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  • Don Wilding

1978: A place in the history books

The anticipation surrounding the arrival of winter storms in the northeast took on new meaning following the monster weather event known as “The Blizzard of ’78.”


While not a “blizzard” here on Cape Cod, this storm gave “people enough to talk about for the next hundred years,” recalled the Jan. 2, 1979 edition of The Cape Codder, which was recalling the previous year’s events.

The Codder went on to describe the storm: “It arrived, Monday, Feb. 6, roaring onto Cape Cod like a gigantic steam roller. By the time it moved offshore Tuesday night it had carved a place in the history books.”


The thorough media meteorological coverage provided by The Cape Codder in the week following the storm would have made the folks at The Weather Channel pretty envious. If you’re a weather nut, the Feb. 10, 1978 edition of The Cape Codder was indeed a keeper.


The storm destroyed the Coast Guard Beach parking lot, produced record high sea levels, started a nasty pattern of the Atlantic breaking through the dunes of Ballston Beach into the Pamet River, cut off Eastham from Orleans during high tide, destroyed a National Literary Landmark and several beach camps, and left a Volkswagen swamped in Nauset Marsh.


Page 1 of the Feb. 10 Codder was covered with an aerial photograph, courtesy of Richard Kelsey, showing the incoming waves closing in on Conrad Nobili’s beach camp, known as the “Butterfly House.”


The storm dropped up to four feet of snow on the Boston area, shutting down the eastern part of the state for a week. Snow began to fall on the Cape during the early afternoon of Feb. 6, but rising temperatures turned the precipitation to rain during the night.


TWO STORMS MERGED


“The whole mess started with two storms,” the Codder’s account explained. “One came in from the west and another from the south. They merged off Cape Hatteras and started moving north as one, according to records at the U.S. Weather Station in Chatham.


“The storm was about 500 miles across. It traveled slowly, covering only 200 miles in 24 hours.”

The Codder noted that winds gusted to 92 miles per hour at the U.S. Weather Service Station in Chatham, along with a low barometer reading of 29.34 inches. The new moon tides caused sea levels to rise four feet above normal.


As the storm raged on Monday night, four young people crammed into a blue 1964 Volkswagen Beetle and made their way into the Coast Guard Beach parking lot to watch the wild weather. However, as the vehicle entered the parking lot, waves broke into the parking lot, behind the car, and swept it into the marsh. As the car filled with water, the teens spotted another car in the parking lot on the hill, and made it through the marsh to safety. The next day, the car was towed from the marsh, had its fluids changed, and miraculously started.


By Tuesday morning, the impact of the storm was felt across the Outer Cape, but then another weather wonder took place. The potent weather system began to stall, moving only 200 miles in 24 hours, and developed an “eye.”


“On Tuesday morning, Cape Codders were treated to a breath of spring for several hours,” the paper reported. “The wind died, the temperature rose and the sun shone brightly down on those who ventured out to inspect the damage of the night before.”


The passing of the eye “was an oasis of calm moving slowly over the peninsula,” the report continued. “In Boston, the snow was still falling in the afternoon.”


In the year-end recap, the paper added that “people crept from their houses like moles. With cameras and children in hand they flocked to the Atlantic beaches. While a festiveness was evident in the crowds that watched the beauty and destructiveness of the storm, there was almost a palpable mood of respect for its power.”


The high tides carried away several beach camps along Nauset Spit, including Conrad Nobili’s architectural marvel, the “Butterfly House,” and Henry Beston’s “Outermost House,” the latter having been designated a National Literary Landmark in 1964. Splintered remains of Beston’s house, which were featured in a Codder photograph with Nobili and Eastham Natural Resources Officer Henry Lind, were recovered at Fort Hill and in East Orleans.


Beston wrote his 1928 book, The Outermost House, while cloistering himself in the outer beach’s natural setting for a year. Beston’s book was later given credit as being a major influence on the creation of the Cape Cod National Seashore.


The Coast Guard Beach parking lot was destroyed and bath house was so severely damaged by high surf that its remains had to be burned by National Seashore rangers.


While thousands would flock to Coast Guard Beach on Tuesday and the following days, photographer Richard Kelsey had other ideas. Kelsey’s airplane offered him a “gulls eye view” of the coastal region from Nauset Marsh to Monomoy. The passage of the storm’s eye gave Kelsey a two to three-hour window of opportunity before stormy conditions returned.

His photographs were highlights of the Codder’s 12 pages of coverage in the Feb. 10 edition. Kelsey’s camera caught breath-taking images of the devastation at Coast Guard Beach, along with the surf crashing over North Beach in Chatham.


Up until November 1977, North Beach was home to the Old Harbor Lifesaving Station, constructed there in 1896. With high tides regularly threatening the structure, it was moved by barge to Provincetown Harbor, where it would ride out the storm and suffer minimal damage. The remaining buildings from the Old Harbor station were destroyed by the storm.

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