crew reached the shore in safety. One of these, John Whiton of New Bedford, as they brought him from the water exclaimed "Oh! dear," and upon reaching the shore he motioned to them to put him down, which was done, and he immediately died. Levi Hatch, another of the crew, was drowned, or died from the effects of bruises before he came to land. He belonged in North Yarmouth, where he left a wife and two children. The mate staid by the vessel to the last, and died amidst the roaring surf, his body being found jammed in among the rocks almost entirely naked. John Lindsay of Philadelphia, another of the crew, was last seen clinging to the rigging, which with the foremast, the last one to fall, drifted out to sea, and he was never heard of again. The bodies of Whiton and Hatch were taken to Lynn, and buried on Tuesday from the First Methodist church, the pastor Rev. Mr. Cook, preaching a sermon, after which the citizens followed the remains to the cemetery.

In the harbor of Marblehead several vessels were injured, the mass of some were cut away, and quite a number of schooners were driven on shore. The schooner Paul Jones was forced high upon the rocks, where she became bilged. Another schooner named Sea Flower was driven on the beach and wholly lost, together with part of her cargo which consisted of four hundred bushels of corn and one hundred and twenty barrels of flour.

At Salem, the wind did not blow very strongly, and little damage was done in the harbor. A few vessels were slightly injured by chafing against the wharves, and a small schooner was driven up Forest river near the bridge. Several chimneys and two barns in the vicinity of Bridge street were blown down.

The scene in Gloucester harbor during this storm has never been equalled in any other New England port. Many vessels sought this haven of refuge from the tempest, and in all as many as sixty were there during the gale. Between three and four o'clock on the afternoon of Sunday, they began to drift, dragging their anchors or breaking the cables that bound them. Upon the beach were many willing fishermen to assist the mariners if it were possible. Within plain sight of them lay a schooner to whose shrouds were lashed three men. On all the coast of New England at that time, it is said, there was not a single life-boat, and no other small craft could live between the wreck and the shore. With full knowledge of this, the shipwrecked mariners bore their sufferings in silence, until finally as the rigging swayed to and fro by the motion of the waves, they were submerged and drowned. As another vessel approached the breakers, two men tried to escape death in their boat; but had scarcely loosed from the vessel when a merciless sea swept them into eternity. Such scenes constantly occurred before the eyes of the kind-hearted Cape Ann fishermen, and they were nerved to exert themselves in the face of the great dangers of the storm. With ropes tied to their bodies, they repeatedly leaped from the rocks and saved many lives.

On Monday morning only a single mast was left standing in the harbor. Twenty-one vessels were driven ashore, three schooners sank, and seventeen were so thoroughly dashed to pieces that in some cases no fragment larger than a plank was left. Twenty vessels still rode in the harbor, all but one without masts, they having been cut away. From each vessel a slender pole stood to bear aloft a signal of distress. They were tossing like egg-shells upon the still raging sea, liable at any moment to part their cables and be driven to sea with all on board. The pieces of twenty-two wrecks were scattered along the shore, scarcely any one of which being larger than a horse could draw. The crowd had staid on the beach all night to give assistance if it were possible. On the following afternoon as soon as it was considered safe to do so, a brave volunteer crew under the direction of Capt. William Carter procured the custom-house boat, and pulled out to the vessels that still floated, taking the weary and suffering seamen to the shore. The shipwrecked men were obliged to jump from their decks into the boat, as the sea was still too violent to enable the gallant little craft to approach nearer. One of the vessels, just after her crew were taken off, drifted out of the harbor and was never again heard from.

But that night the calm, low voice of the Unseen was heard by the elements, "Peace, be still," — the tempest went down, the wind was taken away, and the mighty waves ceased their madness, sinking into a repose as quiet as that of a child after a hard day's play. The next morning's sun revealed the fragments of the many wrecks strewn along the beach, mixed with spars and rigging. But this was not all, for the articles of the varied cargoes, the personal effects of the seamen,

"And the corpses lay on the shining sand —
On the shining sand when the tide went down."


