By TIM SMITH
Less than 30 years after it was finally connected to the rest of Bermuda, St George’s became an island once more thanks to the great hurricane of September 1899.
The Category 3 storm – the severest of the 19th century and one of the most devastating of all time – demolished the Causeway and meant a return to the days of horse and ferry transport for East End residents.
Catching everyone by surprise as they carried out repairs from a storm just a week previously, the hurricane ripped off roofs and destroyed many homes, demolished barns, visibly altered the configuration of the south shore and left Dockyard and Prospect Camp looking like bomb sites.
But the worst impact was felt by people in St George’s, who had relied on the Causeway for their journey west since it opened in 1871.
At the height of the storm, a giant tidal wave wiped out three-quarters of a mile of the soft limestone structure.
“Nothing more lamentable to the general public could have befallen this colony than the wreckage of the Causeway,” The Royal Gazette reported in a special hurricane edition.
“Entering the Causeway, the first feeling is one of a creeping and awful desolation.”
East End wharves and buildings were also destroyed, leaving St George’s as little more than a ghost town.
“It is to be feared that this hurricane has sounded the death-knell of old St George’s,” wrote the Gazette.
“The town as it now stands presents an appearance of cruel desolation, everywhere around signs of decay stare one in the face, and businessmen are not prepared to start any new enterprise or extend established incomes.
“An air of despair seems also to have taken the people, who are yet to be seen in the distinctive character of their hospitality and their pride, battling against decay.
“The damage to the Causeway is something appalling. One has to visit the spot before it can be taken in. It beggars description.”
The report, recorded in Terry Tucker’s 1996 book Beware the Hurricane!, noted reporters found an edition of the Bible in a St George’s store.
“Unfortunately, the hurricane laid hands violently on the valued book,” it said.
The Gazette compared the hurricane with notorious storms of the 19th century.
“There is 1839 with its yet awful memories; there is 1880 of which, no doubt, one may easily trace the ruined path; and there is Tuesday night, September 12, 1899, sadly present everywhere among us. And we may never again by called upon to write such another history.”
The despair was also recorded in a letter by St George’s resident Lilian Hayward to her father Jos Hayward, who was in Montreal at the time of the hurricane.
“I do hope, dear Papa, you are feeling stronger, for I believe if you had been here, as weak as you were, it would have killed you to walk through the town on the morning of the 13th.”
The whole coastline of the harbour was altered, meaning that “from Claude McCallan’s up to Convict Bay you can walk along almost on a beach”.
Ms Hayward added: “You little thought, when you went, that you would have to return home by the old horse-ferry boat, which will be started in a week.”
The Government raised $5,500 through a local loan scheme to reconstruct the Causeway using stone block. Within a year it had been reopened.
The Causeway was to suffer at the hands of many more hurricanes in later years, including Felix in 1995, which destroyed parts of its walls.
After four people were swept to their death from the structure during Hurricane Fabian in 2003, Premier Alex Scott introduced a new measure that it would close whenever the island received a significant hurricane warning.
Calls to rebuild the Causeway to make it more robust, however, have gone unanswered.
The hurricane of 1899, the fifth major storm of the season, had already destroyed hundreds of homes in Anguilla and Barbuda with sustained winds of 120mph before it came to Bermuda.
As it approached on September 12, islanders were still reeling from a storm that had brought 12 hours of hurricane winds on September 4.
“The inhabitants had only just caught their breath when this second, and more lethal, one struck,” wrote Ms Tucker.
Damage was widespread to man-made infrastructure and the island’s natural environment.
The Gazette described Prospect Camp as looking “something like Alexandria after the bombardment” and the cost of destruction at Dockyard alone was valued at least $10,000 – the equivalent of $300,000 today.
The New York Times reported the total damage to the island was $1 million, the equivalent of $30 million today.
The farming community was devastated as livestock were left without shelter and crops were destroyed, while cedar, fruit and ornamental trees were swept out to sea.
American naturalist Addison Verrill, of Yale University, observed the impact on the south shore a few years later.
Mr Verrill said: “There is scarcely anything recorded of the changes that it wrought on the exposed cliffs, though such effects were sufficiently obvious a year later all along the southern shores.
“Such storms are of especial geological importance for they effect more changes in the shore cliffs and beaches in a few hours than would occur in many years of ordinary weather.”
The storm caused even more tragic destruction after it left Bermuda, killing 16 people when it forced three schooners to capsize as it barrelled towards Newfoundland.
It was one of ten major storms of 1899, including the San Ciriaco hurricane in August, which killed up to 3,400 people in Puerto Rico and scores more elsewhere in the Caribbean.
Despite the destruction in Bermuda, residents were left counting their blessings that no local lives had been lost.
“In our last issue, we urged the formation of some organisation for relief of the sufferers in the West Indies, little dreaming that such a disaster was approaching on our own coasts,” wrote the Gazette.
“True, the West Indian hurricane caused terrible loss of life, while we have suffered only in our household goods.”