Massachusetts

The Great Havana Hurricane of 1846

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.

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.

Meteorologists recorded the storm's extraordinary size and strength, the most intense tropical cyclone recorded 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, no records existed of Cuba ever 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, whipping the seas 30 feet high and 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.  The storm wiped out hundreds of homes and businesses, 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 had weakened to 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 drowned. 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. They felled trees from Springfield to Amherst and flattened factories and railroad sheds  in Worcester. The winds destroyed houses and sawmills in Boston and uprooted trees. They razed factories Canton and Southborough, destroyed a school building in Palmer and 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.

This story was updated in 2019. 

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