Friday, September 4, 2009

Great Gale of 1815

The arrival of late summer brings with it its usual threat of hurricanes, and Middleborough and Lakeville occasionally have been battered by tropical storms over the centuries, a number of which still remain within living memory of older residents, including those of 1938, 1944 and 1954. Among the most devastating hurricanes locally was the "big gale"of 1815. Believed to have been a high category 3 storm, the gale (the word "hurricane" had yet to be adopted to describe such storms) was then considered to have been the worst storm to have ever struck the region. While there remain few records of the hurricane locally, assuredly the best is an eyewitness account written in later life by local historian Granville Temple Sproat who was a young boy when he experienced the storm.

The storm began Friday morning, September 22, when dark storm clouds gathered and rain began to fall heavily. After noon, the wind gradually increased steadily, blowing in strong gusts, while the rain seemed to subside. Friday evening, the winds died somewhat and the storm appeared to have ceased, but the following morning, as the storm tracked over central Long Island and Connecticut, the wind returned with renewed ferocity in Middleborough and Lakeville, destroying buildings, uprooting trees and scattering unsecured objects throughout the day.

Apprehensive of the impending danger, residents of the Court End section of Middleborough, along with Sproat, gathered in the Wood House which stood on the site presently occupied by the Rite-Aid parking lot on South Main Street. The Wood House was a low squat gambrel-roofed structure which hugged the ground and, as such, was deemed a much safer refuge than any of the other houses in the vicinity which “were high, and trembled and rocked to their foundations”.

In the Wood House the neighborhood children were confined in the long, narrow rear entry where they occupied themselves playing Blind Man’s Bluff, blithely “unmindful of the gale.” When a terrific gust, however, came along and took with it both the woodshed and the outhouse which were attached to the rear entry, the children were promptly relocated to a more secure room. “The noise of the falling buildings brought our mothers to the spot, who quickly hustled us into the main dwelling”, wrote Sproat many years afterwards.

The storm destroyed numerous barns throughout town, scattering their contents in the process, and most recollections of the storm, including that of Sproat, contain an account of the loose hay which filled the air. “The writer remembered looking out, and seeing the heavens dark with floating hay from a barn, the roof of which had been carried away by the violence of the wind.”

Though many of the children were undoubtedly fascinated by the novelty of the tempest, the many ladies in the house were equally frightened by its immense and brute power. “A large apple tree, torn up by the roots in an adjacent orchard, was rolled through the streets as though it had been drawn by oxen, much to the terror of the women in the house. They feared it would be dashed by the wind against the walls of the building, and crush them in.”

Nor were the fears of the women allayed when the heavy front door of the house was blown open. “…The women could not shut it. Men had to come with planks to secure it.”

The ancient Morton House which stood in the middle of South Main Street opposite the Wood House surprisingly survived the hurricane, blessed as it was with its sturdy pegged construction. Sproat recalled that from his vantage point at a window in the Wood House he could spy the Morton House “surging and swaying in the blast.” The Morton House literally weathered the storm. “Its firm oaken timbers did not give way – they stood strong to the end of the gale.”
At the Green, the windows of the First Precinct Church were torn from the building by the winds and deposited in the midst of Meetinghouse Swamp, where they were later discovered “hanging among the trees, the glass gone.” Elsewhere about town, trees were uprooted and many buildings severely damaged.

Eventually, during the afternoon on Saturday, the storm subsided. “Much was the joy expressed when the violence of the gale abated, and we could return again to our own homes, and find them still standing, having braved the fury of the hurricane.” It is said that attendance at church that Sunday was off, many of the men and older boys absent in order to begin the process of clearing the debris left in the wake of the hurricane. Of the extent of the damage done in Middleborough, or the lives that were affected, we know nothing.

One later chronicler of the devastation brought by the storm touched upon this subject, writing “Just how many lives were lost, many of them being those of husbands and fathers, and how much property was destroyed cannot be ascertained. Neither can one know how many fond hopes were forever blasted, how many changes in life and its plans were caused, nor the pain of body and heart that followed.”
James Gillray, "The Three Graces in a High Wind", engraving, 1810.
While Middleborough ladies at the time of the 1815 hurricane would not have been dressed as fashionably as the subjects of Gillray's satirical print, they would have worn similar loose-fitting dresses which became cumbersome in the heavy wind and rain of the storm. Fortunately, most of the women residing in the vicinity of the Wood House had taken refuge there before the height of the storm on Saturday.
Wood House, South Main Street, Middleborough, photograph, c. 1900.
Because of its heavy frame and squat structure, the Wood House became the refuge for residents of the Court End section of Middleborough during the hurricane of September 23, 1815. While the attached woodshed and outhouse were torn by the powerful winds from the house, the building weathered the storm and all those inside remained safe, including Granville Temple Sproat who would later record his recollection of the momentous storm.


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