November 26, 1703 Into the Maelstrom

It’s hard to count the cost of such a cataclysm, when everyone who ever knew you, is gone.  Estimates of fatalities range from 8,000 to 15,000 killed.

The storm came in from the southwest on Wednesday evening, November 24, and stayed until December 2. On Friday the 26th, barometers read as low as 950 millibars in some areas, a reading so low as not to have been seen in living memory. Before it was over, the southern part of Great Britain had suffered one of the most destructive storms, in history.

In a time before meteorological science, such an event was understood to be the wrath of God.  And what a wrathful God, he was.  Any storm worthy of the name “Hurricane”- any storm, we’re not talking Katrina or Andrew here – expends the energy equivalent to 200 times the electrical generating capacity, of the entire planet.  We’re talking about 10,000 Hiroshimas here, usually spread out over time and place.  Not this one.  This one was concentrated, compacted into the heavily populated south of England, a place where the gray and feeble first light of dawn broke across the land, and “nobody could believe the hundredth part they saw“.

A155403.jpgBeginning in early November, a series of gales drove hundreds of ships up the Thames estuary, is search of shelter.  The “Perfect Hurricane” of 1703 arrived on November 24 (Old Style) and remained until December 2 with the worst of the storm on November 26-27.

Queen Anne sought shelter in the cellars of St. James’ Palace, while the lead roof blew off of Westminster Abbey.  More than 2,000 chimneys were toppled to the ground in London alone as were another 17,000, trees. In the Thames, 700 vessels of all sizes piled up like children’s toys.  Ship’s officers struggled to record an event, entirely outside of living memory.

“It was so severe, none of these poor captains had ever experienced it before, so they didn’t have any yardsticks to base the description on,” says Wheeler, who studied Royal Navy logbooks at length. “One gave up and just wrote ‘a most violent storm’ and left it at that, for sheer want of anything more he could say.”

At the Cathedral City at Wells, Bishop Richard Kidder was asleep with his wife next to him, when a toppling chimney killed them both in their bed.

A third of British Naval power was destroyed during this storm, the entire Channel squadron, gone.  Ships were driven as much as 15 miles inland, more than 1,500 sailors drowned.  Many vessels simply disappeared. Others washed up on the faraway shores of Denmark, and Norway.

Synoptic-summary-of-The-Great-Storm-of-December-1703-in-England-after-Lamb-and.pngThe most miraculous tale of survival was that of Thomas Atkins, a sailor aboard the HMS Mary. As Mary broke apart, Atkins watched as Rear Admiral Beaumont climbed aboard a piece of her quarter deck, only to be washed away.  Atkins himself was lifted high on a wave and deposited on the decks of another ship, the HMS Stirling Castle.  He was soon in the water again as Stirling Castle broke up and sank, only to thrown by yet another wave, this time landing in a small boat. Atkins alone survived the maelstrom, of the 269 men aboard HMS Mary.

Hundreds found themselves stranded on Goodwin Sands, a ten mile long sand bar, six miles off the coast of Kent. In a race against the incoming tide, a man named Thomas Powell organized the rescue of some 200.  More could have been saved, had the good citizens onshore stopped looting shipwrecks long enough to lend a hand.

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An engraving of the age depicts the disaster, on Goodwin Sands.

With “Robinson Crusoe” still sixteen years in the future, the famous author Daniel Defoe was at this time, but a minor poet and pamphleteer.  The writer was freshly out of prison in 1703, having served a sentence for criticizing the religious predilections, of High Church Anglicans. Hearing the collapse of brick chimneys, the Defoes and their six children sought refuge in their gardens but were soon driven inside, to “trust the will of Providence”. “Whatever the danger was within doors”, he said, “”twas worse without; the bricks, tiles, and stones, from the tops of the houses, flew with such force, and so thick in the streets, that no one thought fit to venture out, tho’ their houses were near demolish’d within.”

The 75,000 words which followed are recognized by many as the first work of modern journalism, forming Daniel Defoe’s first book length work, “The Storm”.

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English engineer Henry Winstanley constructed the first Eddystone Lighthouse. He died with his creation in 1703, caught out while making repairs, by the cataclysm of 1703

Storms of great severity are not unheard of in southern England. In 1362, part of the Norwich Cathedral spire was blown down.  Severe gales were recorded in 1897, 1908 and 1943. The gales of 1953 and 1987 left more damage than any storm of the last century. At the time, the storm of 1703 was seen as the Wrath of God, visited upon Great Britain for the “crying sins of this nation”. The storm would remain the subject of sermons for the next 150 years.

