Digest>Archives> Sep/Oct 2021

From the Commodore

“The Hurricane of August 1911”

By Debra Baldwin


You can see an enlarged version of this picture by clicking here.
>> Click to enlarge <<
Frederick P. Dillon

Charleston summers are unbearably hot with the moisture-laden air wafted over the city with slight relief during evenings by a southwest land breeze acting almost like a Trade Wind in its regularity.

You can see an enlarged version of this picture by clicking here.
>> Click to enlarge <<
The sturdy 1908 tender Cypress. (Lighthouse ...

Weather was never an important factor in my life until I became an employee of the Lighthouse Service. I just took it as it came. But onboard lighthouse tenders, it was different. I joined them in watching the barometer. They had to “pick their weather” on every trip: to work (relieve) buoys at least once a year, (they had to report every buoy thus not relieved and the reasons therefore); to relieve or recharge certain very important sea buoys; to plan to enter at Helena Sound for inspection or delivery of supplies to the rear of Hilton Head; for a trip up the coast with Relief Lightship 53 in tow and to bring in Frying Pan Lightship 94, etc. Then, in summer, the tenders had to make ready for the hurricane season.

You can see an enlarged version of this picture by clicking here.
>> Click to enlarge <<
The Charleston waterfront after the August 1911 ...

Ominous signs, deathly stillness, and warnings from the Weather Bureau foretold a hurricane was headed for Charleston, one of those great whirling storms, a hundred miles in diameter, that originated in the West Indies and swept, always veering to the right, up the East Coast of the United States in summer, striking with its greatest force the Good Lord knows where.

I rushed from the office up East Bay Street to the New Custom House Dock where the tender Cypress was tied up. She had moved between the two massive stone piers and it was evident that Captain Johnson was taking no chances. The docks had been cleared of buoys. Storm anchors had been run out into the harbor and bow lines run to the massive bollards on the piers. All lines were doubled, hatches battened down and the marvelous twin screw, 190-foot sea boat, with steam up, was ready for the blow. The barometer falling rapidly was so low that Captain Johnson from long experience knew this was something more than a stiff Nor’easter.

At home about dark, I felt an unusual calm over the neighborhood with the wind just starting to blow from the northeast, quite different from our usual southwest land breeze. I likewise battened down the “hatches” of the apartment, securely locked all the doors, closed the inside shutters to the windows and wondered, with a feeling of security in this great flat three-storied mansion, what a hurricane would be like.

As the night came on, the sound of the wind rose in pitch. It whined. It screeched. Peering through the shutters at the darkened streets, I saw tiles, gate posts, tree branches and tin roofs hurtled through the air on the level. Great chunks of debris thumped against the walls but nothing hit the windows yet. The wind shivered the massive structure. What was that terrible tearing sound? I would investigate after the storm.

Then came the lull as the “eye” of the hurricane passed over the city, only to bring a deluge of rain as from the opening of the heavens. Out in the hall, a Niagara Falls was cascading down the stairwell from the third floor to the second, down to the beautiful Rhett home on the first. The tearing noise had explained itself. The tin roof had rolled up and had “Gone with the Wind.” A part of the roof had remained intact over my bedroom, a small haven. I worked the rest of the night stacking furniture and belongings in this snug harbor while the storm shrieked and then gradually died down after the shift of wind.

In the stillness of the morning, I started out to see what the hurricane had done. I was delayed. The tide had risen to an unprecedented height covering the streets of the city. About noon, it had ebbed. Oh, what wreckage! Every tile roof and many tin roofs were gone. All the trees along the streets, trolley poles and wires were in a tangled mess.

Small boats, far and wide, were scattered over the surrounding marshes or in the city streets, smashed and battered. But the Cypress weathered the storm even with the bollards on the stone piers under water. Captain Johnson reported that the Weather Bureau wind indicator on top of the Custom House was blown down when the wind reached a velocity of about 100 miles an hour, so accurate top velocity was unknown. Would Charleston ever recover? It was a wreck.

I had been through a hurricane declared by some natives to be the worst the city had ever experienced, and I knew what to expect from another. Charlestonians stopped talking about the earthquake in 1886 that had rocked the city and remembered the hurricane instead.

This excerpt is taken from “Lighthouse Engineer, Sixth District, Charleston, S.C., 1911 to 1917” in The Making of a Lighthouse Engineer, the unpublished memoirs of Commodore Frederick P. Dillon.

This story appeared in the Sep/Oct 2021 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

All contents copyright © 1995-2024 by Lighthouse Digest®, Inc. No story, photograph, or any other item on this website may be reprinted or reproduced without the express permission of Lighthouse Digest. For contact information, click here.

to Lighthouse Digest

USLHS Marker Fund

Lighthouse History
Research Institute

Shop Online

Subscribe   Contact Us   About Us   Copyright Foghorn Publishing, 1994- 2024   Lighthouse Facts     Lighthouse History