To the shipwrecked mariners was extended every relief and comfort that humanity could devise, and on that evening a public meeting of the citizens was held in the town to adopt means for their assistance. The exact loss of life was never ascertained. About forty lives were believed to have been lost, including the persons who perished by the wreck of a schooner near Pigeon cove, and twenty were known to have died, though only twelve bodies were recovered. The remains were tenderly cared for. One of the bodies was taken away by friends, and the funeral of the other deceased mariners was held at the Unitarian church on the following Sunday afternoon. All the other churches in the town were closed, the clergymen attending and taking part in this service. The pastor of the church, Rev. Josiah K. Waite, preached a sermon from the words, "Thou did'st blow with thy wind, the sea covered them: they sank as lead in the mighty waters.”1 The people of the town were so deeply in sympathy with the occasion that between two and three thousand persons listened to the exercises. In the church the eleven coffins were arranged in front, and at the close of the services were placed in carriages prepared for their conveyance, being appropriately shrouded in national flags. The vast congregation formed in a procession, which was nearly a mile in length, and followed the remains of the mariners to the public tomb. The dead were Capt. Amos Eaton, Peter Gott and Alpheus Gott, all of Mount Desert, Maine, William Hoofses and William Wallace, both of Bremen, Maine, Reuben Rider of Bucksport, Maine, Joshua Nickerson, Isaac Dacker, Philip Galley, a Mrs. Hilton, and two other persons whose names are unknown. The remains of Mrs. Hilton were taken to Boston before the funeral by friends in that city, and later in the season the bodies of Nickerson and Dacker were removed by water to their homes.

At Ipswich, another sad shipwreck was added to the list, which is already much too long. The storm was as violent in Ipswich bay as at Gloucester, and the schooner Deposit from Belfast, Maine, commanded by Captain Cotterell, was hurried before it through the foaming breakers on the sandy beach near the light-house at midnight on Sunday. Although the vessel was on the beach the heavy surf in which no boat could exist was between it and safety. The waves washed over the wreck continually from midnight till dawn, and the seven persons in the rigging and elsewhere about the wreck managed to prevent themselves from being swept off by the wind and waves, in several instances, however, only to survive that they might die from the cold and exposure. Before daylight came, the strength of a boy had failed, and he was lying in the scuppers dead, and a negro, becoming exhausted, had lain down and died. At daybreak, only five were alive. The storm was still raging with unabated fury, and threatened every moment to dash the remaining persons from their hold. Their feelings cannot be described. Was there no one on the shore to aid them? They screamed for help;

"And ever the fitful gusts between
A sound came from the land;
It was the sound of the trampling surf
Upon the hard sea-sand."


A man named Marshall was at the beach on that Monday morning, and discovered the wreck. He gave an alarm, and then he and Mr. Greenwood, the keeper of the light-house, went as near as they possibly could to the vessel. It was apparent that no boat could pass in safety through the surf. But the piteous cries for help from the sufferers, among whom was the captain's wife, nerved them to desperate action. Mr. Greenwood dashed into the water, and after an almost overpowering struggle with the waves arrived at the vessel. With a rope he hauled Mr. Marshall and a boat to the wreck. The captain who was completely exhausted and almost senseless, was first lowered into the boat which Marshall was keeping close to the vessel. But a wave instantly upset it, and threw them both into the surging water. Marshall went under the wreck, but on rising to the surface caught hold of a rope and saved himself, but the captain was so exhausted that he was drowned. His wife saw him as he was buried beneath the billows and her shrieks rose high above the thunders of the storm. Two of the crew were helped to the shore, one of them by floating on a boom. Mrs. Cotterell, wife of the captain, was lowered from the stern of the vessel by ropes, and the two rescuers standing in the surf received her in their arms as she came down to the surface of the water. They then waited until a mighty wave came, which they allowed to carry them all on shore. On the beach was a farm-house, then owned and occupied by Humphrey Lakeman, a retired sea-captain, to which the three survivors were conveyed, and medical aid procured. The two men that were saved were George Emery and Chandler Mahoney. The bodies of the lost were taken to the village and properly buried on the Wednesday following. The funeral was held at the South church, and was attended by a great number of people, who followed the remains to the cemetery. Sixteen sea-captains acted as pall bearers. The people of Ipswich had never before been so affected by any incident. The sadness of the wreck, the dead, the saved, and the actions of the two noble-hearted self-sacrificing men touched sympathetic chords in every breast. The crew were all young, and that fact added to the general sorrow. The expression upon the faces of the deceased, and especially that of one named Dunham, was peculiarly sweet, as if they were enjoying a most refreshing and peaceful sleep of the body rather than that from which they would never again awake. The survivors remained in the town until they were sufficiently restored to travel, receiving every comfort and attention.

