No enemy but winter and rough weather

SEA DRIFT, Blakely, Majestic, Pizarro, lost.

Gil Blas, Mary Ann, Miami, also lost.

Hero, Noble, La Fayette, all lost.

The fishing vessels Felix and Eden, not heard from.

The roll call was numbing.

The Pizarro’s crew were at work on the wreck of the Sea Drift, when the storm surge swept both onto land. The Florida, a lightship stationed on Carysfort Reef to keep mariners off that most expansive and treacherous tract of coral in the Keys, was itself severely damaged: its deck ripped up, its boats gone, its lanterns darkened. “A tremendous sea” had swamped Key Biscayne and other barrier islands: four feet of water engulfed the Cape Florida light, driving its keeper and his family to the safety of an upper room in the lighthouse. How shipping fared further to windward, where the storm was strongest, no one dared guess.

During the second half of September, dispatches trickled into Key West.1 So too did cargo, captains and crew, whose schooners, sloops, brigs and smacks were lifted onto the beach or grounded on the reef, suffered the loss of anchors, masts, spars and rigging, or were sunken offshore. Unidentified bits of wreckage washed up on the island’s south beach. The human toll remained an unanswerable question: calculating and recouping the losses of ship owners, merchants and insurers would always weigh more heavily on the living.

Wreckers on the Florida Keys

It fell to William A. Whitehead, as customs collector and chief editor of the town newspaper, to give some reckoning of the devastation visited on his district by the hurricane of September 1835. Before the advent of the telegraph (which at Key West lay many years in the future), Whitehead could only collate accounts from some of the roughly two dozen wrecking vessels active on the Reef, as they arrived with salvaged cargoes to be adjudicated and sold, with shreds of information from ships’ captains, passengers, even newspapers out of other ports. Whitehead’s bulletins of September and October are perforce fragmentary, but they constitute the earliest chronicle of a major South Florida hurricane.2

Conditions at Key West itself during and after the storm, however, are barely mentioned. Having “commenced here from the north,” the “severe gale” as Whitehead termed it “continued two days, the wind gradually veering to the south-west.” A couple of local pilot boats tied up in the harbor were damaged.3 The ferocity of the winds must have caused some destruction in town, but probably greater havoc had befallen the island a month prior, when a hurricane on its way into the Gulf of Mexico “blew with more violence than is recollected to have been experienced for some years.”4 Whitehead logged no deaths at Key West from either storm and, although he mentioned no flooding, the probable surges, set beside his monthly rain readings, make that a virtual certainty. Nearly twelve inches of rain fell in August and September combined, a third of the year’s total.5

Although subtropical weather was normally more placid, its study intrigued Whitehead for his entire tenure on Key West. Before he settled into his post as collector, temperature and “atmospherical” pressure were faithfully recorded at the custom house: the former four times daily, the latter twice a day using a “sympiesometer,” a kind of ship’s barometer. For 1830 and 1831, the years before and after he entered upon his customs duties, Whitehead sent off tables of monthly mean temperatures, pressures and precipitation to a Boston publisher who, appearing to lack meteorological records from elsewhere, duly printed the old Key West data in his American Almanac for 1835.6

Whitehead’s Key West weather records are altogether impressive for their time, yet frustrating for the lack of information that, if he thought to convey it, has not survived. It may be imagined that he kept up his barometric readings, but after 1831 no such observations figure in his reports. Whitehead’s rainfall measurements, beginning in October 1832, anticipate by over a decade such scientific monitoring elsewhere in Florida. His 1834 table of wind directions and speeds (the latter classified on a scale from “very fresh” to “calm”) were again taken up, presumably for their value to commerce in the age of sail, by the editor of the 1836 American Almanac. And his 1835 wind chart, while it gave only directions, incorporated observations from five other stations along Florida’s east and west coasts. No reference, though, has been found to any of the instruments used to gather these data.7

