North & South Rivers Watershed Association

120 Years Ago: The Portland Gale

NATURE
by Kezia Bacon, Correspondent

Friday morning, November 25th, 1898: sunny and clear. Thanksgiving now over for another year, the citizens of Marshfield and Scituate begin their days. Not too cold, not too windy, it is the kind of weather in which people are glad to be outside, soaking up a last few warming rays of sun before the biting chill of winter sets in.

Friday evening: a low pressure area is noted to be moving northward from the Gulf of Mexico along the eastern seaboard. Other reports show a similar weather system moving eastward from the Lakes Region. As these are not unusual conditions for a seaside New England town at this time of year, no special precautions are taken.

Saturday morning, November 26th: a gray day, strangely quiet.

Saturday evening: the temperature drops. Snow flurries begin, and there is talk of an oncoming squall.

The gale comes on quickly and severely, and lasts through Saturday night, its winds churning the waters, bringing on floods that destroy ships and houses, bridges and roads. The eye passes over Marshfield and Scituate around 6 o’clock Sunday morning, offering temporary relief from the relentless snow and winds. After another 24 hours of storming, the sun of Monday, November 28th rises to reveal death, disaster, and drastic change.

Under normal circumstances, the Portland Gale would have gone down in history as another characteristic Nor’easter, its fierce winds and waters causing the usual damage along the coast. However, in the towns of Marshfield and Scituate, a storm surge washed away the land between Third and Fourth Cliffs, at Humarock. This cut in the beach created a new outlet to the sea, redirecting the course of the North River, and adding three miles to the length of the South River.

Until the Blizzard of 1978, the 1898 Portland Gale was known as the most intense storm ever to pass through New England. Its fierce, icy winds blew throughout the weekend, generating huge breakers that pounded the shore steadily, day and night. Cape Cod was hit the worst, but there was destruction up and down the coast. From Maine to Massachusetts, 141 shipwrecks were reported. A total of 100 bodies were found along the South Shore, from Nantasket to Plymouth.

Along the South Shore, electric and telegraph poles lay among fallen fences and uprooted trees. Many houses displayed toppled chimneys and broken windows. Brant Rock resident Carrie Phillips wrote, “Sea walls are all gone. There is hardly room to drive a team…  the bank has washed away so…  The roads are full of wreckage of all kinds, lobster traps, boats and furniture, I can look out my window and see a nice bed lounge and stoves, etc. scattered around.”

The steamer Portland, which had set sail from Boston on Saturday evening, was wrecked at sea, sparing not a single passenger. Clothing, cabin furnishings and merchandise – boxes of tobacco, cheese, and oil, barrels of whiskey, tubs of lard – were among the salvage found up and down the shore.

In earlier times, the town of Marshfield was known as Missaukatucket – “At the large mouth of the river.” The North and South Rivers flowed together and emptied into the sea at what is now Rexhame Beach. Until the Portland Gale, the peninsula of Humarock ran south from Scituate’s Third Cliff, extending far past Fourth Cliff to the river mouth. What is now the mouth of the river, was then a narrow shingle beach connecting the cliffs.

When the new mouth of the river broke through, three miles north of its original inlet, Humarock was suddenly detached from the mainland. It became, if only for a few days, an island. Despite the efforts of a group of divinity students, armed with shovels and determined to keep the mouth open, the inlet at Rexhame filled in with sand, and Humarock was once again a peninsula, attached to Marshfield now, instead of Scituate.

It may not have been entirely nature’s choice to cut a new river mouth. In 1831, Samuel Deane, in his History of Scituate, observed, “The beach between the third and fourth cliff, is composed of sand and pebbles… it is slowly wasting, and the river probably will eventually find its outlet between these cliffs.”

This was likely music to the ears of North River shipbuilders. The river was so shallow that large ships could only be brought downstream during high tides. It often took a full week to navigate a newly-constructed vessel to the sea.

An attempt to relocate the mouth of the North was made in 1843. Citizens drew up a petition requesting a cut between the cliffs. After a local hearing, the state decided against the proposal, concluding that such a cut would damage the meadows upstream. Despite the state’s rejection of their plea, proponents of the cut set out one night with picks, shovels, hoes, and axes, driving ox and horse teams, using only dim lanterns to light their way.

Working through the night, they managed to dig all the way across the beach, only to discover a rock-hard meadow bank beneath the sand, dense enough to prevent the completion of their mission. Water flowed through the newly-dug channel temporarily, but the beach soon filled back in. There is speculation, however, that because of this initial effort, the land between Third and Fourth Cliffs was weakened, and thus more vulnerable to the Portland Gale’s tidal wave.

Please join me for a walk to commemorate the 120th Anniversary of the Portland Gale. We will meet at the Rexhame Beach parking lot (at the end of Standish Street in Marshfield) at 11am on Saturday, November 24th, and spend some time touring the riverbank and dunes. I’ll discuss the storm, how it received its name, and the damage it wrought, and also talk about what life was like on the South Shore in the 1890s. No dogs please. The walk is free, but please register by visiting https://www.nsrwa.org/nsrwa-events/the-1898-portland-gale-the-storm-that-changed-the-rivers-mouth-walk/

Kezia Bacon’s articles appear courtesy of the North and South Rivers Watershed Association, a local non-profit organization devoted to protecting our waters. For membership information and a copy of their latest newsletter, contact NSRWA at (781) 659-8168 or visit www.nsrwa.org. To browse 20 years of nature columns, visit http://keziabaconbernstein.blogspot.com

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