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Dedicated to Henry Beston's literary classic, The Outermost House, and the spirit of life on the Great Outer Beach of Cape Cod

Excerpt from Henry Beston's Cape Cod
by Don Wilding
Copyright Don Wilding, 2003

The book also includes several previously unpublished photographs

The Blizzard of '78

At 5 a.m. on the morning of Tuesday, February 7, 1978, radio newsman Bob Seay of WVLC in Orleans, Massachusetts started his day with a phone call to the local police dispatcher. A mighty winter storm was raging over Cape Cod and the rest of eastern Massachusetts since the day before, and this would no doubt be the day's lead story.

"Oh, my God!" the dispatcher exclaimed in Seay's ear. "You should see Coast Guard Beach. There's nothing left!"

"I couldn't imagine it," recalled Seay.

This was a news flash that longtime Eastham residents had anticipated for years. Seay got into his car and drove down to the beach to observe it for himself. "There were six or seven homes along there, mostly shacks, and The Outermost House," Seay described the barrier beach that protects Nauset Marsh in Eastham. "I was absolutely shocked -- to look out and see the entire Coast Guard Beach area totally over washed. The parking lot was essentially gone, and all the houses were floating around or dismantled. You could see quite a few of them in Nauset Marsh."

The Outermost House, the 20x16-foot beach dwelling that author Henry Beston dubbed the Fo'castle in 1925, was swept off its wooden foundation during the night. So many times before, Henry's house had survived the ferocious nor'easters, narrowly escaping the ocean's rage. Just two weeks earlier, a storm of similar strength hit the area, but the beach escaped significant damage due to low tides. This time, Nauset would not be so lucky. The earlier storm did leave one mark -- the off-shore sandbars were obliterated, leaving it vulnerable to significant damage if another dangerous storm came this way.

Now, it was here.

The "Blizzard of '78," as it's come to be known throughout New England and other northeastern U.S. states, is perhaps best known for the tremendous snow totals in that area. USA Today classified it as an "honorable mention" on its list of "The 20th Century's Top Ten Weather Events.

The National Weather Service forecast in the morning newspapers, which included the Cape Cod region, for Monday, February 6, 1978, stated: "Snow heavy at times tonight. Probable accumulations of eight to 16 inches. Windy with drifting. Snow ending tomorrow. Low tonight in the teens. High tomorrow in the 20s. Northeast winds 25 to 40 mph tonight and north winds 25 to 35 mph tomorrow."

This storm caused blizzard conditions from New England to Philadelphia, with over 27 inches falling in Boston and as much as four feet over Stoughton, Massachusetts and Woonsocket, Rhode Island. Fifty-four people died in the storm -- many were stranded in their vehicles on Route 128 around Boston, where hundreds of cars and trucks were trapped for a week. The storm caused over $1 billion in damage. Along the coast, Henry's house and the surrounding dunes were just the beginning of the casualties. The storm's effects led to nine additional houses being lost to the sea in nearby Chatham. The winds decimated 340 houses and damaged another 6,000 along the coast. The five-man crew of a Gloucester pilot boat, a five year-old girl and 62 year-old man from Scituate, Massachusetts were among the casualties of the ocean's waves. The sea hurled boulders, lobsters and sand into oceanside streets and residences.

On Monday at midnight, a high tide on a new moon, together with the storm surge waves, drove the tide to 14.5 feet above mean low water.

"It really wasn't a blizzard on the Cape; it was a tidal event," Seay emphasized. "It was this huge tide -- four feet above normal. It wasn't so much those huge waves, but the ocean level itself was high."

Oddly enough, the preceding Sunday was a quiet, tranquil day. "Something's wrong," Nan Turner Waldron, author of the book Journey to Outermost House, said repeatedly that day as she led a bird walk in Sharon, Massachusetts. Not one bird could be heard or seen.

"We were down there (at Coast Guard Beach) the Sunday before and there was no hint," Eastham's Conrad Nobili said. "It was a beautiful day and it was strangely quiet." Nobili also lost his Coast Guard Beach house to the storm.

While Cape Codders were sensing something not quite right with the quiet conditions, meteorologists along the East Coast were frantically checking weather conditions across their half of the country. A large Arctic high pressure system covered the area from the Midwest to New England, causing sub-zero morning low temperatures near Boston the week before. A small low-level storm was making its way from central Canada to Pennsylvania, but its meeting with a cold high-level disturbance caused a secondary low pressure area to form off the coast of Virginia. This storm quickly intensified and moved northward, but ran smack into the cold high pressure area, which had centered itself over northern New England. The storm stalled off the New England coast, and with the intense battle zone developing around the system, heavy precipitation and high winds resulted. Heavy bands of snow developed just a few miles inland, but across Cape Cod, the Blizzard of '78 left little, if any, snow.

"It was a rainstorm, and a fierce rainstorm," Seay said. I was struggling to get home the night before. The wind was wailing. I had heard that the wind indicator at the Chatham Coast Guard Station had blown off -- they claimed that it hit 120 miles per hour, but that was never really verified." The official high wind speed was clocked at 92 miles per hour, 18 mph over hurricane force.

The wind proved itself the major culprit behind the damage in this weather event. The strong gales drove what was already an astronomically high tide into overdrive.

