New Book To Chronicle Cape’s Historic Storms

by Elizabeth Van Wye

Are the worst Cape Cod storms behind us, or are they still to come? Author Don Wilding, whose book Historic Storms of Cape Cod comes out in May, had an answer for the many residents in attendance at his recent talk for the Harwich Conservation Trust.

"It's not a question of if, it's a question of when," he said. "We haven't seen a real hurricane since Bob in 1991," he noted. "A few near misses, but we are overdue at this point."

Hurricanes and nor'easters are "the ones that cause the most trouble," Wilding said, when high winds can push seawater above high tide levels, especially in places like Cape Cod Bay. And with the recent growth in development, the destruction may be much higher.

For many, these storms are exciting. News media always find ways to train cameras on the worst-hit areas. "It brings in ratings and people will watch," he said. "We've always had a fascination with storms," Wilding added, noting that writers like Nan Turner Waldron have talked about how it made us feel "small, powerless and voiceless" against nature.

Hurricanes generally come from two places. Some come from the Cape Verde Islands and take a week to cross the Atlantic, giving storm watchers plenty of time to prepare. The rest originate in the Bahamas. "These tend to be smaller and give us very little lead time," Wilding said. According to retired National Weather Service meteorologist Glenn Field, "New England needs to take action when a named storm is in the Bahamas. If it's already off North Carolina, you're too late."

Cape Cod is usually right in the path of nor'easters, Wilding said. "They develop between Georgia and New Jersey, move northeast and reach maximum intensity in New England or the Canadian Maritimes."

Wilding went on to describe a list of major storms over the past two centuries, starting with the Portland Gale of 1898. The storm was named for the steamer Portland which left Boston on Nov. 26 with 200 passengers returning home to Portland, Maine, after celebrating Thanksgiving in Boston.

The storm headed up the north shore into the night, with wind gusts recorded at 90 mph at Highland Light in Truro and visibility deemed at most 100 yards at sea. The Portland was one of 141 vessels wrecked off the New England coast during that storm, claiming a total of 451 lives.

"Within two hours, 200 vessels from Maine to Martha's Vineyard were scrambling for safe harbor. The Pollock Rip Lightship off Chatham broke from its anchor and drifted to Delaware before they could retrieve it and bring it back."

The 1938 hurricane, referred to as the Long Island Express or the Great New England Hurricane, was another bad storm. Meteorology was in its infancy and as the storm started moving at 60 mph up the east coast, "no one saw it coming," Wilding said. Sustained winds of 121 mph with 186 mph gusts were recorded in Maine along with a storm surge of 18 to 25 feet in Buzzards Bay. Six hundred people died in New England. The message to New England was clear, Wilding said. "We had to have a better way to determine when storms are coming."

What side of the hurricane you are on affects how you experience it, Wilding stressed. "You don't want to be on the east side...that's where the most severe wind is. The west side has the heaviest rain."

A storm in September 1944, another Category Three hurricane, caused a lot more damage to the Mid and Lower Cape. The Vineyard Lightship 73 at the Cuttyhunk station went to the bottom and 12 men perished, Wilding said.

In Chatham, boats piled up on Tern Island, Alton Kenney's Marine Railway building collapsed and the George Parker and George Crowell wharves were swept away. Winds blew the steeple off the Chatham Universalist Church, now St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church, and the Morris Island bridge was washed out.

The blizzard of February 1978 is remembered not so much for the snow but more as the "great tidal event of '78" because it coincided with a high tide and a new moon. A surge of 14.5 feet above mean low water was recorded. Henry Beston's Outermost House on Coast Guard Beach was the "most famous victim," Wilding said, and the Coast Guard beach bathhouse and parking lot were completely destroyed. Monomoy Island broke into three pieces as huge waves broke through.

The January 1987 winter storm that punched a hole through the Chatham Bar had wind gusts of 68 mph in Chatham. "It cut a 200-yard swath through North Beach directly across from the Coast Guard station," Wilding noted. There have been more breaks since then, he added.

Storms continue to batter Cape Cod; Hurricane Bob in August 1991 brought winds of 125 mph to Brewster. The so-called Perfect Storm in October 1991 followed only two months later, registering 78 mph winds on Morris Island. "The waves off Nova Scotia exceeded 100 feet," Wilding said, noting that this was the setting for Sebastian Junger's book "The Perfect Storm."

Don Wilding is the author of four books on Cape Cod history, a Cape tour guide and a regular speaker on Cape Cod lore in Massachusetts and across New England. He was an award-winning newspaper editor, writer, and designer in Massachusetts for 36 years. Wilding's fifth book, “Historic Storms of Cape Cod,” will be published on May 20. For more information go to