Buffalo is famous -- or infamous, depending on whom you ask -- for its wintry weather. But 172 years ago, it wasn't a snow storm that devastated Buffalo: It was a deadly flood that struck the city with tidal wave-like force, killing scores of citizens.
"Purists would call it a seiche, the Great Lakes version of a tidal wave, but for the victims there was little difference," wrote The News' Mike Vogel on Oct. 20, 1988. "A wall of water swept across the harbor and city, drowning 78 people while driving ships ashore and washing away scores of homes and wharves."
Seiches aren't uncommon in Lake Erie; we had one as recently as 2012. In 1844, though, the city was ill-prepared for the phenomenon.
"The city lacked an extensive system of protective breakwaters in the lake to blunt the force of the waters," Vogel wrote. "Buffalo Harbor was just two stone and timber piers jutting into the lake from the mouth of Buffalo Creek; the city's still-standing land mark lighthouse marked the end of one of the piers, and a crude stone seawall stretched south from the base of that pier along part of what is now Fuhrmann Boulevard."
In 1914, with the flood a much more recent memory, The News' Eugenia Rabbas wrote a somber piece recalling the natural disaster. Here, only slightly edited for clarity, is Rabbas' story, which ran in the Sunday Magazine on Aug. 9, 1914.
"Need Buffalo fear tidal wave, earthquake or hurricane?: Great flood of 1844 left suspicion that Buffalo is not out of 'Calamity Belt' "
Earthquakes, sand storms, hurricanes, volcanic eruptions – we read about these unavoidable calamities which occur almost daily in some quarter of the globe and mentally thank our stars that we live in Buffalo.
But fitting as our prayers of thanksgiving may be, not always has nature drawn a charmed circle about our ramparts, for there are still people alive who recall with horror the flood of 1844, which ranks in awfulness with any of the above mentioned disasters.
No one possibly who has not lived through a flood can conceive the horror of being entrapped in a wild onrush of swirling black waters, sweeping along so swiftly as to leave no time for escape. Nevertheless it comes very close to some of us when we realize that such was the experience of relatives and friends who only 70 years ago made up a fraction of the population of our city.
Then, as now, Buffalo was visited by her periodical wind storms – the kind of storms in which only the strong-limbed venture out, and even then only under stress of necessity.
For several days before this particular one, a strong northeast wind had been driving the water up the lake, but on the evening of October 18, 1844, a sudden shift of wind took place and blew from the opposite direction.
This in itself might not have proved disastrous if the force of the storm had not been such as to carry back the vast volumes of water which the wind had been piling up in its pathway.
Like an infuriated army charging its retreating foe and without any warning whatsoever, the black seething mass swept inward upon a sleeping community, many of whom were drowned before they realized what had happened.
On and on it swept, overflowing the lower districts of the city, spreading ruin along the harbor front and playing havoc with boats, schooners and sailing crafts of every description.
As the city awoke to the cry of danger, all barriers of class and wealth vanished in the common need for protection. Half-clothed women and children, dazed and speechless with fright, were rescued from water-logged houses and floating spars, for buildings collapsed as if built upon sand, under the force of the onslaught.
Huff’s hotel, at the corner of Main and Scott streets, was one of the buildings flooded. Six feet of water swirled around and inside of its walls, while piercing cries for help from the basement penetrated the uproar.
A body of volunteers steered an improvised craft into the danger zone, and several young women in their night clothes were fished out of the windows. Some of the waiters, asleep when the flood struck them, were drowned in their beds.
This was only one of the many similar instances that kept stout-hearted men and women busy all through the night trying to rescue whomever they might from the grewsome (sic) death that stared them in the face.
With the coming of morning, the wind abated somewhat, but it was too late to avert much of the loss which night had aided in bringing about.
Separated families wildly searched for their missing ones, and the municipal rooms over the terrace market were filled with agonized people scanning dead bodies, fearfully expectant of finding the familiar forms of relatives and friends.
A similar situation existed at the court house on Washington street, where the dead were laid in windows awaiting identification.
Here, also, scenes beyond description seared the hearts of every one present. One, in particular, stamped itself with to be forgotten vividness on the already grief-drugged spectators.
A young man, evidently a seaman who had just arrived in port, stood by the side of his dead wife, whose children were fastened to her with an improvised rope, their calm little faces serenely beautiful in angelic repose. Stricken beyond words or tears, he stood gazing at the dead bodies of his loved ones, never again to regain his hold on life, for from that time on her became possessed of melancholia, which persisted until his death, a few years later.
Knots of people congregated in and about the death chambers, talked in awed, hushed whispers, telling each other about the heroism of the dead and living.
One woman had remained up to her neck in water during the greater part of the evening and night, bearing a small child on her shoulders. But the child perished while thus exposed, and the mother, though rescued, was near death’s door from the effects of the shock.
Another told of the man he saw trying to rescue a young woman, when he must have known that was certain death to venture into the vortex of which she was the center. Nevertheless he had gone, and that was the last seen of both of them.
And still another related how she had heard a little voice sobbing from somewhere out on the black waters, “My mamma! My mamma! Please save my mamma!” until the last choking gasp told its own tale.
And so on, each recalled an incident which shone like a white light through the blackness of disaster. Deeds of courage and self-sacrifice that went far to obliterate harrowing remembrance of the scene, for it was only so that men could remember and not become bitter and hard.
But it was not only the land dwellers who waged their battle with death on that fearful night, for the strewn wreckage left by the receding waters gave mute evidence of that.
