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The strongest hurricane to ever hit Massachusetts

National Hurricane Center

The Great Colonial Hurricane of 1635

The fast-moving hurricane hit Massachusetts without warning, bringing winds that destroyed houses and floods that sent many scrambling for high ground. Farms around Boston were swamped by a storm surge that approached 20 feet, and at least 46 people died.

It happened 379 years ago today. Meteorologists still believe it is the strongest hurricane ever to hit Southern New England.

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Though the settlers and Native Americans at the time lacked sophisticated weather equipment, researchers have combed through written accounts indicating that the Great Colonial Hurricane of 1635 — which had peak sustained winds of 135 miles per hour — would have overpowered storms of more recent memory.

Writing at the time, William Bradford recounted that the hurricane, “blew downe sundry houses & uncovered others.”

“Diverce vessels were lost at sea, and many more were in extreme danger,” he continued. “It caused ye sea to swell about 20 foote, right up & downe, and made many of the Indeans to clime into trees for their safetie.”

The anniversary, which comes as hurricane season gets into full swing, also coincides with predictions that Hurricane Cristobal could cause rough surf in New England as it moves along the coast. It’s also the same date that the Offshore Hurricane of 1924 passed by New England, bringing heavy rains, strong winds, and large waves.

RELATED: Cristobal strengthens into hurricane off Bahamas

According to the National Weather Service, reconstructions of the Great Colonial Hurricane showed that the strongest surge from the storm took place in Buzzards Bay. The storm was a Category 3 when it arrived late on Aug. 25, and it caused destruction into the following day.

A scene from the Great Hurricane of 1938

For comparison, the Great Hurricane of 1938 brought 10- to 12-foot storm surges to Connecticut, Rhode Island, and southeastern Massachusetts. That storm, with peak sustained winds of 121 miles per hour and gusts of 183 miles per hour, claimed 600 lives at a time when New England was much more densely populated than it was in 1635.

PHOTOS: Survivors, scientists recall ‘Great Hurricane’

In an interview, National Weather Service meteorologist Alan Dunham repeatedly pointed out that his expertise on the 1635 storm is limited by the fact that he was not there to observe it.

The hurricane took place just 15 years after the Pilgrims founded the Plymouth Colony, 141 years before the Declaration of Independence and — according to some accounts — at least five years before the invention of the barometer.

“As near as they can figure, based on written reports of the day ... it was probably the strongest storm to impact Southern New England,” Dunham said.

The 1635 surge itself would have ranked among the most intense recorded in recent years, though some have been substantially higher. Hurricane Katrina, which caused vast destruction in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast, had a storm surge of up to 28 feet.

Rosemarie McDonald of the Globe staff contributed to this article. Andy Rosen can be reached at andrew.rosen@globe.com.
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