Wednesday, March 30, 2011


While in the process of conducting a historical survey of damaging tropical storms for the state of Virginia, the authors ran across an intriguing cyclone from October 1878. It was a cyclone which developed in the western Caribbean and was not detected by the West Indies hurricane network before its movements west of the isle of Jamaica on October 18. Once its presence was known, the U.S. Signal Corps, a division of the War Department, tracked its progress northward just off the Florida coast into North Carolina and issued signals to warn of its arrival.  

This is a process the Signal Service had been tasked with since November 1870, and one in which it had enjoyed some limited success. The storm's similarities with other major storms of more recent decades, such as Hazel (1954) and Agnes (1972) led to a more exhaustive search for information about its impact on the Eastern seaboard. 
In North Carolina the cyclone was centered between Wilmington and Cape Lookout at 11 p.m. on October 22. At Wilmington, the storm began at 3 p.m. The maximum sustained wind of 36 mph was reached at 10:40 p.m., with the lowest pressure of 986.1 hPa (29.12") reported at 11:56. At Cape Lookout, the pressure fell to 983.8 hPa (29.05") at 11:02 p.m., when the wind went southeast at 68 mph. The highest winds in the last 5-½ hours reached 100 mph and a rain total of 4.06" was measured. In Portsmouth, winds reached 82 mph from the southeast at 11:04 p.m. Smithville peaked at 32 mph from the east during the day of the 22nd. Kitty Hawk greeted the storm at 6:30 p.m. on the 22nd. The winds reached 88 mph by 2 a.m. on the 23rd, just before the anemometer was blown away. The pressure fell to 984.1 hPa (29.06").

Seventy-one people perished due to the Gale of 1878 in the eastern United States. Those who were lost to the storm were taken due to shipwreck and river flooding. In North Carolina, the following narrative describes shipwrecks related to this storm:

One mile south of Cape Hatteras, the schooner Altoona went ashore at 11:45 p.m., proving a total loss. The schooner Magnolia wrecked in the Albemarle Sound that night; its captain drowned. The first officer of the Mary A. Hood was washed overboard off Hatteras. At 1:30 a.m. on the 23rd, the steamer Florence Witherbee went ashore. The schooner William Collyer went ashore six miles south of Barnegat at 2:40 a.m. Two went overboard from the schooner Wyoming trying to enter Beaufort. The steamship Gen. Barnes foundered off Cape Hatteras on the morning of the 23rd, also a total loss. The steamship City of Galveston was reported lost in the storm on the 23rd.At the height of all this fury the A.S. Davis drove ashore. Of the 20 men on board, comprising her captain and crew, her wreck left only one survivor. The steamer City of Houston encountered the gale on the night of the 22nd, and was lost off Frying Pan Shoals after it was abandoned by her crew ($200,000).

City of Houston

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