Stranded canal boats were found on the Commons, on Division, Eagle and Clinton streets, and harbor craft lined the lower districts.
South Buffalo was strewn with miscellaneous wreckages of all kinds, household articles floating amidst sections of fences, plank sidewalks and diverse other articles.
The water at the corner of Main and Ohio streets was six feet deep, and at Michigan and Exchange streets it was five feet deep.
A schooner aground at the foot of Ferry street was an object of wonder. How did it get there, men were asking each other, when a break in the south pier solved the riddle. The force of the waters had been not only so tremendous as to cause the break, but it had actually swept the schooner through and, stranger still, it had done this without injuring the craft.
The evening before the storm the steamers Robert Fulton, Indian Queen and Julia Palmer left the port of Buffalo for the upper end of the lakes with a full complement of passengers.
One by one the story of each one’s battle with the elements added to the list of casualties which followed in the wake of that terrible night.
The steamship Louis managed fairly well until she reached the vicinity of Dunkirk, where she broke her shaft and went paying out into the trough of the sea. Here her fight with the relentless forces of nature began. So high were the waves that four of her passengers were swept overboard and lost. With the power of one wheel and aided by a jib and stay sail, together with good seamanship, she finally reached Niagara river at daybreak the next morning and was blown into the river without regard to channel, the river being all channel on account of the height of the water.
She went in with her side and end alternately to the front. Captain James Haggert came out with his steam ferry boat, which had been running four years, and brought in the disabled steamer to the foot of Ferry street.
The Indian Queen, the smallest of the four that went out into the lake on the evening before, was the only one able to reach of the port of Buffalo on her return.
The Robert Fulton, after losing two or three passengers, who were washed overboard, was piled high upon the sand beach above Sturgeon Point. She was a high-pressure boat of 318 tons and had been in service for about nine years.
The Julia Palmer, with 300 passengers, was driven helplessly into Buffalo bay, but when she was opposite the foot of Main street her anchors caught and held her fast. Here she rolled and pitched in a manner fearful to behold all the next day. On the morning of the 20th, the sea having gone down sufficiently, a relief boat went out and brought her into port.
Before this was accomplished a horse swam ashore with a letter attached to its mane stating that they had burned all the wood and were now “burning the furniture.” Fortunately, the relief boat came in time to save those remaining on board.
Among other boats damaged were the following: Schooner Potomac, G.H. Walker and Brandywine, ashore at Erie; John Grant and Henry Clay, ashore near Erie; the schooner Lodi disabled and taken in tow by the Missouri; schooner John Marshall wrecked near Mexico bay.
The iron schooner Albert was driven upon the beach at Buffalo, but got off. The brig Buffalo reached Buffalo damaged in hull and outfit.
What was perhaps the greatest individual loss outside of life and property happened to the schooner Robert Wood, in charge of Captain Miner. A cargo of over $50,000 worth of merchandize was damaged to almost the full amount of the goods.
The steamer G.W. Dale was floated across Ohio street and another, Bunbe Hill, was found high and dry up the creek.
These happenings, perhaps, give a more vivid idea of the wind and flood than anything else, for never before in the history of storms were vessels blown so far inland by gale and tide as on this memorable occasion.
Another eloquent testimonial was the line of canal boats that went ashore between Buffalo and Black Rock. They numbered 50 in all, and it must have been a strange sight the next day to see them strewn about, turning the land into a bewildering imitation of lake and sea.
One mother huddled on a deck with her five little ones was weeping bitterly over the loss of their household outfit. The wind had blow the little cabin far out into the river, and she had no shelter left for her family.
Most of these boats had been laid up for the fall and winter, so fortunately they were mainly uninhabited, thereby averting a new source of loss of life.
Added to the list of death and destruction the terrific gale was followed by a cold wave, and the many homeless sought shelter and warmth wherever they might find it.
Although the storm was centered in New York State, Buffalo suffered a greater loss of life and property than all the other ports combined, the death toll in the city being 53 and that on the lakes 25.
When we realize that the water rose 22 feet in the space of two hours, we can in some measure picture the scene, but it is only a picture, after all. No pen or portrait can ever portray the suffering and anguish lived through by the ill-fated victims whose fate placed them in the pathway of a force which no man’s hand can stay.
Safe and sound in our fancied security, we hear about those things and then – forget. Forget that death is never so far away from any of us, and that it might be well to pause a little in our mad rush for gain or pleasure and think about the real things. The things which earthquakes cannot destroy nor floods carry away.
And then we ask ourselves – why? Why this needless loss of life – this seemingly unjust visitation of death and suffering on the many through no fault of their own.
That, perhaps, is the answer. We need to be brought face to face with a higher power than our own. A power before which the mightiest deeds of men are stripped of their boast and glory. For it is in moments like these that the warning is sounded.
And too, as there is no evil so great but that some good may come of it, so also the awakened spirit of brotherhood slumbering in all men may in some little measure counter-balance the devastation following gin the train of any great disaster.
For especially was that the spirit in which Buffalonians met the destructive flood of 1844. Homes were tendered to the homeless, and every care and consideration given to the ill and injured.
Not only that, but generous contributions of food, clothing and money flowed in from all sides, so that no one was left uncared for.
Profiting from experience, Buffalo rebuilt her breakwater and piers with such added precaution for the safety of her citizens that, although it is now 70 years since the memorable flood of 1844, never again has there been a repetition of anything approaching to it. That the future will bid fair to copy the past in this respect is, no doubt, the wish of anyone whose thoughts for a brief space of time have been turned floodward.