to Henry Beston's literary classic, The Outermost House,
and the spirit of life on the Great Outer Beach of Cape
Beston's Cape Cod
by Don Wilding
Copyright Don Wilding, 2003
book also includes several previously unpublished photographs
Blizzard of '78
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.
my God!" the dispatcher exclaimed in Seay's ear. "You should
see Coast Guard Beach. There's nothing left!"
couldn't imagine it," recalled Seay.
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."
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
it was here.
"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.
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
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
* * * * * * * *
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.
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
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.
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
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."
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.
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.
* * * * * * * *
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
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."
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
* * * * * * * *
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."
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."
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
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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Beston's Cape Cod