Among Whitehead’s stated objectives was to show northerners that conditions at the extreme southern tip of the United States were seldom extreme. He felt that his temperature readings would demonstrate to “our friends at a distance, that the climate in which we live is far from being so inhospitable, as from general report, they would be tempted to believe.” The highest temperature recorded in all of 1834 was 89° F., the lowest 54.5°, a differential of only 34.5°, “far less than often takes place at the North in 24 hours.”8

Whitehead observed that extraordinary wet seasons, such as were experienced in May and October 1834, had no noticeable effect on the health of the island. When average rainfall and the annual number of rainy days were compared, Key West seemed to have a distinct advantage over almost anywhere else. Three days out of five brought easterly trade winds, “with healing on their wings”; on only one day out of five were winds light or calm. “Such is the climate of Key West,” he declared, “as far removed from the one it wears in the estimation of the majority of our northern brethren, as we are from the antipodes.” Those words were penned in February 1835, just before the thermometer dropped to a record low of 45°–“something like a punishment for our boasting.”9 But in the main Whitehead’s assessment held true, his purpose firm.

A Rutherford self-registering thermometer

He was most zealous in reading temperatures, and it’s here that we get the fullest sense of his choice of instruments and methods. He preferred a “self-registering” thermometer of the type developed by Scottish doctor John Rutherford, probably comprising two discrete tubes, one filled with mercury, the other with amyl alcohol. Both were suspended on a wall horizontally. Inside each tube floated an index of glass, porcelain or steel. As the temperature rose or fell, the index settled at the limit of the surrounding fluid’s expansion or contraction. From the mercury-filled tube Whitehead could then read the day’s maximum temperature, and from the spirit thermometer the minimum, which he entered into the custom house journal where other meteorological data were recorded and means and ranges calculated. The placement of the Rutherford thermometer, “hung within doors, but in a free circulation of air, night and day,” hence very possibly in a breezeway inside the collector’s residence, ensured that his readings would be unaffected by moisture or reflection.10

Recording and reporting the weather was to prove a lifelong avocation for Whitehead. In 1843, just weeks after resettling in his native New Jersey, he began keeping daily meteorological data and composing learned monthly summaries for the Newark Daily Advertiser. These routines would be his discipline and delight into old age. The care and constancy with which he gathered his data, and the erudition that he brought to the “literary speciality” of weather writing, secured him a devoted following even among historical meteorologists a century later.11

He had been documenting the weather of Newark and its vicinity for three years when almost all he knew of Key West was damaged or destroyed by the Great Hurricane that overwhelmed the island on 11 October 1846. Even in New Jersey, Whitehead didn’t escape the force of this catastrophe, nor did the tempest elude the notice of Whitehead. Nothing at Key West, he wrote, “seems to have withstood the violence of the gale; shipping, light houses, wharves, houses, (including many of their tenants) were alike involved in the destruction.” The vortex of the storm then journeyed north, bringing winds to Newark on the afternoon of the 13th “far more violent than any experienced for years, unroofing houses, prostrating fences, and uprooting trees.”12

Copyright © 2020-2023 Gregory J. Guderian

[1] “Gale,” The enquirer (Key West, Fla.) 19 September 1835 3:1; “Shipwrecks and supposed loss of lives. Effects of the late gale.” The enquirer 26 September 1835 3:1-2; “The late shipwrecks,” The enquirer 3 October 1835 3:1-2; “Wreck of sloop Hero,” The enquirer 10 October 1835 3:3. Cf. “Wreck sales,” The enquirer 14 November 1835 2:4.

[2] Data on the “South Florida Hurricane of 1835” are compiled in David M. Ludlum, Early American hurricanes, 1492-1870 (Boston 1963) 122-123. At the end of 1835, Whitehead listed twenty vessels by name, omitting “a few of small tonnage,” that were employed in wrecking on the Florida Reef: “Florida wreckers,” Key West (Fla.) inquirer 26 December 1835 3:1. The list was printed as Appendix T in Jefferson B. Browne, Key West, the old and the new (St. Augustine, Fla. 1912) 224.

[3] The enquirer 19 September 1835 3:1.

