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Top 10 Seacoast Natural Disasters

Top_10_Seacoast_DisastersHISTORY MATTERS

Each year media pundits tick off the best and worst events of the year. Historians have more legroom. Submitted for your approval are ten cases in which Mother Nature took control of the situation in the Portsmouth, NH region. The list is subjective, culled from the chronicles of local history. Readers are welcome to offer alternatives. (Continue below)


To make things interesting, this list is arranged, not chronologically, but from least to most deadly. Other than the Great Fires, that may have been the result of arson, we've left tragedies of human origin out of the mix. That might be another list for another year.

10. A Day without Sunlight

New England’s darkest day was May 18, 1780. According to Portsmouth historian Nathaniel Adams, “Between 10 and 11 o'clock the darkness increased, and began to assume the appearance of evening. Fowls went to roost, and cattle collected round the barn-yards, as at the approach of night. Before noon it became so dark, as to be difficult to read without a candle … The evening was enveloped in total darkness; the sky could not be distinguished from the ground.” The next day was normal although foggy. Bits of burned leaves fell and rainwater was sooty. Researchers at the University of Missouri have recently suggested that the fires that blocked out the sun for miles out to sea originated at Algonquin Park, Ontario.

9. The Frozen Piscataqua

Passengers aboard the Navy Yard ferry #1048 from Portsmouth had to get out and walk back to shore in 1918. On February 11 the fast flowing Piscataqua River appeared to freeze solid. In fact, a mass of broken ice from Great Bay apparently caused a jam when the current reversed and the icebergs gathered together. Caught in the ice, the propeller failed on the Navy Yard ferry at 7am. The New Castle ferry was soon locked in too. When the tide shifted at 1 pm, the ice jam broke up and both boats were freed.

8. Whole Lotta Shakin

The “most severe and tremendous earthquake that was ever felt” in this region struck after midnight on November 18, 1755. The weather, according to reports, was serene, and the moon bright when a powerful shaking threw silverware from the drawers. The quake reportedly toppled 1,500 chimneys in the Boston area. Passengers aboard boats, feeling the shock wave, believed they had struck a rock. Awakened by the tremors, Portsmouth citizens feared the end of days as aftershocks continued for two weeks. Samuel Weeks brick house (1710) in Greenland stands as proof of the seismic event. Cracks in the brick walls and 18-inch thick beam can still be seen.

7. Ice Storm of 1886

Technically the recent ice damage of 2008 was more devastating than its sister storm of January 1886. That’s because we have grown dependent on electrical power. In Victorian days, a downed electrical or telephone line had no impact on most homes. There were no cars to strand, no airplanes to cancel, no Internet to disrupt business. Portsmouth was temporarily paralyzed in 1886, but the greatest danger came from falling on the ice as residents wandered the slippery streets admiring the frozen landscape. According to the Portsmouth Chronicle, "The glittering trees reflecting the gas lights, presented the effect of bowers of diamonds.”



Worst Portsmouth Area Disiaster (Continued)



6. Hurricane of 38

At least 600 people died in the northeast, mostly from drowning during the storm. An estimated 8,000 homes and 6,000 boats were lost as a brutal hurricane hit unsuspecting residents on September 21, 1938. But Portsmouth nearly dodged the bullet. In his memoir Home by Nine about life in the city’s South End, Harold Whitehouse recalls the downed fences, blocked roads, and cancelled school, but not the devastation felt by other coastal towns. Whitehouse remembers his impression at age 10. “The next morning we got up and couldn’t believe the damage. Most of the trees, the wires, and the telephone poles were down.”

5. Downtown in Flames

Although hundreds of buildings were destroyed in three infamous downtown fires in the early 19th century, miraculously, no deaths were recorded. Many stunned residents were robbed, however, as they dragged their valuables onto the city streets during December of 1802, 1806, and 1813. The losses were primarily emotional and financial. One contemporary writer described the victims of the 1813 blaze this way: “the entire fruits of a life of industry were swept away, leaving the sufferers at mid-winter, without a place of shelter, or a dollar to recommence the world anew.” Chartable contributions flowed in and when Portsmouth rebuilt its city center for the third time – they used brick, not wood.

4. Killed by Lightning

In the mid-1800s, city historian Charles Brewster chronicled an accidental death that occurred on June 2, 1777. He wrote: “Mrs. Catharine Clark, who had been married but one week, was expecting company. In the afternoon, there came up a heavy shower. After the force of the shower had appeared to pass away, she went into a back room, put her head out of the window to observe the clouds, and was instantly killed by a flash of lightning. It is a remarkable circumstance, that this is the only case on record of fatality from lightning within the limits of Portsmouth. In 1782, some Frenchmen were killed by lightning on board of a vessel in our river.”

3. Cyclone at the Shipyard

On August 8, 1901 a portion of the floating drydock at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard broke loose under a heavy gale. According to the Portsmouth Journal Mrs. HV Mealey was struck in the chest and killed by a flying wooden beam when she went into a shed to escape the freak storm. Joel Pierson had both his legs crushed and he later died at the hospital. Although the sudden storm lasted only 10 minutes, seven other workers were injured. Rumors initially set the toll at 30 dead when the large traveling crane on Seavey’s Island was toppled and a contractor’s shed flew into the air and crashed back to earth. But only two actually died, while in Portsmouth and on the mainland, winds were mild to moderate.

2. Shipwrecked at the Shoals

Nature has killed many a Shoaler including Miss Underhill, an “amiable” young woman whom, writer Celia Thaxter tells us, was swept off the rocks by a rogue wave around 1842. Scores of ships were wrecked in storms. But the case of the “Spanish sailors” remains the most mysterious. In a letter to this writer, the late Shoals historian Bob Tuttle offered this summary: In the Gosport Town Records it is noted the ship was wrecked on the night of January 14, 1813, during a snowstorm. The body of one sailor was found the next morning, six more bodies on January 17th, and five more on the 21st. On the 27th a body was grappled up from the Hog Island passage [between Appledore and Smuttynose Islands]. On August 8th, another body was found in the same area; altogether, 14 bodies. They were reported buried on Smuttynose. But where are they?”

1. Bring Out Your Dead

"Yellow Malignant Fever" killed 55 Portsmouth residents in almost as many days in 1798. The plague arrived on July 23 aboard the Mentor from Martinique captained by John Flagg. Attempts to quarantine the fever within Deer, Green and Russell streets (near the modern Portwalk construction site) were mildly successful. The few locals who traveled through the North End over the next few months covered their faces with handkerchiefs dipped in vinegar. Besides the moans of the sick and dying, the neighborhood was hauntingly silent. Funerals were so frequent that processions and the ringing of church bells were banned. The dead were quickly placed into wooden boxes, slid through open windows, and buried under cover of darkness in a mass grave at the North Cemetery.

Copyright © 2010 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson is the editor and owner of the award-winning history web site now in its 14th year. His history column appears in the Portsmouth Herald biweekly.

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