Storm of the Century Named for the Destruction of Minot’s Ledge Light in Massachusetts
One of the worst storms in recorded history in New England occurred on Monday, April 14, 1851 and continued through that Saturday, April 19th. This storm that entered the New England coastline on a Monday morning had all the ingredients of high winds, rain, hail, and even snow over nearly a week to cause massive devastation all along the eastern seaboard, and inland of central and southern New England. Many wharves along the Southern Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts coastlines were severely damaged from high winds, flooding rain, and rising tides. Homes and other buildings were swept into the sea; many vessels that were left moored in the harbors crashed into one another, or were dislodged and swept out to sea. Some lives were also lost from this ferocious storm. Inland, the hurricane force winds blew off roofs and some church steeples.
A butcher from Brighton was carrying a load a baby calves while crossing the Cambridge Bridge with his horse drawn cart during the storm. All of a sudden he, his horse, and the calves were literally blown off the bridge into the river, and were carried down to the mill dam. He barely survived with his horse, but the load of calves all drowned in the swift river.
Along the Cape many wharves were destroyed and in Boston, the rising waters, over four feet deep in some places, flooded many stores and neighborhood streets. One girl was rescued from a cellar when the water rose up to her neck. The locals created many rafts out of planks and boxes to get around the flooded streets to observe the destruction, offering any help they could for their neighbors. Deer Island, north of Boston, was nearly completely under water and the waves had swept away a schoolhouse. The nearby sea wall was washed away as the tides continued to rise and dismantle the structure. Boston Harbor lighthouse on Little Brewster Island suffered some damage but continued to operate.
On the Massachusetts North Shore, streets were flooded in multiple feet of water. A store was swept away in Gloucester, and Newburyport’s “Water Street” was literally under water with stores and buildings flooded, carrying off large quantities of timber, wood, and other debris. The waves and wind were so ferocious that spray was thrown as high as second story windows along the shore. The Essex mill was nearly filled with surging waters.
At Newcastle Island, New Hampshire, next to Portsmouth, the sea broke through the jetty and made an island of the peninsula known as Jaffery Point, causing the locals to grab their belongings and head to higher ground, or to Portsmouth’s inland areas.
Many roads were washed away all along the coast, and many railroad cars could not be operated as the tracks were either dangerously under water, or were swept away from the fierce tides. In some places the water was so high that the steam locomotives could not drive through, as the water would extinguish their coal fires.
On Wednesday morning, April 16, the turnpike from Newburyport out to the beach on Plum Island was covered in water so high it was rendered impossible to pass through. The waves were so large and flooding so consistent that at one point the sea broke completely over the island.
Meanwhile, during that same day, the brig Primrose, carrying a shipment of coal, was floundering off of Salisbury Beach and heading towards the reefs near Plum Island. The captain, blinded by the rain and surging waves, was unable to make any observations and believed he was near Boston Harbor. As the Primrose neared Plum Island in Newburyport, the heavy gale force winds swept through her rigging, tearing away the mainsail, and forcing the helpless vessel to approach the reefs where she wrecked a few hundred yards off shore.
Two young men, T. G. Dodge and O. Rundlett, of Newburyport who were checking out the debris on the beach during the storm, quickly spotted the wreck. As the Primrose was being battered by the swells, the crew saw the two men on the beach, and communicated with them to try and secure a line from the wreck to shore. They tried numerous times, but after a couple of hours the exhausted rescuers, standing waist deep in the cold thunderous surf, were unable to secure the line.
Luckily, within a short time later, two other men had joined them, a man whose last name was Lufkin who lived nearby, and his hired worker. After another hour’s worth of attempts, the four rescuers were able to secure the line to the wreck. The captain, his crew, and one passenger, totaling nine persons in all, were rescued by the tenacious efforts of the four locals. Though exhausted and suffering from exposure, the heroes and the crew of the Primrose all survived the ordeal and the four men were praised as local heroes. The Primrose lay wrecked on the sand for months, and had to have her load of coal removed. She lay beached until the following July when she was finally dislodged and towed away.
Destruction of Minot’s Ledge Lighthouse
Just before the storm hit on Monday, April 14, 1851, Keeper Bennett, of Minot’s Ledge lighthouse in Massachusetts, which was originally constructed as a large skeletal tower so water could pass through, although its construction was deemed unsafe by those that occupied it, including Bennett himself, was ordered to come ashore to gather much needed supplies. He left his two young assistants, Joseph Antoine, and Joseph Wilson, to manage and tend the lighthouse in his absence. The storm had come upon the Massachusetts coast suddenly that Monday afternoon with a vengeance, preventing the two men from leaving their post as they were force to ride it out. By Wednesday evening, these brave men continued to perform their faithful duties uncertain as to whether they would survive the night. Anxious locals observed the beacon from the shore while hurricane force wind gusts continued to thrash at the lighthouse. The two assistant keepers managed to keep the lighthouse lamp burning as late as 10:00 p.m. The fog bell continued to ring until around one o’clock that morning, when it was swept away with the tower soon afterwards.
Around 4 o’clock on Thursday the following morning, there was a lull in the storm and Keeper Bennett went to the beach to see if the tower was still standing. He found no evidence of the tower in sight, only the bent iron pilings where the lighthouse once stood. Plenty of debris had washed up on the shore, and he found two life vests washed ashore which appeared as though they had been used, but may have been washed off their inhabitants by the angry waves.
Joseph Antoine’s body was found later that day near Nantasket Beach and Joseph Wilson’s body was found washed on nearby Gull Island. The men have always been regarded as true heroes of Minot’s Ledge light.
By Sunday, April 20, the storm had finally cleared away from its near week-long devastation in New England. It would take many years afterwards to access and rebuild the damage caused by this fierce and destructive storm. It was later given the nickname the “Lighthouse Storm”, as it was directly responsible for the destruction of Minot’s Ledge lighthouse.
Three years later, in 1860, Minot’s Ledge lighthouse was finally rebuilt as a new engineering feat with dovetailed granite blocks and became one of the most expensive lighthouses in history at that time. It is still considered to be one of the top engineering feats of the Lighthouse Service. Antoine and Wilson are still remembered each April, and many believe their spirits are still guarding the lighthouse.
My 300-page book, Lighthouses and Coastal Attractions of Southern New England: Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts, provides special human interest stories from each of the 92 lighthouses, along with plenty of indoor and outdoor coastal attractions you can explore. These include whale watching excursions, lighthouse tours, windjammer sailing tours and adventures, special parks and museums, and lighthouses you can stay overnight. You’ll also find plenty of stories of haunted lighthouses. Lighthouses and their nearby attractions are divided into regions for all you weekly and weekend explorers.
You’ll find this story and many others in my book New England Lighthouses: Famous Shipwrecks, Rescues, and Other Tales. The book also contains, along with my photographs, vintage images provided by the Coast Guard and various organizations, and paintings by six famous artists of the Coast Guard.
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