SAXBY GALE – STORM SURGE DEVASTATING (March 26/99)

One of my friends claims that the greatest natural disasters to hit Nova Scotia were the mice plague of 1815, the Saxby Gale in 1869 and his wife’s pot roast dinner.

Geologist Alan Ruffman may not agree with the lumping of someone’s cooking with mice plagues and destructive hurricanes; however, when he spoke about the Saxby Gale at the Wolfville Historical Society on March 17, Mr. Ruffman said that the “hurricane and storm surge associated with it was quite devastating.”

When the Gale struck Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, Mr. Ruffman said, hundreds of buildings were destroyed, there was great flooding, and thousands of mature trees were destroyed. While there were only a few deaths locally as result of the storm, over the course of the Gale through the Atlantic Provinces and the United States over a thousand lives may have been lost. “It was quite a serious, serious storm,” Ruffman said.

A short time before the Saxby Gale came ashore in Nova Scotia, the Dominion Atlantic Railway had celebrated arrival of its line in the Annapolis Valley. In her railway history Marguerite Woodworth describes the devastating effect of the Gale on the D.A.R. line and on Valley residents:

“On the night of October 4 …. the wind rose until it became a veritable hurricane and with it came a great tide from the Basin of Minas, rolling in over the dykes and carrying everything before it. The morning of October 5th revealed a scene of destruction: Throughout the Valley orchards were laid low, the apples torn from the branches; uprooted trees lay across the highway; crops were flattened; brooks became swirling torrents.”

Mr. Ruffman’s name for the great tide that came with the hurricane is “storm surge,” a rapid rising of tidal waters above normal levels due to a combination of high winds, high tide and other factors. The Saxby Gale arrived during a period when tides were at unusually high levels and it was too much for the dyked areas and the newly laid railway line in Kings and Hants County. “Bridges, tracks and fencing had been swept away over an area of nearly 20 miles,” Woodworth said. “The dykes along the right of way were nothing but a turbulent sea and the roadbed had crumpled before the tidal wave like sugar.”

During his talk before the Historical Society, Mr. Ruffman mentioned the Saxby Gale briefly, dwelling mainly on hurricanes in general. Hurricanes are nothing new to North America – there have been at least a thousand in the past 100 years, Ruffman said – and Nova Scotia has had its share. A hurricane and storm surge disrupted the early Acadian settlement, for example. In the last four or five decades some hurricanes have been as destructive as the Saxby Gale.

Mr. Ruffman concluded his talk on hurricanes by screening a map of the Minas Basin indicating dyked areas that could be hardest hit by future storm surges. The conditions that prevailed during the Saxby Gale can occur again, Mr. Ruffman said.

While there isn’t a lot of information out there, Mr. Ruffman said, he has been attempting to document the havoc wreaked by the Saxby Gale in the Atlantic Provinces. Hopefully, he said in effect, people out there have old letters, diary entries and other references to the Gale. If so, Mr. Ruffman would appreciate having access to them.

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