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The 1846 “Great Gale” was vast and powerful – just like “Irma”

Hurricane Irma over the State of Florida, September 10, 2017. Hurricane Jose viewed in lower right. © NOAA/NASA

In 1846, the year after Florida became a state, Jacksonville had boomed to an astonishing population of 600. At the time, the town was nearly 25 years old and was on its way to becoming the most important city in Florida, although it was far from the largest. St. Augustine claimed 3,000 residents; Key West claimed an approximate 2,600; and Pensacola, by some estimates, was nearing 2,000.

An official U.S. government census didn’t actually begin until 1850, and there were issues of who was actually counted or should be counted, so these numbers are estimates. What we do know, Florida could not claim any major city. The entire state only included about 70,000 people.

Jacksonville news in those days was often reported by the nearby big town of St. Augustine, although Jacksonville produced a regular political newspaper at the time called the Florida News. In 1846, there was no photography, telegraph, train, or even bulk-headed riverfront. But without question, the 1846 Gale would change the city’s life and riverfront. Cuba, Key West and much of New England were also directly assaulted by the storm.

State of Florida, 1845. ©Florida Center for Instructional Technology – University of South Florida.

Known by several names—the Great Havana Hurricane, the Havana Gale or in Jacksonville history, called the Great Gale, the October 1846 category 5 hurricane was massive in size and strength. It decimated Cuba and death reports in Key West ranged from 40 to 60. Ninety-five percent of Key West was reported damaged or destroyed. And when monstrous tides sent residents scrambling to Key West lighthouses to avoid drowning, all were lost when the lighthouses collapsed. Sand Key disappeared altogether, only to emerge in December.

After racing through Cedar Key, the storm pressed Northeast to Jacksonville. Winds pushed St. Johns River water into the town’s core, flooding the business district and the interior of Bay Street businesses. The flood waters then advanced an additional block north reaching across Forsyth Street. Wind and water destroyed wharves and wrecked structures in the tiny town. The sizeable vessel, the Virginia, anchored in the St. Johns, was relocated by the gale, dragging anchor and all, to a surreal lopsided perch spanning the equivalent of two city blocks.

The area known today as Main Street, in earlier years, Pine Street, provided drainage to the river. Farther north near Pine and Duval streets was a sizeable duck pond used by hunters—another place to hold water. Nonetheless, the small town of 600 appears to have taken on water beyond the boundaries of the flood resulting this month from Hurricane Irma.

The Great Gale of 1846, continued its destructive force up the nation’s eastcoast into New England “collapsing houses, flattening factories, uprooting trees and tearing up railroads.” The little town of Jacksonville had much less to lose as rail travel and major factories remained years in its future.

But the storm was not soon forgotten. Two years later, the city constructed a bulkhead along a portion of the river, extending from Ocean Street to Pine Street to help prevent flooding during future storms. The new and limited bulkhead consisted of hewn logs tied together by massive chains.

It is interesting to note, when the terrible gale and resulting flood of 1846, are recalled nearly eighty years later by Jacksonville’s preeminent historian, T. Frederick Davis, his headliner for the entry is simply, “Jacksonville’s First Bulkhead.”


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