The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, September 15, 2006


Hurricanes are infrequent visitors to Carlisle

A massive elm uprooted during the Hurricane of 1938 sprawls across the house at 698 Concord Street, now the home of the Carlisle Historical Society. (Photo from the Carlisle Historical Society)

Since 1995 the Atlantic hurricane season has been classified as "above average" in activity. In 2005 over 25 named storms developed, 13 became hurricanes, with six of those slamming into the southern United States. While viewing the damage left by Katrina and Rita, it is comforting to know that few strong hurricanes reach Carlisle. As with this week's Hurricane Florence, we mostly receive the ocean swells and sometimes rain from the leading edge of the storm. But hurricanes, large and small, do come to New England, and many cause severe damage. The Native Americans had learned to deal with the devastating storms. Colonial settlers were not prepared.

On August 24, 1635, a vast storm called the "Great Colonial Hurricane," now estimated as a category 3 with winds over 125 mph, blew without warning into eastern Massachusetts. Numerous ships, goods and lives were lost at sea. Whole forests were blown down and houses were destroyed. Farmers in the new town of Concord, Massachusetts (founded in 1635), saw their crops obliterated. Settlers were stunned at New England's excessive weather. Witnesses reported the waves were so fierce that the Narragansett Indians had to climb trees to escape the tidal surge that flowed inland. Five years later, when James Adams, the first Carlisle settler, began his homestead on South Street, he must have had plenty of blown-down trees with which to build his house.

This was the settlers' violent introduction to New England's unpredictable and sometimes extreme climate. Mark Twain said, "Yes, one of the brightest gems in the New England weather is the dazzling uncertainty of it." But to the new settlers in the region this would not have been amusing. Carlisle's Solomon Andrews, who operated a mill at the site of the current Greenough Farm around 1757, was a direct descendent of Robert Andrews, the Captain of the Angel Gabriel, out of Bristol, England. This ship was one of the many that sank off the Massachusetts coast during the hurricane, but all the passengers and crew made it to shore. Joanna (Proctor) French was another Andrews descendant. She and her husband established the French family in Carlisle.

The birth of hurricanes

Hurricanes begin as low pressure waves that flow off the western African coast, gathering moisture as they move toward the eastern Caribbean. As the cluster of thunderstorms grows and rotates, the pressure in the center of the storm decreases. Moist air is drawn into the low pressure area, adding to the spin, and a tropical depression is born. While the storm moves over the warm water it continues to grow. It becomes a hurricane when maximum sustained winds reach 74 miles per hour. Hurricanes that survive the cool waters of New England often come ashore through the coasts of Connecticut and Rhode Island.

More early American hurricanes

Powerful winds that blew in with the Hurricane of 1938 toppled trees and telephone poles. This is a view of Bedford Road from Carlisle Center toward the former Charles Taylor home at 101 Bedford Road. (Photo from the Carlisle Historical Society)

Details about hurricanes in early America are not easy to find, since printed news in the colonies was discouraged by the British crown. Records show that three years after the 1635 hurricane the "Second Great Colonial Hurricane" struck. As the century continued, weak tropical systems brought rain and wind to New England with localized flooding, but in general the region was spared a direct hit by a hurricane. The 1700s were remarkable because only a few weak hurricanes entered the New England region.

Strong hurricanes returned at the start of the 1800s. One of the strangest occurred on October 9, 1804. Arriving during a blast of unseasonable cold air, the hurricane brought reportedly 40 to 60 mph winds and 15 to 30 inches of snow to the Middlesex region. The combination of the high winds and snow damaged orchards and forests and caused many shipwrecks.

In Historic Storms of New England, author Sidney Perley explains that the summer of 1815 was unusual for its excessive number of violent storms. The "September Gale" on September 23 is thought to be equal or greater in strength than the two Great Colonial Hurricanes. The difference, however, is the increase in population. In 1640 approximately 33,000 people lived in New England. By 1815 the population had grown to over 1,000,000. Forests had been cleared for agriculture, and numerous houses, shops, barns, and businesses were built. When the category 3 hurricane hit, it destroyed homes, toppled chimneys and blew apart barns. Livestock were scattered and whole swaths of trees were leveled. As the eye of the September Gale passed west of Carlisle and entered New Hampshire near Jaffrey, the strongest winds swirled in from the northeast to flatten crops and damage buildings. Thirty-eight deaths occurred throughout the region. Older New England residents claimed it was the most violent storm known. Perley remarks that building activity after the storm increased because of the available wood from blow-downs.

Wrong forecast

A massive and destructive hurricane caught New England unprepared and led to improvements in the hurricane warning system. The "Great New England Hurricane" of 1938, also known as the "Long Island Express," was reported in the Caribbean on September 18. It quickly grew into a dangerous category 5 storm, with sustained maximum winds of 160 mph. The U.S. National Weather Service forecast the storm would curve out to sea, but instead, it accelerated northward past the North Carolina coast at an unusual 60 to 70 mph. Without warning it blew across Long Island on September 21 as a strong category 3, with winds over 120 mph, a massive 500 miles wide. It then swept into New England at high tide, causing severe flooding and wind damage. Its high speed allowed it to maintain its strength well inland to the Canadian border. Over 600 died, and its estimated cost would have been over six billion dollars in today's economy.

