Whispering Pines: The Gales of December

Whispering Pines

It was 175 years ago—in December of 1839—that three gales hit the New England coast within a two-week period, devastating the merchant fleet, covering beaches with wreckage, cargo, and corpses, and crippling seafaring communities.

The first nor’easter hit after a period of uncharacteristically mild weather, beginning at midnight on the 14th and bringing rain, sleet, snow, and high winds for the next forty-eight hours. In Brunswick, Professor Parker Cleaveland documented a drop in mean temperature from 33° on the 14th to 8° and -7° over the next two days. Vessels at wharves were driven against each other, ships at anchor parted their chains and were driven against the shore, and frantic crews dismasted ships to keep them afloat.

A week later a second storm roared up the east coast, dumping ten inches of snow in Washington, D.C., and causing a second round of shipwrecks and deaths in New England. The third storm, on December 27, caused additional damage to wharves when they were overtopped by unusually high tides, but no loss of life. The writer of Awful Calamities: or, The Shipwrecks of December 1839 concluded that “Death seemed to have been well nigh sated with his former victims…”

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow probably had a copy of Awful Calamities… at hand when he wrote his poem “The Wreck of the Hesperus” in 1842. In his 2004 biography of Longfellow, Charles Calhoun describes the poet sitting by the fire in his Cambridge home after midnight, “…when suddenly it came into my mind to write [it], which I accordingly did. Then I went to bed but could not sleep. New thoughts were running in my mind, and I got up to add them to the ballad. It hardly cost me an effort. It didn’t come into my mind by lines, but by stanzas.”

Published first as a broadside and then in the collection Ballads and Other Poems, the ballad tells of the fateful consequences of a sea captain’s hubris in ignoring the advice of an old deck hand to seek safe harbor before the storm struck. He binds his daughter to the mast to keep her from being swept overboard and steers for the open sea. His daughter hears the ringing of a fog bell over the tempest. Now for the “spoiler alert”—don’t read the next sentence if you want to read the entire poem first. They don’t make it; the captain freezes to death at the helm, the ship is wrecked on the reef of Norman’s Woe near Gloucester, and the young girl’s body is found, still tied to the mast, floating near the shore.

Moving ahead a hundred years, Mr. Elliot C. Rogers of Gloucester bought a bell from an antique dealer in 1940. The bell was cast at the foundry of Wm. Blake Co. in Boston, a firm located on Allen Street from 1820 to 1890. Blake had apprenticed with Paul Revere. Mr. Rogers believed that the bell had hung from a tripod on the cliffs of Rafe’s Chasm (near Norman’s Woe), and was operated manually during stormy weather by the Humane Society. It had been removed by Samuel E. Sawyer of Gloucester and hung in his barn at Freshwater Cove until the farm was sold.  Rogers had initially thought of donating the bell to the local historical society, but then changed his mind and offered it to Bowdoin because of its possible association to Longfellow and the Hesperus story. The College accepted the bell as a gift in April 1961.

The bell was first rung at Commencement that year by President Coles, who indicated that it “may have been” the bell mentioned in Longfellow’s poem. It was sounded to mark the official opening of the Commencement/Reunion Luncheon each year in the Hyde Cage from 1961 through 1986. When the College began having Commencement and Reunion on consecutive weekends in 1987, the bell went into storage. It was returned to service at Reunion Weekend in 2007, and was represented as the bell from the Hesperus poem.

Professor emeritus, maritime historian, and Gloucester native Louis Norton ’58 wrote an excellent article in last winter’s Bowdoin Magazine in which he separates historical fact from literary license. Longfellow conflated a number of stories about the three winter storms of December 1839. The original Hesperus (rendered as “Herperus” in Awful Calamities…) was a Maine schooner used to haul bulk commodities up and down the Atlantic coast. It was wrecked at Rowe Wharf in Boston in the first gale on December 14-15, not on “the reef of Norman’s Woe.” There was no one aboard. With names like “Norman’s Woe” and “Hesperus” (the Greek name for Venus, the evening star) for Longfellow to work with, it’s no wonder that the ballad felt like “easy writing” for the poet.

Dramatic scenes of rescue and tragic accounts of desperate attempts to survive against nature’s fury gave Longfellow abundant material for his poem. Although the damage was great on Cape Cod and in Boston, Salem, and Newburyport, it was Gloucester that bore the brunt of the first storm, with fifty lives lost. One ship, the schooner F. Severs, came apart on Norman’s Woe during the first storm, but there is no mention of loss of life in that wreck. “From one end of the beach to the other, nothing could be seen but pieces of broken wrecks; planks and spars, shattered into a thousand splinters; ropes and sails, parted and rent; flour, fish lumber, and a hundred other kinds of lading and furniture, soaked and broken; with here and there a mangled and naked body of some poor mariner; and in one instance that of a woman lashed to the windlass-bitts of a Castine schooner, lay along the beach, while off, thirty yards, with the surf breaking over them every moment and freezing in the air, lay nearly a score of lost vessels; all together forming a picture which it is in vain to attempt to copy into words.” The body of Mrs. Sally Hilton was recovered after the schooner Favorite of Wiscasset, which went down off Gloucester (perhaps the ship identified as the “Castine schooner” in other accounts), but as Lou Norton points out, Mrs. Hilton was middle-aged.

According to the account in Awful Calamities: or, The Shipwrecks of December. 1839, 150-200 lives were reported lost in the three December gales, along with eighteen square-rigged vessels, sixty-eight schooners, and four sloops. Cutting away masts, rigging, and sails saved many ships endangered by the violent storms. Of the vessels that survived the gales of December, 1839, forty-five ships and barques, 168 schooners, and five sloops were dismasted, driven ashore, or “greatly injured in some other way.” On land, roofs were ripped off, houses flattened, steeples toppled, and trees uprooted.

Longfellow’s poem is an amalgam of historical details rather than an accurate account of the wreck of a single ship. For those who witnessed first-hand the wrath of the 1839 storms and their aftermath, it captured the trauma and the pathos of the experience. In a curious way, the ringing of a bell, which may (or may not) have sounded across the water to Norman’s Woe and is not tied in any way to a 1830s sailing vessel named Hesperus, celebrates Longfellow’s gift at creating historical fictions that can reveal historical truths at another level. When the W. Blake and Co. bell is rung at Reunion, it will be described as an object linked by history to Gloucester and by imagination to Longfellow’s ballad. I fully expect that when I hear the sound of the “Hesperus” bell again at the end of May, I’ll feel the momentary chill of December wind, snow, and salt spray.

With best wishes,

John R. Cross

John R. Cross ’76
Secretary of Development and College Relations

Comments

  1. Barbara Kaster says:

    Oh John..another fascinating story! I do remember the ringing of that bell. It was a great tradition, whether it is related to what Longfellow wrote or not! Thank you, yet again and as always!

  2. Bill Heath '66 says:

    Thank you, John, for this fascinating blend of historical and literary sleuthing. Best wishes for a merry Christmas and a happy and healthy New Year.

    Bill Heath

  3. Nancy Bellhouse May '78 says:

    What a story! Thanks for pulling all of this together for us.

  4. Barbara Kaster says:

    Oh John,…another fascinating story! I do remember the ringing of that bell. It was a great tradition, whether it is related to Longfellow or not! Thank you, yet again and as always

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