At Newburyport, the tide overflowed the wharves on the river side, and large quantities of wood and lumber were floated away. Some fifteen or twenty fishing schooners that were lying at the wharves suffered more or less damage by chafing, and a large number of other vessels that were anchored in the harbor were more or less injured.

The second severe snow storm of this month began on Sunday, the twenty-second, and the next morning the wind was fiercely blowing from the northeast. The storm continued all through the day, and snow fell in such quantities that railroads in Massachusetts were blocked, and great damage was done on both land and sea, many vessels being driven ashore and more or less damaged. The storm reached as far south as Baltimore, where snow began to fall as early as Saturday.

The northern portion of Plum island was so flooded that the keeper of the light-house could not get to it. The water flowed quite across the island, in a number of places, making deep ravines, and causing many acres of grass land to be covered with sand. The hotel, which was then conducted by Capt. N. Brown, was entirely surrounded by water and the turnpike road and the bridge were flooded. Sand-hills twenty feet high were carried off and others equally large were formed. The whole eastern shore of the island was washed away several rods in width.

The storm was indelibly impressed upon the minds of the people of Newburyport by the wreck at Plum island of the brig Pocahontas, Capt. James G. Cook, master, bound from Cadiz to Newburyport, it having sailed from Cadiz in the latter part of October. She had set sail first in September, but, being run into by a Spanish ship, was so much damaged that she had to return for repairs. The crew consisted of the officers and nine hands before the mast. The brig measured two hundred and seventy-one tons, and had been built in 1830. Her masts had been carried away by the terrible wind, and she had probably been anchored in the evening, but in the darkness and the blinding snow, the mariners did not know that they were so near the sandy beach. The anchor dragged, and stern first she was driven on the reef, where she thumped until the stern was stove in, the noble vessel at length being torn to pieces. It had been driven upon a reef about one hundred and fifty yards from the beach, at a point half a mile east from the hotel, which was the most dangerous place on the island. Soon after daylight on Monday morning, Captain Brown, the keeper of the hotel, discovered the vessel, and news of the disaster was quickly conveyed to Newburyport. A few minutes later amidst the roar of the storm the cry rang through the streets that a wreck was on Plum island. A number of humane men from the lower part of the town donned their thickest and heaviest boots, and quickly hastened over the marshes to the sandy island, which was trembling under the tremendous roll of the maddened waves.