The big elm tree in front of 549 Bedford Road was toppled by the Great Atlantic Hurricane of 1944. The home was then owned by John Davis and now houses Carlisle Antiques. Inspecting the damage are, from left to right, Roger Davis, Norman Davis, Jr., an unidentified person (partially hidden), and Arthur Boyden. (Photo from the Carlisle Historical Society)

Carlisle was spared the awful tidal surges and flooding experienced on the coast of Rhode Island, Long Island and Cape Cod, where many of the lives were lost. The chief damage to Carlisle was caused by excessive winds. Forests, cut down during colonial days, were growing thick again. Large trees were split in half or toppled, landing on houses and roads. The Concord Enterprise of September 28 reported headstones were blown over in Concord, which probably also occurred in Carlisle. Power and phone service were out for more than a week. In the book Images of America, Carlisle, published by the Carlisle Historical Society, photos in chapter nine show some of the damage Carlisle received. Ruth Chamberlin Wilkins, in Carlisle, Its History and Heritage, noted, "The disastrous hurricane of 1938 not only leveled innumerable beautiful roadside and lawn trees in Carlisle, but created wholesale havoc in woodlands and other areas. Following this, a tremendous job of cleaning up and attempting to reduce the fire hazard was carried out, all through New England." The hurricane was so forceful, Wilkins added, that it swayed the First Parish bell tower and "the bell rang several times." The flagpole on the town common was destroyed and replaced in 1940. Clearing the forest and fields of debris continued until November of 1939.

Wartime hurricane

Gloria claims another house during its rampage through Carlisle in 1985. (Photo by Gale Constable)

On September 14, 1944 the "Great Atlantic Hurricane," a category 2 storm with winds over 100 mph, made landfall on the coast of Connecticut and Rhode Island, moved inland, and dissipated over Canada the next day. "Large trees and branches fell over the streets, in spots," reported the Concord Journal in the September 20 issue. Bus service was discontinued so Carlisle residents had to take taxis to get home from work. Though there was no electricity, Concord High School opened the next day. "Those from Lincoln and Carlisle couldn't come [to school] because of blocked roads," the Journal reported.

The 1944 storm devastated the apple crop just as it was ready for harvest. A call went out to "salvage a million bushels of apples blown from trees throughout the Nashoba belt in Thursday night's storm," reported the Concord Enterprise Weekly. This was during World War II, so food was being rationed and the paper made it clear that no waste was to be tolerated. "Housewives of New England will be asked by poster and advertising campaigns to eat, cook, can and preserve the fruit." Schools throughout the area sent boys to pick up the fruit. The Enterprise assured citizens that, "There are no German prisoners working" to gather the bruised fruit.

Gloria inspires poetry

Weaker storms continued to visit New England but none caused major damage to Carlisle until Hurricane Gloria arrived. It came ashore as a strong category 1 on Tuesday, September 27, 1985 and blew down trees and wires. The October 4, 1985 Carlisle Mosquito quoted Fire Chief Robert Koning as saying the damage was "massive — like a war scene." Every main street in the town was blocked, and no emergency vehicles could get through. More than 250 "tree problems" had to be resolved. The new fire station, still under construction, was turned into the command center for the more than ninety workers doing the post-hurricane clean up. Carlisle's Barbara Bennett described the aftermath:

Bob blows into town

Hurricane Bob was a compact storm that intensified off the coast of Virginia to a weak category 3 on August 19, 1991. It came ashore over Block Island as a category 2 storm with wind speeds around 105 mph. Losing strength, it headed north, bringing 75 to 100 mph winds to Carlisle. As the eye passed over Carlisle, the dead quiet encouraged residents to emerge and assess the damage. The peace lasted for approximately twenty minutes and then the winds increased as they shifted to the northeast side. Paul Anagnostopoulos, of Rutland Street, watching his wife (this writer) walk around during the lull of the eye, witnessed a large oak fall inches from her as the wind returned. Needless to say she screamed and scrambled back into the relative safety of the house. The August 30 issue of the Carlisle Mosquito reported wires down on streets, trees on roads, and flooded basements due to the five to seven inches of rain that accompanied the storm.

The next hurricane?

This map tracks seven hurricanes that brought significant damage to Carlisle. Four crossed to the west of Carlisle, causing the strongest winds and damage. Note that in 1991, Hurricane Bob's eye traveled directly over town. (Map by Cynthia Sorn)

Unscientifically, it appears New England experiences a category 3 strength hurricane every 100 years, giving the next vicious storm an arrival date in Carlisle around 2038. No matter how much warning Carlisle is given, a strong hurricane will damage trees, bring down wires, and cause flooding in the known flood areas. As was discovered during Gloria, Carlisle benefits from having a central "command center" in which to organize the clean-up. It also benefits from being a community whose residents pitch in to help others, which is the most important factor when dealing with a hurricane.

Categories of storms

Type of Storm Category Wind Speed (mph)

Tropical Depression TD < 39

Tropical Storm TS 39-73

Hurricane 1 74-95

Hurricane 2 96-110

Hurricane 3 111-130

Hurricane 4 131-155

Hurricane 5 >155

2006 The Carlisle Mosquito