It was a still September night, about 1799; some Newbury residents were dancing at a late party, others were sleeping soundly and others were restless because of an eerie calm when the 1799 tornado struck.
Sarah Smith Emery was a young girl on her family’s farm in what was then Newbury when the storm tested the small community’s courage and spirit.
Growing up in Newburyport, Mass., in the 1790s, Sarah Anna Emery’s mother, Sarah Smith Emery, recalled some of the most important events and colorful stories of her age, including the story of the tornado of 1799 in Reminiscences of a Nonagenarian :
“My father had reached his goal. By industry and economy the whole of the ancestral acres had been secured. His heart was in his work; he was a good agriculturalist, and had given great attention to fruit culture. He had planted and grafted some two or three hundred apple trees; there was quite a variety of pears and a thriving peach orchard on the place. Grapes grew spontaneously. The stone walls were covered with vines which bore luxuriantly large, luscious clusters both of the purple and white grapes. There was a difference in the quality of this wild fruit, some being equal if not superior to that produced in our gardens at the present time.
“The farm on the September of that year presented a tempting array of fruit. The trees never looked finer than on the twelfth of the month. The da}* was warm and cloudy; at dusk it began to rain. I had a piece of linen whitening on the grass; fearing it might mildew, I went to take it in, and was struck by the sultry stillness of the night. After I went to my chamber, I sat some time at the open window enjoying the quiet rain which was falling steadily. About midnight I was awakened by the unbarring of the front door, and mother screaming “something terrible is coming!” as she hastily opened and closed it.
“At the moment a strange rush and roar struck my ear, rapidly advancing. I could liken it to nothing but wagons rattling over frozen ground, but it more nearly resembled the noise of a railroad train. Lightning flashed, thunder pealed, and rain poured in torrents. Springing from bed, I seized my sister, a girl of ten, and with the half awakened child descended the stairs, and passing through the front entry, entered the west room. The rush, roar, crash and din are wholly indescribable, accompanied by such dense darkness, that not a thing was discernible. Half way across the front room, we were stopped by a terrible bang and crack, at the same moment a missile was hurled through the broken window, which, striking Susan, fell in the fire-place opposite. The child shrieked fearfully; dragging her by the arm, I rushed into the kitchen screaming, “Sukey is dead, Sukey is dead!”
“The whole family had collected in the room. The cry was for a light, but in the fright and confusion not a candlestick of the number always there could be found. I mustered sufficient composure to bring a candle from the box in the cellar-way; raking open the embers on the hearth it was quickly lighted. Speedily as this had been effected, by the time I had put it in the candlestick the tornado had passed. As I turned to place the light on the table, the moon burst from the clouds, its beams falling brightly on the white floor. Father opened the back door. With the exclamation, “I am ruined!” he sallied back into a chair and buried his face in his hands. Pale and dismayed, we peered forth. At first nothing was distinguishable but one general wreck and ruin, unroofed buildings, prostrate trees and fences, mixed with the debris of broken farming tools and household utensils.
“My father was not a man to long succumb to misfortune. Proceeding to dress, he bade the boys get into their clothes. Our first thought was of the cows. As we stepped out to seek them, we met uncle Thurrell, his son and hired man. They were still too much confused to know the extent of the injury done to their premises, but the barn was partly unroofed, the corn barn tipped over, and the cider mill, a large, heavy building, had been lifted from its foundation and carried several rods. The cows were safe, crouched together, a frightened group in the field, and two cossets that had been with them in the cow-yard had taken refuge in the barn, the doors of which had been burst open. The horse had been at pasture half a mile away, but as the men and boys went out she came whinnying towards them. Whether she ran or blew home we never knew, but she evidently had a long story to tell, if it could have been understood.
“Nearly half of the roof of our house was gone, and a third of that of the long barn. A large shed had been blown from the end of the barn and flung against the end of the house. The concussion, as this came against the wall, was the cause of my fright as I crossed the room with my sister. From seventy to eighty trees laid on the ground. A cart loaded with hay, that had been left the previous evening front of the barn, had entirely disappeared, not a vestige of it was ever seen excepting one wheel which lay near the back door. Two heavy ox-sleds piled in the yard, had been carried a considerable distance; barrels, boxes, etc. had been taken from the garret with the roof and scattered about the yard, amongst these was a basket of feathers, which had been set down unharmed by the front door. A brass kettle, that had been hanging by the back door, was found some weeks after, battered and bent, in a swamp a quarter of a mile away. The potatoes were blown from the hills. The shed that had come from the barn had shielded the wood-pile, and the milk-pails at the end of the house were found hanging upon the stakes.
“Upon examination it was found that about the same number of trees had been uprooted on uncle ThurrelTs place as ours; the Doles also sustained some injury to their orchard, but their buildings stood below the track of the hurricane. On Ilsley’s hill, the barn doors and the back door of the house were unhinged, and the cow-yard fence was thrown down. Jonathan Ilsley, going home from a party, to his surprise, found the cows in the corn field; as he drove them home, he saw the injury to the premises. Hastening into the house he awoke the family to learn what had happened, but not a soul could tell; their slumbers had been so sound, the storm had not awakened them.
“Farther on, the barn of Mr. Daniel Ordway was entirely demolished. Daylight disclosed a straight line of prostrate trees, the path of the tornado as it had passed over Bradford woods, but after leaving Mr. Ordway’s, little damage was done; its track was, however, traced to a wharf in Newburyport, where it overturned a small building.
“The next morning we learned that a small house, about four miles above us in Bradford had been destroyed, one child killed and the rest of the family injured. The furniture of this house was widely scattered. A bonnet belonging to the mistress of the place being found in the lower parish of West Newbury, some distance beyond Ordway’s barn. Before sunrise Mr. Stephen Noyes from the main road coming over Crane Neck Street, on his way to the grist mill at Byfield, to his consternation descried the havoc on the top of the hill. Scarcely crediting his sight, he drew rein at Mr. Pillsbury’s. The family had just risen; neither they nor that of then- opposite neighbor, Mr. Stephen Little, had been awakened by the tornado.
“In a body these neigh-bors hastened to our house. At that moment, David Goodrich, a young man residing a quarter of a mile below, rode furiously up the lane. The party that Mr. Ilsley had attended, had been at his house. Dancing had continued till past twelve; in the merriment no one had heeded the shower, and when the company dispersed the sky was clear, and the moon was shining. Going to the barn in the morning, and chancing to glance up the hill, to his utter amazement and fright, he saw the devastation. Stopping neither for coat nor saddle, he mounted his horse and galloped to our aid. The neighborhood, and ere long, the whole town was aroused; many came from Byfield, and some from Newburyport. Bands were organized, and everybody went to work with a will to repair the damage. Amongst the first and most zealous, was Mr. Edward Hill. By seven o’clock he came in bearing his tools; with a perfectly rational air he quietly inspected the buildings, then set to work with an industry which continued until the premises were again in order.
“Derricks were rigged, and the process of resetting the apple trees commenced. The hurricane came Wednesday night; before sunset Saturday evening every tree had been replaced, and the buildings covered. Nothing remained undone, but the repairing of fences, and a general setting to rights of small things about the house and grounds. I believe that every one of those trees lived, some presenting rather a crooked and gnarled appearance, but year by year they bore a goodly burden, and several are still standing vigorous and fruitful.