Tuesday, September 6, 2011

A Late Summer “Gust”

Hurricane season has arrived in full force. Irene’s severe impact on Stratford, visible everywhere in the form of downed trees, blocked roads and damaged buildings, reminds me of Isabel’s arrival in September 2003. Hurricane Isabel had Stratford’s stalwart staff cleaning up the grounds during our two weeks without electricity (remember, no computers or lights) and the farm crew sawing up felled trees and clearing roads and trails for months. The damage Isabel and Irene inflicted on Stratford must have rivaled that of a previous hurricane—the “Great Gust” of 1769.

The last hurricane (1749) to impact the Middle Atlantic coast had been about twenty years before. Since that time, Philip Ludwell Lee had built up a lucrative commercial enterprise at the Stratford Landing, which included a gristmill, public wharf and tobacco inspection station, warehouse and store. On September 6, 1769, a powerful storm came ashore near New Bern, North Carolina, and turned northward, with the eye of the hurricane passing over Williamsburg, Virginia, in the morning hours of September 8. It blew violently and, changing course, headed northwest toward the Chesapeake Bay.

Accounts of the hurricane were chronicled in the Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia Gazettes, as well as The London Magazine. The Virginia Gazette, printed in Williamsburg, described the great storm, “Last Thursday night came on the Severest hurricane of wind and rain, that has happened here in the memory of man, which lasted [a] great part of Friday. The damage it has done is inconceivable. Vast numbers of houses are blown down, and mills carried away, trees of all sizes torn up by the roots, and cattle, hogs, etc. crushed by their fall; the corn laid level with the ground, and the tobacco ruined in many places, and much hurt in almost all; In short, such a dreadful scene of devastation presents itself in every part of the colony we have yet heard from, as beggars all description. Add to this, the damage sustained by water, which is impossible yet to form any idea of. Providentially we have not heard, with certainty, of any lives being lost, though we fear it has been fatal to many.” Some of the more gruesome details were reported in a later issue: “At Smith’s Point, in the mouth of Potowmak, seven vessels were driven ashore in the late storm, most of which are entirely lost, and one of these supposed to be Mr. William Black’s schooner. Several dead bodies have been taken up, & chest & trunks containing genteel wearing apparel; and among the dead bodies there appeared to be two Gentlemen and Ladies, by their dress.”

At Stratford, the damage from the Great Gust was severe. Philip Ludwell Lee lost his wharf, warehouse, inspection station, and gristmill. Philip wrote to his brother William, in London, on October 6: “. . .this will be a bad year; the gust a month ago such as never was here has destroyed ¾ of the Tobacco, y[ou]r own Tobacco & y[ou]r Br[other] Paradises… .” William’s plantation, Green Spring, near Williamsburg was hit hard as well. However, the lucky tobacco planters who had received notes for depositing their tobacco in the destroyed warehouses were reimbursed by the colonial legislature. The havoc caused by the high winds and fierce waves of the Potomac River caused the Virginia Council to refuse Philip’s request to rebuild his wharf and related structures; the Council chose to relocate the public wharf and tobacco inspection station to a less vulnerable harbor.

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