"What was most dramatic was to see the ocean actually come across that parking area and actually cut off the rest of the Coast Guard Spit," Seay said. "So I got back in my car, went back to the Visitors Center on Route 6 and called in a report from a payphone: 'I've just been at Coast Guard Beach and all the houses have been swept away,' and within a few minutes, I could start to see cars coming down."

* * * * * * * * *

Back in Eastham, longtime resident Marilyn Schofield was near Hemenway Landing, camera in hand. Schofield is a great-granddaughter of Coast Guard Captain Abbott Walker, who once advised Henry 53 years earlier that his house's original location was too close to the high tide line. On that fateful day, the Fo'castle was floating in Nauset Marsh. Schofield snapped a picture of the house floating sideways, half-submerged in the icy water.

"The house was heading southeast -- going out," Schofield recalled, adding that it was caught up near Fort Hill for a while until another high tide took it out into the ocean. The ocean crushed the small house just off Nauset Heights in Orleans.

The Coast Guard Beach bath house and parking lot were completely destroyed. Twenty-four years later, pieces of the parking lot asphalt continue to turn up in the Coast Guard Beach sands. The force of the waves also unearthed a 50-foot long concrete septic tank near the bath house.

This storm was the worst to hit the Cape in years, immediately prompting comparisons to the Portland Gale of 1898 and the storm that Henry wrote of in 1927. Then, on Tuesday (February 7), as the next high tide rolled in just after 11 a.m., the eye of the storm parted the clouds over Eastham. Though the wind was still blowing, it subsided somewhat. The sun shone bright, causing temperatures to climb into the high 40s.

"There were crowds on the Coast Guard Station hill -- people were out there with picnics," Schofield recalled. "At the same time we were experiencing sunshine and temperatures in the 40s, it was snowing like crazy in Boston and Providence," Seay marveled. "I couldn't believe it."

As the hurricane's eye was passing over the area, aerial photographer Dick Kelsey of Chatham undertook an unbelievable task. The eye of the storm was approximately 40 miles in diameter, and with the maelstrom moving at about eight miles per hour, Kelsey had between two and three hours to fly over the Nauset area, take his pictures, and return to Chatham. One of his photographs captured the Fo'castle breaking up in the waves.

As the storm moved north and away from Cape Cod, the ocean receded and the winds died down. Fragments of the Fo'castle turned up in different places. Orleans resident Mark Holland and Nan Turner Waldron recovered a window (with one pane intact) and several shingles on Nauset Beach in Orleans. Authorities eventually removed the larger splintered fragments of the house from the beach, fearing a safety hazard.

* * * * * * * * *

Conrad Nobili was among those to find a piece of the Fo'castle. In a photograph at the Eastham Historical Society's Schoolhouse Museum, Nobili is pictured holding the piece of the Fo'castle where the National Literary Landmark plaque, affixed to the structure just 13 years earlier, was still in place. That section, as well as two chairs from the Fo'castle, were given to Eastham natural resources officer Henry Lind and taken to the Massachusetts Audubon Society's Wellfleet Bay Sanctuary.

Nobili's beach house, which he had stayed in since coming to Cape Cod from Milton, Massachusetts in the early 1950s, was also a victim of the storm. It was located about 500 yards north of the Fo'castle. "I designed my house to be moved -- ready to move in a month or so," Nobili said. "I figured if I got by the spring tides in February, I'd be OK."

In the pages of The Outermost House, Henry wrote about Eastham residents flocking to the beach the day after the great 1927 storm, piling up timber that washed ashore and surveying the conditions. Cape Codders arrived in throngs again in 1978; in fact, so many people came to Coast Guard Beach during the week after the Blizzard, that Eastham and Cape Cod National Seashore officials designated Doane Road and Ocean View Drive as one-way to traffic. The Cape Cod Times reported a total of 3,264 cars traveled to the Coast Guard Beach entrance. The 32 acres of Henry's property, stretching nearly 350 feet on both the ocean and marsh sides upon donation to the Massachusetts Audubon Society in 1960, was covered by the ocean. Should natural forces ever restore the sand, the Massachusetts Audubon Society can reportedly claim it as theirs.

* * * * * * * * *

To many who read about and experienced The Outermost House, the Fo'castle's demise was sad, but expected. It was hard to visualize the damage that day, but it didn't hit home to me personally until I made the drive down to Coast Guard Beach about three days after the storm," recalled Bruce Richter, who was stationed in Boston with the Coast Guard. Years earlier, Richter spent many summers surfing near the Fo'castle. "Looking at the devastation, I really felt that I had lost a friend."

"I think Henry would have said a great storm was the way it should go," said Elizabeth Coatsworth Beston following the '78 storm. "He was never afraid of change. His Outermost House is forever young in his book, as he would have wished."

In a news story announcing the demise of the Fo'castle in The Boston Herald-American, Christine L. Kane wrote, "But in the place of the landmark itself, New Englanders are left with the modest legend of a man who sought solitude among natural forces that exist 'above and beyond the violences of men.'"

"The Outermost House marked the place where one man searched for and found his humanity in nature," wrote Wellfleet Bay Sanctuary Director Wallace Bailey in the April 1978 edition of the Massachusetts Audubon Newsletter. "That place itself has now returned to nature. We can best commemorate both man and place by continuing the search."

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