More than 50 people died in the Christmas blizzard of 1909, a two-day storm with disastrous effects from Pennsylvania to Canada. The worst carnage happened at sea, where the storm caught mariners unaware.
Mild weather had dominated December of 1909 in New England. The weather service reported 20 “ideal days” that month. The string of mild weather came to a halt, however.
In New England, ships crashed onto the rocks, people drowned in their beds and bodies turned up buried in snow for weeks.
The Christmas Blizzard Starts
The snow started falling and gale winds arrived at 2 o’clock in the afternoon and would take some 24 hours to peter out, with two monster high tides. Snow totaled roughly 18-inches, but it varied from place to place along with the winds. In Boston, for instance, the highest wind recorded was 54 miles per hour, but on Cape Cod winds soared to 84 miles per hour.
Though not the largest blizzard ever, the Christmas blizzard of 1909 left a dramatic impact. All in all, the Christmas blizzard of 1909 did more than $10 million in damage and resulted in more than 50 deaths in the United States.
Chelsea and Everett Flooded
Chelsea and Everett, Mass., felt the most dramatic impact of the wind and tides. After initially holding strong, the floodgates at the mouth of the Island End River gave way at night as the storm surge pushed water higher.
Ocean water rushed into the streets, flooding low-lying homes and businesses in a matter of minutes. Mr. and Mrs. Cornelius Harkins drowned while asleep in their bed, the newspapers reported, and Michael Callahan, an elderly man, drowned when flood waters invaded his home – on the second floor.
Forced from their homes, hundreds of residents waited in the raging blizzard as wagons slowly transported them to safety on higher ground. It would take weeks to rebuild the floodgates and restore people to their homes.
In all, 25,000 people fled their homes as the ocean waters pushed through the streets. Eighty acres of land flooded. At least four people drowned.
Connecticut and Rhode Island survived with less damage, though it took work crews days to restore telegraph and railroad lines.
The Christmas Blizzard at Sea
The ships at sea felt the greatest effects of the 1909 Christmas blizzard. The Seamen’s Journal reported 15 ships lost or severely damaged, with many more incidents not recorded. The Davis Palmer accounted for the most tragic loss of the storm.
As Christmas approached, the Davis Palmer, a five-masted schooner, made her way north around Cape Cod toward Boston Harbor. The ship was one of 14 that naval architect W.F. Palmer built and named for his children. The Bath, Maine, shipyards produced the Davis Palmer; she stretched more than 300 feet in length.
The crew aboard the Davis Palmer celebrated Christmas in style, oblivious to their fate. The barge Hop Along reported passing by the ship. The Palmer’s crew stood on deck singing and making merry as they headed toward their destination, loaded down with West Virginia coal from Newport News, Virginia.
The Wreck of the Davis Palmer
The ship worked her way through the gale force winds until she had nearly cleared the Graves, outer ledges in Boston Harbor. But the storm soon drove the Davis Palmer onto Finn’s Ledge. From there she drifted into Broad Sound and sank. Fourteen of her crew died in the wreck. Bodies would wash ashore in the weeks to come; some never turned up.
Other ships fared better. The schooner Maud Seward, from Deer Isle, Maine, lost her way off Cape Cod and washed up, wrecked, on Martha’s Vineyard where she rotted for years. But no lives were lost. The Ada Damon, from York, Maine, washed up at Ipswich, Mass. – probably a total loss, but the wreck injured no one. In the harbor at Plymouth, Mass., the storm damaged more than four vessels.
Chaos at Sea
Further out at the Five Fathom Bank, off New Jersey, sailors reported seeing the schooner George P. Hudson bound from Norfolk, Va., to Boston with a load of coal. The storm had badly crippled the Hudson, but her captain refused assistance. With people waiting in concern, the Hudson prompted great relief when she limped into Vineyard Haven, damaged but still afloat.
The six-masted Wyoming, the largest wooden ship ever built, left Bath, Maine, just days before Christmas – newly launched. Likewise, the F.W. Camp departed Boston for Norfolk. Both were missing for days before they finally turned up safe.
The Christmas gale of 1909, according to the Seamen’s Journal, “illustrates the force of the adage that ‘the sea will claim its own.’ It is said that ‘the sea never gives up its dead.’ It would perhaps be truer to say ‘the sea never gives up the living.’
“Christmas 1909 will long be remembered by the seamen of the Atlantic Coast as one of the most fateful days in the fateful history of those waters.”
As the storm proceeded up the coast to Newfoundland, another 11 schooners from Newfoundland disappeared into the raging blizzard, carrying 60 more people to their deaths. “Worst storm in 50 years,” newspapers reported, with damage placed at more than $750,000.
After the storm, streets up and down the eastern seaboard remained blocked by snow for days as a cold front passed through, so cold that rivers froze over. Thousands of people filled the streets to remove snow and ice, restore electricity and help those trapped in their homes. Cleanup would continue into 1910. On January 25, rain in Pennsylvania revealed the corpse of a man who had frozen to death in a field, overcome by the blizzard four weeks earlier.
This story was updated in 2021.