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The Dazzling Curiosity & Ferocity of Winter Storms on Cape Cod

Henceforth, the idea of coastal areas being routinely imperiled by winter storms became front and center. And, conceivably, advances in climate-related technology and early-warning alerts fed that psychology. The ’78 monster itself became a psychological benchmark. Before the days of Doppler radar and ensemble modeling, the most memorable Cape storms were chronicled by journalists, not meteorologists. Old newspapers, periodicals, and books told the story. And back then words, not images or metrics, filled minds and bled hearts, which makes Kelley’s written work so compelling today. 

Ironically, Thoreau, who wrote the most transcendental, if not most famous, manuscript about Cape Cod is not among the scribes who captured the exquisite cruelty of winter on the barred and bended arm; none of his four trips to the Cape in the mid-1800s occurred during the winter. Henry Beston was more daring. His eyewitness accounts are riveting. During a yearlong stay at the Outermost House in Eastham, he wrote in January 1927, “So began the worst winter on the Cape for close upon fifty years, a winter marked by great storms and tides, six wrecks, and the loss of many lives.” He was enthralled by the fierce gale to hit on February 19 and 20, describing a “convulsion of elemental fury.” Later, in March, he details the wreck of the three-masted schooner, Montclair, off Orleans. (Her bones still reappear today after a good winter thrashing.)      

Then there is the account of the terrible Portland Gale of 1898, (so named for the sinking of a side-wheel steamer Portland, plying between Boston and the city in Maine) probably the worst storm to hit the region before the ’78 blizzard. Much of author Joseph C. Lincoln’s work was set in a fictionalized Cape Cod. In one work, Lincoln remembers the November storm. Storm damage was catastrophic with tremendous damage to the Provincetown waterfront and its whaling fleet. Regionally, more than 400 people perished and 150 boats were destroyed. Nearly 200 went down with the steamer off Cape Ann (it is not known the exact number as the ship manifest was lost too). Among the dead was a newly married couple of Lincoln’s acquaintance. Eerily, he memorializes, “…the young wife’s trunk, with all her bridal finery, was washed ashore at Orleans.” Husband and wife were never found. 

Vineyard Haven, 1898

The late Noel Beyle, local author and agitator, relished winter weather. His black and white photo-essay booklets on all things Cape Cod are tinged with gallows humor. “The real test of wills,” he thought, “is whether the weather is hot or cold! That is the true contest on Cape Cod, regardless of the season, and it’s paramount most every winter.” April may be the cruelest month, he joked, but there was no funny business during the April 6-7 blizzard that blanketed the Cape in 1982. Its “north-to-northwest gale” and full-moon tide caused “severe erosion along parts of the Bay shoreline.” 

Of course, other storms deserve honorable mention. Some bloggers on americanwx.com rank the January 2015 blizzard, named Juno by The Weather Channel, right up there with the 2005 blizzard. The February 2013 “extreme nor’easter” Nemo bore resemblance to its 1978 ancestor (it was a benchmark storm too). Much was made of the three roaring nor’easters that struck the Cape in March of 2018 over the span of just eleven days. All three storms were essentially benchmark events. And the coastal erosion the trio caused was depressingly brutal at places like Nauset Beach in Orleans. Their formation and subsequent track was, as weather.com reported, unusual but not unprecedented. Storms, like history, can repeat themselves.        

These images show the effects of winter storms as recently as 2018

The Cape’s unique location makes it a desirable target when the gods rule divinely and conditions align perfectly. Cape Cod sits on the edge of a continent and on the edge of an ocean. It also sits halfway between the equator and the North Pole, where tropical and arctic air clash. Throw in a fluctuating jet stream and the Labrador Current and Gulf Stream, too. As a consequence, weather comes from all directions. 

In many ways Kelley himself bridges past and present—forging yesterday’s journalist with today’s meteorologist. His state-of-the-art tools allow him unparalleled access to high-tech prediction, but his old-school weather logs allow him unmatched access to recollection—an intangible combination that gives his on-air presentation the depth of soul.

Tim Kelley boasts that, “Cape Cod has the most interesting weather on earth.” Especially the winter variety, but discussion of storms of note and impact in relation to the Cape cannot conclude without recollection of 1991’s Hurricane Bob. Perhaps due to its fairly recent historical occurrence, or possibly due to the unusual destruction experienced by the region, stories of personal tales still resonate and repeat in everyday discussion of extreme weather.

In a data-driven world, we demand explanation for events that just might be beyond our ability to explain and affect. Alas, the conundrum of the age-old conflict: man vs. environment. But Kelley reminds us, “Weather is a balance of extremes; ‘normal’ is abnormal.” 

James P. Freeman is a New England-based writer. He is a former columnist with The Cape Cod Times and New Boston Post. His work has also appeared in The Providence Journal, The Cape Codder, newenglanddiary.com, golocalprov.com, nationalreview.com, and insidesources.com.

Learn more about the Cape and Islands with our Pages of History and download our 1992 issue of Cape Cod Life on Hurricane Bob for more storm stories!



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