On Oct. 9, 1804, a snow hurricane struck Eastern New England, the first time in recorded history a tropical storm produced snowfall.
The storm devastated shipping, froze potatoes, destroyed orchards, crushed houses, killed dozens of people, leveled timber lots, smashed wharves and took the steeple off the Old North Church in Boston.
The Great Snow Hurricane
At 9 a.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 9, the temperature fell suddenly, and a thunderstorm of rain mixed with snow began. It rained in southern New England and snowed in the north.
“We had thunder & lightning all day,” wrote William Bentley, a Salem, Mass., minister and diarist.
At 1 p.m. the wind changed and gained power, reaching a crescendo in the evening. Wind speeds reached 110 mph for a minute at a time.
“People sat up all that night, fearing to retire lest their houses would blow down,” wrote Sidney Perley in his 1894 book, Historic Storms of New England.
Chimneys, fences, roofs and windows took a beating.
The wind began to die down before midnight and abated before dawn on Wednesday, but the rain and snow continued until Thursday morning. Heavy rain pummeled the coast, while snow fell in Vermont, the mountains of western Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Connecticut.
Salem got seven inches of rain, and Windsor, Vt., got 48 inches of snow.
Mary Vial Holyoke, a doctor’s wife in Salem, Mass., described the snow hurricane in her diary on October 9:
A violent N. E. storm with thunder & lightning. Philo’s chamber window blew in. There was much damage done in this and neighbouring towns. Chimneys thrown down, houses unroofed & several Steeples & meeting houses injured. Mr. Grays three Chimneys blown down.
Shipwrecks and Drownings
The snow hurricane cut a swath of destruction along the coast. It drove vessels onto lee shores and wrecked them from Rye, N.H., to Newport, R.I. Some dragged anchor and collided with each other, killing the men aboard. Entire crews died at sea, their bodies never found and presumed lost.
A tidal surge destroyed docks and wharves. The snow hurricane sunk nearly every small boat at the wharves in Boston Harbor, Bentley wrote. Two men drowned, four vessels sank and 35 damaged.
A boy named Smith tried to bail a sloop near Fort Point Channel, but the boat sank and took him with it. He clung to a plank only to be washed off and drowned despite frantic efforts to save him.
“The reports are endless,” wrote Bentley on October 12, the day after the snow hurricane ended. He rode around the North Shore of Boston to inspect the damage, and everywhere he found barns unroofed, chimneys blown down, roofs and windows smashed and trees uprooted.
The amount of seaweed driven on shore astounded him. “It would not have been imagined that the beaches over which we passed had ever been used for pleasure had they been seen only after the late storm,” wrote Bentley.
Fury and Destruction
All up and down the coast, the story was the same. A Kennebunk sloop loaded with rum was lost, along with a lady passenger.
The storm smashed to bits a Connecticut schooner loaded with corn, though her crew survived.
Six vessels ashore cut away their masts, reported the Newburyport Herald. Four or five others were driven out of the harbor and believed lost, along with their crews.
Rescuers found a dead woman on Rye Beach, in New Hampshire, an infant clasped in her arms.
Coasting vessels went to pieces on beaches in Scituate, Mass. Their crews all perished and masts, booms and vessel parts strewn along the shore. Vessels were grounded in Braintree Bay and the bodies of three men found on Patrick Island.
Cohasset, Mass., experienced even more drama, according to Perley. The storm drove the sloops Hannah and Mary onto shore at the same time.
The Hannah struck on a ledge some distance from the shore, and the sea swept away the captain, who drowned. Two of the men lashed themselves to the boom, and remained on deck about two hours. Then the vessel broke up, and the boom with the men still lashed to it washed ashore. Several onlookers plunged into the surf and saved their lives.
Horror and Destruction
A broadside with the title ‘Violent Storm’ reported on the ‘unprecedented fury and destruction’ that hit Boston.
“It spread horror and devastation through the whole town,” the broadside reported. The force of the wind knocked over a western stage, seriously injuring several passengers.
The steeple of Old North Church fell on the house next door and crushed it. Fortunately, the family who rented the house had left on a visit.
A young servant named Lydia Bennet wasn’t so lucky. She worked for Ebenezer Eaton in his grand new brick house in West Boston. A neighbor noticed the battlements were giving away and alerted Eaton, who took his wife and children to a safer place.
A few minutes later the battlements fell in, killing Lydia Bennet and seriously injuring three other servants.
Rain and Snow
The Endicott Pear Tree in Danvers, Mass., survived the storm, but the snow hurricane wiped out many orchards and sugar maple groves.
More than 100 cattle died in Topsfield, Mass., alone, as did dozens more cows, sheep and fowl. The snow hurricane froze crops and ruined haystacks throughout New England.
The storm downed so many oak trees that shipbuilding declined in Massachusetts. The landscape changed so much in Thomaston, Maine, that residents felt they were in a strange place, wrote Perley:
At Thomaston, Me., a sixty-acre timber lot was almost entirely blown down. Such great sections of the woods were leveled that new landscapes and prospects were brought into view to the surprise of many people.
As William Bentley traveled around assessing the snow hurricane damage, he talked to the old people about it.
He concluded the snow hurricane was the most severe storm ever felt in New England.
This story about the Great Snow Hurricane was updated in 2019.