[4] The enquirer 22 August 1835 3:2. The wreck of the schooner Pee Dee was connected “very probably” to the “gale which was experienced here on 16th August.” The enquirer 5 September 1835 3:2. For the trajectory of the August storm see Ludlum 142-143.

[5] “Meteorological table for 1835, from the journal kept at the Custom House, Key West,” The enquirer 9 January 1836 4:1-2. Whitehead created a “Condensed statement of the fall of rain at Key West in each month, during several years, in inches,” included in The American almanac and repository of useful knowledge, for the year 1838 (Boston: Charles Bowen, 1837) 187. It permits monthly comparisons with the last quarter of 1832 and all of 1833-1836.

[6] “Meteorological table,” The American almanac and repository of useful knowledge, for the year 1835 (Boston 1834) 68, where the tables are credited to “J. Whitehead, Esq., Collector,” presumably in error, as William’s brother John is not known to have held the position. The remaining pages of “meteorological information” in this edition of the Almanac, which was published annually 1830-1861, report dates of the flowering of fruit trees (including, on page 70, fourteen years’ worth of data supplied by William’s future father-in-law James Parker of Perth Amboy, N.J.) and a lengthy treatise by astronomer Denison Olmsted on “The meteors of November 13th, 1833.”

[7] “Rain at Key West, 1833,” The American almanac … for the year 1835 68; “Condensed statement”; “Winds at Key West in 1834,” The American almanac … for the year 1836 (Boston 1835) 183. “Winds on the coast of Florida,” The American almanac … for the year 1837 (Boston 1836) 183; “Table showing the prevalence of different winds at Key West, from observations made during four years,” The American almanac … for the year 1838 (Boston 1839) 137. See also “Meteorological tables, from observations of W. A. Whitehead, communicated to the ‘American Almanac,’ 1834-1839,” in Walter C. Maloney, A sketch of the history of Key West, Florida (Newark, N.J. 1876) 84.

[8] “Climate of Key West,” The enquirer 14 February 1835 3:2.

[9] Ibid. 3:2-3.

[10] “Table of mean temperatures from observations at Key West, Florida, the most southern town in the U. States,” The American almanac … for the year 1838 186. See also “Meteorological table for 1835.” Whitehead more fully described the similar, perhaps identical thermometer installed in his Newark home, beginning in 1843: “The thermometer (self registering) hanging constantly on the north side of the house, protected from moisture and reflection (and therefore best calculated for a series of observations) although marking the extremes, may not give indications of either as great as other thermometers differently situated. Observations made within doors or in confined situations, or where the thermometer is affected by reflections afford no data for comparisons.” W., “Review of the weather for June 1843,” Newark (N.J.) daily advertiser 1 July 1843 2:4. He would continue to employ “Thermometers, mercurial and spirit, self-registering, hanging about eight feet from the ground, with a northern exposure, protected from rain and reflection.” W., “The climate of Newark. Meteorological table for 1857.” Newark daily advertiser 27 January 1858 2:3.

[11] See Ludlum 97. A transcript of Whitehead’s daily record is preserved as MC 502 in Special Collections and University Archives, Rutgers University; the first entry is dated 1 May 1843. The published monthly reports began with the 1 June 1843 issue of the Advertiser, and continued uninterrupted into the 1880s. The phrase is Mark Twain’s: “Weather is a literary speciality, and no untrained hand can turn out a good article of it.” “The American claimant,” The idler magazine 1 (February 1892) 2.

[12] W., “Review of the weather for October, 1846,” Newark daily advertiser 2 November 1846 2:5. For this storm’s devastation on Key West see Ludlum 151-154, for its effects in the Northeast 94-95.

Images: 1) A wreck among the breakers: J. B. Holder, “Along the Florida Reef (First Paper).” Harper’s new monthly magazine 42 (February 1871) (355-363) 361, via Florida Memory. State Library and Archives of Florida. 2) Wreckers on the Florida Keys: Harper’s weekly 22 (19 October 1878) 836, via Florida Memory. State Library and Archives of Florida. 3) Rutherford thermometer: The Science Museum Group (CC BY 4.0).

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