Local Weather History: Mid-October 1844 Disaster in Buffalo & How It is Connected to Our Area

A historic severe weather & mid-latitude storm event took place October 17-19, 1844 from the Midwest to Northeast. The effects were felt the worst in Buffalo, New York, but we had our own strong gradient winds here.

Posted: Oct 19, 2021 5:57 PM
Updated: Oct 20, 2021 11:34 PM

Image is painting of Lafayette, Summer 1855.

Buffalo, New York experienced a significant seiche (rogue "tidal wave" scenario on the Great Lakes) at 11 p.m.-12 a.m. on October 18/19, 1844.  It has been regarded as "one of the greatest disasters in the city's recorded history". +15' wall of water suddenly inundated the heart of the city along the Lake Erie waterfront, killing at least 78 people in a matter of an hour. The 14' seawall was breached without any sort of advanced warning in darkness, resulting in disorientation of residents who were already asleep on that Friday night-Saturday morning (though the storm had awakened some).  Some of the deaths were on vessels, as well.

As prolonged southwest winds, with help that line of storms & its resultant severe winds & pressure drop & rise, a wall of water was pushed toward the eastern end of the lake.  Another big factor was the peristent northeast to east-northeast wind over the lake for days prior north of an advancing surface warm front.  That water piled up, then once the storms & all of the southwest winds took over, the wall raced northeastward toward Buffalo. 

Once the strong cold front & storms with wind & gradient winds ceased, the water subsided, then re-rose hours later as a lower-end seiche returned (this as a result of the deepening surface low to 977 mb over Ontario & another push of wind).

Buffalo usually has a couple seiches per year & they are either associated with summer or fall lines of severe storms or a long fetch of southwest wind caused by a very strong storm system over Ontario.  Infrastructure has been put in place that did not exist in 1844, like breakwalls/floodwalls, to prevent these sudden rises from inundated part of the city.  A seiche impact of such stature in the heart of the city has not occurred since after the Civil War.

From the Buffalo Gazette:

GREAT LOSS OF LIFE AND DESTRUCTION OF PROPERTY.

Our city was visited last night by one of the severe and destructive gales which was ever experienced here. The whole lower part of the city, extending into Seneca Street, on the East side of Main Street, presents one general scene of wreck and desolation, throughout the whole length of the city.
The water was all of two feet higher than it has ever been known before.
The wharves, throughout the whole extent, have been more or less damaged.
The U.S. ship Alert, and more than a dozen other ships and steamers were aground, and more or less injured - some totally destroyed.
The Buffalo papers give the names of more than 40 Canal Boats, that are driven ashore, and more or less injured.
Wood lumber, hogs, cattle, and the remnants of houses, are to be found, and obstruct the streets all over the flats.
The new Glass Factory of H. Hodge & Co., is in ruins; loss $2,000.
The new White Lead Factory of Messrs. Thompson, Warren & Co., near the foot of Court Street, is almost entirely demolished.
The track of the Buffalo and Attica Railroad from the Depot on Washington Street, to the Hydraulics, about three quarters of a mile, was washed away. The damage in the depot, car and engine house, estimated at $3,000.

So, how is this connected to our area?

Well, let's reconstruct what going on based on the weather observations & diaries at the time.

Unusually cold air was diving & roaring into the Plains, while above normal temperaures dominated areas from Pennsylvania to southern Indiana to the South.

Prior to the event, we were in the 60s to 70s over our area.  The mean temperature for the 16th over our area was around 62 degrees.

Mean in the far Northern Plains of North Dakota was the low 30s.

Note the driving east to northeast winds ahead of the developing storm & our wind going from south to southeast to east, then northeast here as the strom began to wind up over southeastern Missouri.

The storm deepened rapidly to 977 mb in Ontario, driving the southwest wind into Buffalo with warmth & likely two lines of severe storms Ohio to the Northeast.  On the backside, the unusually cold air spilled in & our winds howled from the east to northeast to north & northwest with rain.

The unusually cold air roared deep into Texas as a Blue Norther & brief snow occurred in Chicago.

After the storm departed, several inches of Lake Effect snow fell in Buffalo, New York after October 20.

The heaviest rainfall with the system occurred in southeastern Arkansas & Mississippi & Louisiana where the front was hung up & would eventually move back north as a warm front (bringing unusual warmth to our area & a strong to violent tornado on October 25 in northwestern Missouri & large hail to parts of Iowa).

In the case of the mid-October 1844 rainfall, I found no reports of severe weather in Mississippi or Louisiana, but some wind damage in local press in Arkansas.

Much of the severe weather was Ohio to the Northeast from two lines of low-topped severe storms. 

This bears resemblance to the November 14-15, 2020 storm that brought severe weather from Indiana to New York & Massachuseets with severe weather the day before in Missouri to Arkansas (strongest tornado was an EF2 in Arkansas).

When we view a map of severe reports plotted form local newspapers & diaries at the time of storm, not gradient wind reports, the similarity is there.

In fact, the 2020 storm had a seiche & consistently high water that resulted in voluntary evacuations along the shoreline in the Buffalo area as the historic storm breached breakerwalls.  Buffalo's first ward was flooded.  Given this storm & its wall of water, it was equal in stature to the 1844 event.

These are the November 15-16, 2020 gusts on Lake Erie.  Note the surge of gradient winds & push of water from the storms.  This is likely how it looked, based on reports, in 1844 (loop courtesy of the National Weather Service, Cleveland, Ohio):

The lines of storms associated with the strong low moving into western & then northwestern Ontario that produced wind damage:

A gust of 64 mph was measured 2 miles west of Rochester, Indiana from the line of storms, the rest of the really strong winds were of the gradient kind (from the surface low pressure) occurred behind the actual storms.  However, in the case of 1844, there is no mention of storms in our area, but rain & wind, then the strongest winds.

Here is the November 15, 2020 at 7 a.m. surface map showing the strong cold front & the surface low in Wisconsin.  Note how the temperature pattern & rainfall pattern lines up pretty well with the 1844 reconstructions.

Like in 1844, the 2020 storm saw the seiche in Buffalo correspond with the line of storms & the strong southwest winds afterward.

The difference between 1844 & 2020 is that the strong surface low appears to have tracked farther southeastward, then raced northward.

Local press wrote of warmth with southwest wind turning to rain, cold & strong northeast winds, which then went to the north & increased.

Unfortunately, no weather records exist from 1844 for Lafayette, but they do for Chicago.

Records from Chicago show that the wind increased to the Force of 4 (sustained wind during the storm system with wind out of the northeast & east, then north & northwest).  This would be a "Moderate Breeze" with sustained winds of 18 mph.

Note the 1.05" of liquid & the mention of snow on the night of the 18th, though it did not accumulate.  The high was only 47 after being around 60, then dropped to 32 at 9 p.m. on October 18.  Note the unusually cold day of October 19!  It was 34 in the morning, 33 in the afternoon & 31 at 9 p.m. as the unusually cold air spilled in.  70s returned by the 23rd at Chicago ahead of the severe weather outbreak that occurred west of Chicago:

West Lafayette
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Feels Like: 30°
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Feels Like: 26°
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Feels Like: 26°
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A few showers, then much warmer weather is ahead...
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