Storms like Hurricane Sandy, which recently roared across the Northeast, are nothing new to the eastern seaboard. One of the more destructive storms to hit New England churned its way here in September 1815. The term “hurricane” had not yet entered the American lexicon, and people dubbed this storm “The Great September Gale.” It was a powerful storm, by all accounts — the equivalent of a Category 3 storm with sustained winds of 135 mph. It made landfall near Center Moriches, Long Island, crossed Long Island Sound, and slammed into Connecticut.

As is often the case, the tidal surge associated with the storm did the greatest damage. According to a report from the Newburyport Herald, Providence, Rhode Island bore the brunt of the surge. “[U]pwards of one hundred houses, stores, &c. were destroyed in the gale; … the tide rose upward of 14 feet;…nearly all the vessels in port were either dismasted, sunk, or driven beyond the bridge, which was also destroyed.”1

In Boston, both the town and the shipping in the harbor received considerable damage. The wind blew down two of the State House’s chimneys, as well as many church steeples, and several houses were entirely unroofed. Boston’s beautiful trees suffered the most. “More than twenty of the most stately elms about the common are laid prostrate on the earth. The Mall furnishes a sight in which the woodman who goes into his forest only to level it, and prepare for a burn, might take pleasure.”2
The frigate President riding out a storm in 1802, as depicted by Antoine Roux. The ship’s crew have sent down the upper yards and “housed” the topmasts to reduce wind resistance aloft. [Courtesy of the Navy Art Collection]

Early reports listed at least 53 vessels in Boston Harbor either sunk or extensively damaged, mainly by coming into contact with the wharves where they were moored. Constitution had returned to Boston in May after its victory over HMS Cyane and HMS Levant. The ship’s crew was “paid off” in June and the ship was laid up in ordinary (put in mothballs, we might say now). The ship was securely moored off the Navy Yard when the gale struck, and played a role in saving one vessel. The brig Washington, at anchor in the middle of the harbor, dragged its anchors and rammed a ship lying at the end of Union Wharf. This vessel in turn struck the ship Pactolus, which then bore down toward the mudflats off the Navy Yard. Pactolus’ quick-thinking crew let go an anchor which fortuitously dragged over Constitution’s stout cable, thereby keeping the merchant ship from being dashed onto the shore.3 Constitution did not suffer any damage at all.

Luckily, Hurricane Sandy did as little damage to “Old Ironsides” as the Great Gale. The old ship weathered the storm with all its masts and yards aloft. It will be a long time yet before we “give her to the god of storms, the lightening and the gale!”


1 Newburyport Herald (Newburyport, Massachusetts), September 26, 1815.
2 Ibid.
3 New York Gazette (New York), September 27, 1815.

The Author(s)

Matthew Brenckle
Research Historian, USS Constitution Museum

Matthew Brenckle was the Research Historian at the USS Constitution Museum from 2006 to 2016.