Devastating Winds Raked State During Historic Hurricanes

Huge waves slam into waterfront homes in Westbrook During Tropical Storm Irene. (Stephen Dunn)

In August 1635, Connecticut consisted of a tiny settlement in Wethersfield and a crude fort in Old Saybrook. This was probably a good thing. It limited the devastation when the Great Colonial Hurricane arrived.

The ocean surge from this welcome-to-the-new-world storm caused the tide to rise to an unprecedented height in Boston, and forced the Narragansett Indians to climb to the tops of trees to escape the water. The winds leveled forests and destroyed ships anchored along the Massachusetts coast, and there was a significant loss of life.

Renowned weather historian David Ludlum wrote that this hurricane "Was the greatest meteorological event of the colonial period in New England."

Some 40 years later, in September 1675, a hurricane Ludlum claimed was equally as powerful did major damage in New London and along the coast to Boston.

Ludlum was of the opinion that the five most devastating hurricanes to strike southern New England occurred in 1635, 1675, 1815, 1938, and 1944.

Hurricanes Sink Ships, Drop Snow

Although Connecticut suffered no major hurricanes during the 18th century, one in September 1775 killed 163 people, mainly in North Carolina and at sea off New England. This was largest death toll for any America hurricane at the time.

Three years later, a late season hurricane lashed Cape Cod in early November, killing 50 to 70 people, 23 of them aboard the HMS Somerset III, a British ship that ran aground.

In mid-October 1782, a hurricane centered near Boston garnered attention for producing wind-driven snow.

In terms of hurricanes, the 1700s were notable for a couple of other things:

Storms were sometimes given names reflecting the Revolutionary fervor of the times. So we had the the Independence Hurricane of 1775, and the George Washington Hurricane of 1788.

Also, during a tropical storm that struck Philadelphia on Oct. 22, 1743, Benjamin Franklin measured it using scientific weather instruments for the first time in United States history.

Fishing Fleet Swamped, Dozens Killed

The 19th century included such memorable weather events as:

The category 3 Snow Hurricane of Oct. 9, 1804, which dumped up to 2 to 3 feet of snow across New England and killed nine people.

And the Oct. 3,1841, hurricane that dropped as much as 18 inches of snow on some parts of Connecticut, and sank the Georges Bank fishing fleet, drowning 91 fishermen.

The century is remembered most for the 1815 hurricane that punished New England on Sept 22-23.

As that storm approached, the air was said to have become so suffocatingly hot and humid that many people found it difficult to breathe. Other reports claimed the air pressure made it impossible to light a fire inside one's home.

The 1815 hurricane began as heavy rain, but eventually the wind picked up and blew so hard along the shore that buildings, fences, trees, boats, anything exposed to the gusts, was swept up. In populated areas, it became dangerous to be outside because there was so much flying debris.

What the wind didn't take, the ocean did. The salt spray that was produced when the surge crashed into land traveled as far inland as Worcester, where it coated everything and turned leaves and plants brown.