The deck of the brig was slippery, the ropes stiff and glazed, and the cries and shrieks of its human burden were drowned by the cruel winds and the roar of the ocean. Tons of water were rushing down the hatchways. When the vessel was first noticed, three men were seen upon it, one of them being lashed to the taffrail, and nearly or quite naked, apparently dead, and two were clinging to the bowsprit. In a short time and before the intelligence of the wreck had reached the town, only one man, who was clinging to the bowsprit, remained, and mountainous waves were rolling over him. Still he clung with a desperate grip. To his rescue, a number of hardy young men, veritable sons of Neptune, insisted upon going through the tremendous sea with Captain Brown's little skiff, the vessel being too far away to throw a life-saving line to it, and even if it had not been the man was evidently too much exhausted to avail himself of such means of escape. They hauled the boat over the beach for three-fourths of a mile, but finding it impossible for any common boat to live one moment in that terrible surf, they very reluctantly abandoned their plan. The ill-fated man maintained his position on the vessel for several hours, growing so weak that at one time he lost his hold, but luckily regained it. Still the unpitying storm beat on. The men could only look at each other through the falling snow, from land to sea, from sea to land, and each realized how impotent they all were. Just before noon, the mariner was a second time swept by the heavy sea from the bowsprit, which also immediately followed him, and this time he was seen no more. A few minutes later the wreck was washed in and cast upon the beach. A man was found lashed to the vessel and he was still breathing, but so exhausted that he simply drew a few breaths, and then all was over. The sea had beaten over him so fiercely and continually that his clothes were almost washed off from him. Whether the majority of the crew perished by the cold and exposure or were washed from the vessel by the waves will never be known, as not one of the thirteen souls on board survived to tell the tale. The people were deeply affected at knowing that young Captain Cook, toilworn as he was, after beating about on a stormy coast for several days, should be wrecked, and perish within sight of the smoke ascending from his own hearthfire. The bodies of several of the unfortunate men washed ashore and were taken up on the beach at some distance from the wreck, the small boat belonging to the brig lying near them indicating that they had attempted to reach the shore in it, probably about daylight. In all, there were recovered the bodies of the captain, first mate, who was Albert Cook, also of Newburyport, and seven others of the crew, who were strangers. Captain Cook's funeral was on Saturday, and after several days had passed, it having become almost certain that no more bodies would be found, the other eight corpses, with the American flag thrown over each of them, were borne into the broad aisle of the South church in Newburyport, while the bells were being tolled. Amid a concourse of twenty-five hundred persons, a solemn prayer was offered over the remains of these human waifs, untimely thrown upon our shores, and then they were borne at the head of a procession numbering several hundred persons, to the cemetery, while the bells were again solemnly tolled, and flags hung at half-mast from the vessels in the harbor.

At Nantasket beach, on Monday, at about noon, the bark Lloyd of Portland, Maine, bound from Havana to Boston, and commanded by Captain Mountfort, with masts gone, went on shore. The weather was still very thick, and a heavy sea was running, the surf being so high that no boat could put out to its assistance. Four of the crew lashed themselves to the rigging. The six other persons on the vessel succeeded in getting out and launching the long boat, into which they got, but the mighty waves upset it, and they were drowned. Finally the vessel was dashed to pieces, and all on board perished, with the exception of George Scott, an Englishman, who floated on an oar within reach of the people on the beach, and they pulled him out of the water when he was nearly exhausted. Captain Mountfort, who had lashed himself to the rigging, was brought ashore in a boat belonging to a vessel that was lying near, which also suffered from the storm, after three perilous efforts had been made to reach him, and was immediately taken into one of the huts of the Humane Society, every effort to resuscitate his insensible body being made, but in vain. He was the oldest shipmaster that then sailed out of Portland, and was much respected.

During the middle of the week, the weather was unusually fine for the season, but just before noon on Friday, another terrible storm began, this time of rain, which fell in small quantities, however. It was more tempestuous than either of the other storms had been, and the wind came from the east-southeast, increasing during the night to a violent gale, and reaching its height toward morning. It continued thirty hours in all, and brought in the tide to a great height, overflowing the wharves, and doing more or less damage to nearly all of them.

At Portland, Maine, the storm was very violent, and a number of vessels were injured. The tide rose so high that the sea swept over Tukey's bridge, and the Eastern stage was not able to pass that way.

At Newburyport, Mass., the tide overflowed the wharves, and floated off and destroyed a large amount of property. The damage done to the shipping in the harbor was much greater than had occurred in the other storms. Forty-one of the one hundred and thirty vessels there were more or less severely injured by chafing, collisions and sinking.

In Gloucester, the storm was severer than it was on the fifteenth, the wind being extremely fierce. At times it seemed as if everything would be swept before it. Houses almost tottered upon their foundations, and it was a fearful as well as a sleepless night to the people of the town. The tempest was at its height from four to six in the morning, but all night long the roar of the wind and sea was frightful. Few vessels were in the harbor, and several of those were lost. One of the wrecks was that of the brig Richmond Packet belonging in Deer Isle, Captain Toothaker, commander, and bound from Richmond to Newburyport with a cargo of corn and flour. It was driven ashore on a point of rocks and went entirely to pieces. Beside the crew, the captain's wife was on board. When the vessel struck, the captain jumped overboard with a rope and succeeded in getting safely upon the rocks, where he made the rope fast. By its means he endeavored to rescue his wife, but just as he was ready to do so, the brig gave a sudden lurch, and the rope snapped. Later Mrs. Toothaker was let down upon a spar into the water, hoping that upon that timber she would float ashore, but she had hardly reached the waves when a heavy sea swept her from the support. With a loud cry, she went down, and was seen no more until her lifeless body was discovered on the rocks. The crew were all saved.

