Historic Wild Weather

Originally published in The Smithfield Times magazine, February, 2022.

Historic Wild Weather

     By Jim Ignasher       

Enlargement of illustration of
the Great Gale of 1815

     There’s an old New England saying that goes, “If you don’t like the weather – just wait a minute.” This holds partially true, for New England’s climate can vary greatly depending on location and which weather patterns happen to be in control at the moment. And it seems whenever we get a bad weather system we compare it to ones that have come before.

     Here in Rhode Island we compare snowstorms to the Blizzard of 1978; hurricanes to those of 1938 and 1954; and flooding to the “Biblical Floods” of 2010. Yet these storms, despite their impact, were not necessarily the worst the state has seen.

     We tend to think of extreme weather as being a modern occurrence, partly because the National Weather Service has only been keeping official records since 1870. Yet earlier “unofficial” records were recorded in personal diaries and vintage newspapers.

     Take for instance the Gale of August 15, 1635. According to one account, “It began in the morning, a little before day, and grew not by degrees, but came with great violence in the beginning, to the great amazement of many.”

     Massachusetts bore the brunt of this powerful storm, for Rhode Island wasn’t founded by Roger Williams until the following year, but it’s the earliest known record of a severe hurricane striking the New England coast.

     The true realization of the storm’s damage comes about when one considers what it took to construct a home in the 17th century.

     Another devastating hurricane struck in October of 1761, during which the steeple of Trinity Church in Newport was blown down. The Newport Mercury reported in part that the steeple fell to the southwest, “…upon the adjacent house of Mr. John Hadwen, went through the roof and garret floor, and broke the summer (summer beam) of the chamber floor where it lodged.” Fortunately none of the home’s occupant’s were injured.

     The storm surge flooded the first floors and basements of numerous shoreline structures, and several ships were driven ashore.

     Perhaps the worst Hurricane to strike New England was the “Great Gale of September, 1815.” The ferocious winds ripped away roofs and blew down structures all across the state, and the unprecedented storm surge carried away docks and buildings with helpless people trapped inside. Many ships were driven ashore, and in some cases were carried hundreds of feet inland. The death toll was estimated in the hundreds.

     The storm also blew down thousands of acres of timber. The downed trees were later milled into lumber, and the wood from those trees was used to rebuild the devastated communities. It’s likely that many historic homes dating to that period contain lumber salvaged from this storm.

     In April of 1840 heavy rains led to a dam failure in Johnston. The resulting deluge carried away buildings and homes and killed twenty people. The Providence Evening Herald declared, “This is the most terrible disaster by flood that has ever occurred in this state.”

     Unfortunately that record didn’t hold for long, for an even greater flood occurred three years later in April, 1843, when heavy rains led to dam failures along the Blackstone River, which carried away bridges, factories, and private homes. Ironically, the summer of 1843 brought severe drought conditions to southern New England, and the Blackstone River reportedly dropped to its lowest level in years.

     Drought conditions in early New England caused severe consequences, for the economy was largely reliant on water. Besides being necessary for drinking, watering livestock, and tending crops, many industries relied on water power to stay in business. If wells ran dry and crops withered, a family could starve, and lack of water could also mean the necessary slaughtering of livestock. Furthermore, low water levels could force mills to shut down leaving people out of work, which in turn created a shortage of goods and merchandise, which could then lead to inflation.

     This is evidenced by a news item that appeared in The Providence Journal in 1835 that stated, “Many of the manufacturing establishments have stopped for want of water, and should there be no rain within a week, nearly one half of the factories will be compelled to suspend their business.”

     Severe and prolonged droughts affected Rhode Island in 1749, 1835, and 1838.

     The Blizzard of 1888, also known as “The Great White Hurricane”, stormed from March 11th to the 14th, and buried Rhode Island under nearly five feet of snow, bringing everything to a stand-still. There were no orange D.O.T. trucks to plow the roads in those days, and snow drifts of up to forty feet high were reported. The storm is said to have killed 400 people.

     As of this writing in early January, the Rhode Island winter of 2021-22 has been nearly devoid of snow, but that will likely change – just wait a minute.


The August Gale of 1635

From The Rhode Island Republican, October 4, 1815.

The newspaper was reporting on the September Gale of 1815, and included this article about the Hurricane of 1635. 


Severe Thunderstorm Over Greenville, R. I. – 1890

From The Olneyville Times, June 20, 1890. 

Click on image to enlarge. 

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