It’s hard to count the cost of such a cataclysm, when everyone who ever knew you, is gone.  Estimates of fatalities range from 8,000 to 15,000 killed. The Reaper’s true account, is impossible to know.

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March 29, 1848 When Niagara Falls Ran Dry

Only once in recorded history did Niagara Falls run dry.  On this day in 1848, roughly 212,000 cubic feet per second dried, to a trickle.

As Athens and Sparta vied for control of the Peloponnese, the earliest tribes settled in the Niagara valley of modern-day Ontario and western New York.  These aboriginal settlers were the Onguiaahra, a farming people growing corn, beans and squash in the rich soil of the Niagara escarpment, hunting deer and elk and fishing the tributary waterways of the Niagara valley.

They were 12,000 in number when French explorer Samuel de Champlain came to the region in 1615.  French explorers called them “Neutrals”, the peace makers between the perpetually warring tribes of the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida and Mohawk Nations to the south, and the Huron to the north.  Vying for control of the rich French fur trade, peoples of this “Iroquois Confederacy” systematically destroyed the villages of the neutrals, killing their people or driving them east, toward Albany.  The Onguiaahra ceased to exist as a people by 1653 but their name lives on, in a word translating as “Thunder of Waters”.

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Niagara Falls are three in number, 3,160 tons of water cascading over the precipice every second, hitting the bottom at American and Bridal Veil Falls with 280 tons of force, and an astonishing 2,509 striking the Canadian side, at the famous Horseshoe Falls.

Pictures have been around since the age of photography, purporting to show Niagara Falls “frozen solid”.  That’s not so unusual.  The Washington Post reports:

“Niagara Falls gets cold every year. The average temperature in Niagara Falls in January is between 16 and 32 degrees. Naturally, it being that cold, ice floes and giant icicles form on the falls, and in the Niagara River above and below the falls, every year. The ice at the base of the falls, called the ice bridge, sometimes gets so thick that people used to build concession stands and walk to Canada on it. It’s nothing out of the ordinary. It is not, to put it bluntly, big polar vortex news”.

Niagara “Frozen” in 1906, 1902 and 1936.  Hat Tip Snopes.com

Despite appearances, water flows in abundance under those bridges of ice.  Only once in recorded history did Niagara Falls run dry.  On this day in 1848, roughly 212,000 cubic feet per second dried, to a trickle.  Not dried, really, nor did it freeze.  Strong southwest winds had driven massive amounts of ice to the head of Niagara River, effectively putting a cork in the bottle.

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Fish flopped in the dry riverbed as, upstream, factories ground to a halt.  Souvenir hunters and daredevils walked out on the dry river bed.  Some even drove buggies.   One unit of the United States Army cavalry paraded back and forth, across the river.  Treasure hunters found artifacts from the War of 1812:  muskets, bayonets, even tomahawks.  At the base of the Falls, Maid of the Mist owners took the opportunity to dynamite rocks, which had endangered their boat.

That much water is not to be denied.  The ice dam broke on March 31 and, by that evening, the flow was back to normal.

Lifelong “Stooges” fans will appreciate this classic comedy bit, “Niagara Falls”

The Falls “dried up” once more in 1961 but, this time, on purpose.  Over three days and 1,264 truckloads of fill, the US Army Corps of Engineers built a cofferdam that June, diverting water to the Canadian side.  There was concern that rock falls were going to cause erosion, “shutting down” the Falls.  On inspection, engineers determined that removing the rocks would accelerate erosion.  The idea was abandoned by November and the cofferdam, blown up.  To this day, the waters of Niagara flow unvexed, to the sea.

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A Trivial Matter
In 1901, Schoolteacher Annie Edson Taylor became the first person to go over Niagara Falls, in a barrel.  Sixteen others have followed, at least on purpose.  Five of them died, including the guy who went over in a kayak, and the one on the jet ski.  On Saturday, July 9, 1960, seven-year-old Roger Woodward was accidentally swept over Horsehoe Falls and miraculously survived the 162-foot plunge, wearing only a bathing suit and a life jacket. Sadly, James Honeycutt was killed, attempting his rescue.  90% of fish who go over the Falls, live to tell the tale.