Published November 21, 2006
NEW YORK – The winds whipped up to 130 mph, snapping pine trees like pick-up sticks and blowing houses into oblivion. A surge of water, 21 feet high at its crest, engulfing victims as they desperately scurried for higher ground.
The merciless storm, pounding the coast for hours with torrential sheets of rain, was like nothing ever seen before. One observer predicted the damage would linger for decades.
This wasn't New Orleans in August 2005. This was New England in August 1635, battered by what was later dubbed "The Great Colonial Hurricane" — the first major storm suffered by colonial North American settlers, just 14 years after the initial Thanksgiving celebration in Plymouth Colony.
The Puritans, after landing at Plymouth Rock, endured disease, brutal winters and battles with the natives. But their biggest test roared up the coast from the south, an unprecedented and terrifying tempest that convinced rattled residents that the apocalypse was imminent.
And why not? The transplanted Europeans knew almost nothing of hurricanes, an entirely foreign phenomenon. Their fears of approaching death were reinforced when a lunar eclipse followed the natural disaster.
Once the weather cleared and the sun rose again, the few thousand residents of the Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay colonies were left to rebuild and recover from a hurricane as powerful as 1938's killer Long Island Express. That 20th-century hurricane killed 700 people, including 600 in New England, and left 63,000 homeless.
"The settlers easily could have packed up and gone home," said Nicholas K. Coch, a professor of geology at Queens College and one of the nation's foremost hurricane experts. "It was an extraordinary event, a major hurricane, and nearly knocked out British culture in America."
Last year, Coch used information that he collected from detailed colonial journals to reconstruct the great hurricane. The 371-year-old data was brought to Brian Jarvinen at the National Hurricane Center, where it was interpreted using the SLOSH (Sea, Lake and Overland Surges from Hurricanes) computer model.
The result: The hurricane likely tracked farther west than was thought, passing over uninhabited easternmost Long Island before moving north into New England. Once clear of the colonies, it veered off into the Atlantic.
Previously, researchers had believed the hurricane missed Long Island — which always annoyed Coch.
"We started out doing this as a lark, and it turned out to be a very interesting piece of science," said Coch. "This information can be applied to any hurricane in the north. I think that's neat."
Coch said the pioneers from across the Atlantic likely endured a Category 3 hurricane, moving faster than 30 mph, with maximum winds of 130 mph and a very high storm surge — 21 feet at Buzzards Bay and 14 feet at Providence.
Reports at the time said 17 American Indians were drowned, while others scaled trees to find refuge.
The storm was moving about three times as fast as the typical southern hurricane, and arrived in full bluster. Although it struck nearly four centuries ago, very specific details about the first recorded hurricane in North America were provided by the local leaders' writings.
"The documentation was better than any hurricane until the mid-1800s," said Coch. "That's a story in itself."
John Winthrop, head of the Massachusetts Bay group, recalled in his Aug. 16, 1635, entry that the winds were kicking up a full week before the hurricane.
Once it did arrive, the hurricane "blew with such violence, with abundance of rain, that it blew down many hundreds of trees, overthrew some houses, and drove the ships from their anchors," Winthrop wrote. He detailed the deaths of eight American Indians sucked under the rising water while "flying from their wigwams."
William Bradford, the leader of the Plymouth group, offered a similarly florid recounting.
"Such a mighty storm of wind and rain as none living in these parts, either English or Indian, ever saw," he wrote. "It blew down sundry houses and uncovered others ... It blew down many hundred thousands of trees, turning up the stronger by the roots and breaking the higher pine trees off in the middle."
The local crops, along with the forests and many local structures like the Aptucxet trading house on the southwest side of Cape Cod, suffered major damage. Bradford, in his account, predicted signs of the damage would endure into the next century.
So brutal was the storm that 50 years later, Increase Mather wrote simply, "I have not heard of any storm more dismal than the great hurricane which was in August 1635." His father, the Rev. Richard Mather, was aboard one of the ships nearly sunk at sea by the ferocious weather — but he survived, along with about 100 other passengers.
Others were less fortunate.
The Rev. Anthony Thacher, his cousin and their two families were headed by boat on a short swing from Ipswich to Marblehead. The fast-moving storm smashed their craft on the rocks, dooming all aboard except for the preacher and his wife, who somehow survived the storm as 21 others perished.
"Before daylight, it pleased God to send so mighty a storm as the like was never felt in New England since the English came there nor in the memories of any of the Indians," Thacher wrote in a letter home to his brother.
Thacher's Island and Avery's Rock — named for his late cousin Joseph Avery — remain as geographic reminders of the storm and its toll.
Coch said the most interesting news about the hurricane, more than 350 years later, is that storms can often follow the same track. And just a minuscule shift of the storm's movement in the area of North Carolina — "a fraction of a degree" — could send a hurricane up through Providence and right into Boston, the professor said.
"We could have a catastrophic situation with national repercussions," said Coch. "If the track of a future moves 25 miles to the west of the 'Colonial Hurricane,' the dangerous right side could pass right over Boston and Providence. That's why we study old hurricanes in the Northeast."