In August of 1927, high winds sweeping through this region caught the schooner Hattie McKay anchored off Medford beach and destroyed her. “She was a victim of an August Gale,” local marine historian Leon Barron says. “August Gale is what they called hurricanes in the old days,” he explained.
There’s quite a story behind why those great windstorms were called August Gales rather than simply hurricanes; it all began with a ferocious gale that swept through the Atlantic provinces some 130 years ago.
One of the most devastating hurricanes to strike this region since the French first established a colony here in the 1600s, it was the mother of all windstorms. Known as the August Gale of 1873 and the great Nova Scotia cyclone, the storm left a wide swath of destruction in its wake and affected generations of Maritimers. Such was its impact that for generations it was used as a reference point in personal histories. One can find records indicating, for example, that people sometimes proved their age when apply for Old Age Pensions by relating their birth date to X years before or after the storm of 1873.
After the great storm of 1873, the term “August Gale” was applied to the hurricanes that often lash this region in late summer. Those with a nautical bent or an interest in marine and sailing ship history generally speak of an August Gale with awe, almost as if it were an entity rather than simply a high force wind.
Since the August Gale of 1873, Atlantic Canada has been ravaged by other hurricanes that created widespread destruction. The hurricanes of 1892, 1906 and 1926 were hailed as August Gales by seafaring people, for example, since they destroyed ships, wrecked shoreside property and killed people at sea and ashore
However, the 1873 storm, the hurricane that led to coining the phrase August Gale, undoubtedly was one of the most destructive of all. “It’s destructive power was extraordinary,” reads a website dedicated to weather calamities. “Ravages of the storm include 1200 vessels, 500 lives, 900 buildings and an untold number of bridges, wharves and dykes. Property losses were conservatively estimated at 3.5 million, an amount equivalent to $70 million in 1990.” Another website put the loss of life in the Maritimes at “upwards of 1,000.”
One website called the 1873 storm the “Great Nova Scotia Cyclone.” At the height of the storm, gale forces winds were simultaneously ravaging all areas of the province. The Valley’s apple industry was in its infancy at the time so its effect on farming may not have been serious; however, Minas Basin vessels and shoreline facilities definitely felt its force.
Besides becoming a timeline identification mark, the 1873 hurricane helped change the way weather was monitored in Canada. Due to a failure in the telegraph system, Nova Scotia had no warning that dangerous gale-force winds were sweeping towards them. One website devoted to the 1873 storm said that the lack of warning and the widespread damage caused by the storm motivated politicians to implement a better storm warning system; this system was later put into use in the Maritimes.