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"Sideways . . . Thro' the Air" - The Tornado of 1773

August 7, 2017

With the current erratic weather patterns in New England, we figured it would be a proper time to turn our attention to an unusual but devastating event that occurred in Amesbury, Massachusetts on August 14, 1773.

Between 7 and 8 o'clock in the morning, a weather front passed over Northeastern Massachusetts and a series of violent storms sprung up. According to one period account, the storms consisted of "heavy rain and gross darkness".  At some point, a water spout formed somewhere along the Newburyport section of the Merrimack River. It quickly moved northwest along the river and landed in Amesbury at the junction of the Merrimack and Powwow Rivers.

In 1773 this part of Amesbury was a prosperous shipbuilding and fishing community. It also had a ferry that connected the town with Newbury. Several active farms were located on the outskirts of the village.  Five years after the storm, the famed Continental naval frigate USS Alliance would be launched from one of the local shipyards.

 

When the tornado landed, homes and shops were leveled. Building supplies, including shingles, timber and bricks, were thrown upwards of 140 feet in all directions. Apple trees were leveled and farm animals killed. A sail loft (and its occupants) was pulled off of its foundation and carried almost 100 feet down a roadway. Witnesses described trees and ship planks striking homes "with the velocity of cannon balls".

 The twister was so powerful that it lifted a pair of recently constructed 90 ton vessels out of their berths and carried them "sideways . . . thro' the air". 

According to Amesbury's Samuel Williams, the tornado lasted approximately four minutes and traveled for almost a mile. The Essex Gazette reported that the tornado also left a mile wide swath of destruction. If this newspaper account is accurate, it is possible the tornado was at least a F4 on the Fujita Scale. 

 

Over one hundred and twenty buildings were destroyed or damaged. Several residents were trapped in cellars and had to be dug out. Miraculously, no one was killed. Only two people suffered serious injuries.    

 

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