The Hurricane of 1916: A Defining Event in St. John History
Before hurricane hunting planes, elaborate tracking systems, the Weather Channel, and early warnings, St. Johnians were guided by a traditional warning rhyme:
June, too soon
July, stand by
August, it must
October, all over.
Since the settlement of the island in 1718, hurricanes have struck St. John more than 40 times. Each hurricane not only has a story of courageous reaction and recovery for our residents, but also affected and created historical events.
For example, the two hurricanes of 1733 were a major cause of the revolt of the enslaved Africans; the hurricane of 1867 and the subsequent earthquakes and tsunamis upset the pending purchase of the islands by the United States, which would have implanted the islands into the U.S. political systems then instead of just into its economic sphere. We don’t know all that would have happened, but most likely we would not have remained a military outpost as we did for some 20 years following the 1917 transfer.
George Tyson, in his 1987 study of historic land uses on St. John, concluded that hurricanes were as destructive to terrestrial and marine systems as man during his occupation. He reviewed photographic evidence that the severe hurricane of 1916 virtually annihilated the St. John forest and that our current wilderness is a product of that violent storm.
In the evening of Monday, October 9, the barometer dropped to almost 28.00 inches and devastating winds hit the island with speeds of up to 140 miles per hour. These came from the east with little warning that came too late to take precautions.
As the eye of the storm moved over the winds came from the west. Five people passed away on that day and the property damage was total. Every house in the villages at Denis Bay, Caneel Bay, and Mary’s Point were destroyed save one.
Major coconut groves, an important source of income, were destroyed island wide. New lime trees, bananas, and bay trees were also leveled, and with them the island’s major sources of income.
Accounts and stories of the 1916 storm by survivors passed on to their children are still repeated today and they’re confirmed by newspaper and historical accounts of the day. The newspaper, St. Thomas Tidende, reported on October 14 that an eyewitness on St. John said “no homes, no food, no fruit trees, no provision grounds left, almost everything flat, boats, fishpots, all gone.”
The hurricane of 1916 could not have happened at a worse time. The transfer to the United States put St. John in the middle of a world war; locally, money was scarce, work was slow or abroad, and there were no supplies and materials to repair the damage. The injured were without medical attention for a few days, except for those who made it to a temporary hospital at Bethany, and then some were taken to the St. Thomas hospital or assisted by the doctor from the Danish man of war HMS Valkyrien. It was the worst of times.
To some, Hurricane Supplication Day in July and Hurricane Thanksgiving Day in October may seem to be charming reminders of by-gone days. But even today fervent prayers are offered in church weekly during hurricane season for the island’s deliverance from storms, and if the storms must come, then for the fortitude and grace to survive.
Standfast, for some time soon we will be tested.