The Great White Hurricane
In the winter of 1888 a blizzard visited the East Coast of America so intense it was immediately named the “Great White Hurricane.” Stretching along from Virginia to northern Maine the storm paralyzed the coast and left widespread destruction in its path.
Lewes harbor, in Delaware, was considered to be the safest place on the Atlantic seaboard because of its large stone Breakwater which provided a buffer from the heavy seas (here is what a Breakwater looks like, although maybe not the best example… just ignore the sinking ship next to it). With the storm approaching, many ships huddled there in hopes of riding out the storm in relative safety. It would be a scene of unprecedented disaster.
The 11th of March was a clear and calm late winter’s day, actually it was a little bit unseasonably warm. By the evening the weather began to change. Fifty vessels anchored behind the seawall, from steamships to sailing ships. Many were cargo ships docking during the storm and carrying molasses, lumber, sugar and ice.
Just before midnight the water stood eerily calm and still. Soon the wind began to grow as the temperature plummeted. Keeper Theodore Salmons tapped the glass at the Cape Henlopen Life-Saving Station and put everyone on alert for their night beach patrols. The full brunt of the storm rushed in next.
Despite the winds picking up high speeds the night patrol began their duties. The foot patrol were literally blown back to the station house by the forceful wind to report the wreckage beginning at the beach.
Raging winds descended on the harbor bringing “flying hail and snow that cut like a lash…and salt spray that froze into a glassy coating the instant the water touched decks, spars, or rigging.” A Life-Saving Service Surfman remembered that the winds blew ice and sand so hard: “You couldn’t look too windward; it could cut your eyes out. We are lucky to have lived through it.”
Some sailors rigged themselves to the masts of the ice-bound ships to ride the storm out and avoid being washed overboard. But for many it meant death as they froze to death in the icy 90 mph (145 km/h) gusts.
The Life-Saving stations of Lewes and Cape Henlopen sprang into action and began their efforts to save the stranded. The two stations headed for the most distressed vessel first which was the three-masted schooner Allie H. Belden. The crew had tied themselves high up in the rigging as the seas broke over the deck. The Lyle gun (a line throwing gun) was fired within reach of the ship’s captain but his hands were too frozen from exposure. Unable to hold onto the line it was quickly blown out of reach. Several more lines were washed away as the snow began to block everyone’s vision.
Keeper John A. Clampitt of the Lewes station instructed some local volunteers to bring the frozen line back to the station house to dry next to the stove. Meanwhile his crew attempted to use a pilot boat to reach the stranded sailors but the high winds blew them back onto the beach, soaking wet and cold. More locals gathered together and wadded into the water with the boat and crew, pushing them towards the vessel. This time they succeeded in reaching the Belden. It had taken nine hours. They rescued four men close to death but were forced to leave behind two others who had already died from exposure.
As the Lewes crew worked on the Belden rescue, the Henlopen surfmen worked to rescue the stranded William G. Bartlett crew. On their way to the Barrlett they stopped to save the crew of the pilot boat Enock Turley. After an hour they’d removed the Turley’s seven crew members to shore, all who were badly frostbitten.
Now that the last of the shot lines were used, the lifesavers had to trek to the Marine Hospital to fetch their reserve surfboat. Against the storm they dragged the 3,000-pound boat along the shore. As they made their way back to the beach they found three young sailors from the Barlett crew stuck in the surf. The surfmen waded into the frigid waters, saving all of their lives.
Having entered the frigid water, the surfmen now had uniforms frozen stiff from ice. With great effort they rowed until they reached the Barlett where they found three men on board. Two were dying from the 18-hours of exposure, the third was dead.
By the next morning nearly every single vessel in the harbor had sunk or was sinking. The few that still floated had drifted away and were repeatedly crashing into each other, powerless. Because of the quick and effective work of the Life-Saving Stations only eight lives were lost. The two life-saving station crews saved a total of 178 seamen. The crews were hailed as heroes in the newspapers and their life saving miraculous.
The United States Life-Saving Service was commissioned in the 1870’s to rescue shipwrecked mariners along the American coast. Together the Cape Henlopen and Lewes stations saved thousands of lives responding to another 28 major shipwrecks during their existence, but their greatest rescue forever remained the Great Blizzard of 1888.
In 1915 sailing ships were replaced by steam-powered vessels and there were generally less wrecks. The U.S.L.S.S. merged with the Revenue Cutter Serve to form the U.S. Coast Guard.
The Blizzard of 1888 remains one of the most severe blizzards ever recorded in American history. There’s lots of pictures online if you want to see what it looked like, here. What started as an unseasonably mild rainy day with temperatures in the low 50F’s (10-12C) quickly turned into a full-blown crisis.
Snowfalls of 20-60 inches (51-152 cm) fell along the Eastern coast. Snow drifts from the extreme winds covered many houses including three-story homes as the center of the storm remained stationary over the mid-Atlantic region for three full days.
While Lewes was able to save most of the seamen, 100 sailors died and 200 ships were grounded or wrecked along the coast. Four hundred people died in total from the storm and cold.
Because the storm came so late in the season, it began melting within days causing flooding in many areas. Despite temperatures reaching 100F (38C) degrees the snow was still visibile until early that summer.