The Great Havana Hurricane of 1846


The Great Gale of 1846, fireboard by William Bartoli. Courtesy Peabody Essex Museum.

The Great Gale of 1846, fireboard by William Bartoli. Courtesy Peabody Essex Museum.

One month after a tropical storm walloped Massachusetts, the Great Havana Hurricane of 1846 blew through New England, flattening factories, collapsing houses, uprooting trees and tearing up railroads.

It was a storm of extraordinary size and strength, the most intense tropical cyclone recorded by meteorologists for 78 years.

The hurricane lasted four days, from October 10-14, spreading destruction through Cuba and Florida before it careened up the coast into New York and New England.

And yet in much of the Northeast, it barely rained at all.

Great Havana Hurricane

Before 1846, there are no records of Cuba ever being hit by a Category 5 hurricane – one with sustained winds greater than 156 mph. On October 10, the first one struck. Wind speeds reached 175 mph. Seas were whipped 30 feet high, sinking 85 merchant ships. The storm leveled nearly every building in Havana, leaving the city in ruins.

The Great Havana Hurricane then moved north, dropping heavy rains on the Florida Keys. People sought safety in two lighthouses, but drowned when the structures collapsed. Hundreds of homes and businesses were wiped out, and the flooding washed bodies out of a cemetery and into tree canopies.

The storm began to weaken and swung north, tearing through Georgia, the Carolinas, Virginia and New York.

By the time it reached New England it was only an extratropical storm. But it did plenty of damage anyway.

Storm-Wracked Massachusetts

The hurricane was considered the worst since the October Gale of 1841, which took 81 lives and wiped out the working-age male population of Truro, Mass.

The month before the Great Havana Hurricane struck, Massachusetts was hit by a tropical storm, known in Marblehead, Mass., as the Great Gale. Marblehead was then the center of the fishing industry in New England, with 98 schooners in its fishing fleet. The Great Gale sunk 11 of them. Sixty-five men and boys were lost. The storm caused the center of the New England fishing industry to move north to Gloucester, Mass.

On Oct. 14, 1846, intense winds from the Great Havana Hurricane hit Cape Cod. It tore a trestle bridge to pieces in Hartford with 77 mph winds and destroyed apple orchards in western Massachusetts.

The storm dropped little rain on most of the region. New Bedford, for example, only got .33 inches.

Massachusetts bore the brunt of the damage caused by the high winds. Trees fell from Springfield to Amherst. Factories and railroad sheds were flattened in Worcester. Houses and sawmills were destroyed in Boston and trees uprooted. Factories were razed in Canton and Southborough. A school building was destroyed in Palmer, a railroad shed in Stoughton.

The Great Havana Hurricane killed about 150 people outside of Cuba. Six hundred people were believed killed in Cuba, but the death toll may have been higher.

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