October 19, 1749: The Coastal Hurricane of 1749
On October 19, 1749, one of the most powerful hurricanes in recorded history smashed into the coast of Virginia. Although the exact size of the storm is unknown, residents in New York and Rhode Island recorded an immense uptick in local winds, and scholars suspect this system was a class four hurricane. Unlike most devastating Atlantic storms, this hurricane’s story ends on a positive note.
The storm made landfall throughout the Chesapeake Bay between 10:00 am and 2:00 pm. Survivor’s recorded harrowing accounts of the storm’s intensity. A family in Williamsburg drowned when the furious rains unleashed a flood that washed their home away. Hampton residents wrote that water rose to four feet in the city streets, and described forests of uprooted, broken, trees. Waterfront buildings throughout the Bay area washed into the ocean when the sea rose fifteen feet.
James Barron, the future Commodore of the Virginia State Navy, recorded a detailed description of the storm’s fury, and an astonishing sight following its passage. Stationed at Fort George, Barron wrote, “One could hear the sand picked up by the wind from the beach outside and blasted against every object that still withstood the gale.” And, “Shortly afterwards the seawall lurched and sank at the point where it was exposed to the wave fury of the storm. Finally the outside wall of the fort gave way, and the filling of sand poured out, leaving the inner wall exposed to the blast without support.”
The storm passed before the fort disintegrated, and the following morning, Barron finally understood what raging winds of sand created. A massive sand spit rose out of the ocean, one built up by numerous storms throughout the years that followed, and is known today as the Willoughby Spit, a resort neighborhood in Norfolk, Virginia.