At Salem, all the wharves suffered more or less, and everything was swept off them. Several vessels were forced from their moorings, there were some collisions, and a few ships and schooners were driven on shore. It was necessary to cut away a large number of masts. A small old house in the lower part of the town was blown down, the roofs of several sheds were torn off, and a number of chimneys injured. At several places on the railroad, the road-bed was washed away for a distance of one or two hundred feet each, preventing the progress of trains through the forenoon of Saturday. The mails from Boston were brought over the road in stages.

In Boston, more damage was done than in the storm of the fifteenth. The injuries to shipping were very extensive, wharves were overflowed, and lumber, wood, coal, etc., were swept away. The Front street dike, as it was called, was broken down, and water covered nearly all the low land between Front and Washington streets, from the Neck to Northampton street. It also came into Water street, and damaged dry goods in cellars to a large amount. The causeway leading to Dorchester, and the lower streets of the city were submerged, so much damage being done that crowds from the surrounding towns came to see it.

The large, beautiful ship Columbiana, of six hundred and thirty tons burden, one of A. C. Lombard and company's line of New Orleans packets, parted her cables at about four o'clock in the morning at Swett's wharf in Charlestown, where she was loading with ice. The wind took her on the flow of the tide, and drove her completely through the Charlestown bridge, carrying away two piers, as though there had been no obstruction there. The vessel then struck Warren bridge on its side, the mate having succeeded in bringing her into that position. The bridge was considerably injured, but it withstood the shock. The stern then quickly swung around, and struck the wharf which was built out from the draw with such violence that it demolished a dwelling-house one and a half stories in height, that was standing on the bridge, being occupied by the draw-tender. In the house were nine persons, who were in bed at the time, and they escaped without injury. One of them was thrown into the river when the concussion occurred, but was rescued by his companions. The ship was uninjured, in spite of her violent freak.

The storm was so severe at Provincetown, on Cape Cod, that the damage done to the shipping and the property on the wharves amounted to fifty thousand dollars, and many of them were entirely carried away, several persons being injured. Cellars of houses were inundated and a considerable number of the inhabitants were obliged to seek shelter elsewhere. Ten or eleven stores were knocked down by the vessels, two salt-mills were blown down, and many salt works were carried away.

The snows of this winter of 1839-40 were deeper and more severe than those that the old people of that time remembered. In the valleys in the western part of Massachusetts, snow was two feet deep through the winter, and on the Berkshire hills four feet. Many roads remained unbroken on account of it, and people travelled about on snow shoes. In many places the snow was fifteen feet deep and travellers passed over the drifts in well-trodden paths. In Chesterfield a man died, and the snow was so deep that for four days the family could not get to a neighbor's house for assistance. But the sea-shore witnessed the greater suffering. The month of December, 1839, was indelibly fixed in the minds of multitudes as one of the most awful seasons that they had ever known. If all the disasters that occurred along our coast were known and written out an immense volume would be the result. We do not put it too strongly when we say that upwards of three hundred vessels were wrecked, a million dollars' worth of property was destroyed, and more than a hundred and fifty lives were lost in these three storms. How many widows and orphans afterward sat at the windows of their cottages at Mount Desert and many other places looking for the sails that they knew so well, yet not daring to hope that they would see them again!

"Looking out over the sea.
From a granite rim of shore.
Looking out longingly,wearily,
Over a turbulent, pitiless sea.
For the sails that come no more.
Waiting and watching with tear-wet eyes
Till the last faint hope in the bosom dies;
While the waves crawl up o'er the chill white sand.
Those watchers long for a clasping hand,
And turn away with a thrill of pain,
But often pause to look again
From the rough dark rocks of the sea-beat shore,
For the gleam of snowy sails once more;
Sadly, longingly, wearily.
Looking out over the sea."


1Exodus xv: 10Source: Historic Storms of New England by Sidney Perley, 1891

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