The Rexhame Dunes, which was the location of the mouth of the North River prior to the Portland Gale of 1898.

Local lore is full of tales about The Portland Gale, the November 1898 storm that relocated the mouth of the North River. These accounts tend to focus on Humarock, the Seaview section of Marshfield, and the lower portion of the North and South Rivers, where the storms effects were most dramatic.

But the Portland Gale wreaked havoc up and down the shores of New England. What follows is a letter dated December 2, 1898, less than two weeks after the storm had hit. It tells how the village of Brant Rock endured The Portland Gale. The letter was originally published in the South Shore Mirror newspaper on November 23, 1967, in a column entitled “Marshfield Matters” by Mrs. D.B.

Times change, but storms continue to pound our coastlines year after year. This year (so far!) we have been lucky. I think it’s useful to be reminded how powerful Mother Nature can be.

The letter is not signed. Originally, it continued for a few more paragraphs, but my copy is faded and truncated, so I can’t share the rest of it with you. (A note to local historians: if you have a copy of the rest of this letter, I’d love to see it and publish it here!)

Brant Rock, Dec. 2, 1898.

Dear Friend:

Your letter received and will try to give you a little account of how we are left at Brant Rock. I cannot tell you just how many houses are wholly destroyed (I have only looked over one beach as I caught a cold taking a sea bath out of season, and have not been able to get out of doors much), but a great many, nearly all are damaged to some extent.

Walter P’s store and Ocean House are not damaged to any great extent. Our large Stetson cottage was the only one out of our five that was damaged much. Walter P. had four houses nearly destroyed, one barn and his large stable damaged considerably.

Mr. Bryant was the greatest loser. Nearly all his houses are wrecked, six or seven I think, and his dwelling house burned, leaving them with only the clothes they had on when they fled to the church. Mr. Houghton’s and Whiting’s and Tribur’s nice cottages are damaged badly. Edgar Phillips’ house is gone entirely, and the roof is at my back door.

Millis Brigg’s house at the corner on Dyke Road has sailed over to ‘Cut River.’ “Twilight” cottage has been obliged to move back out of the street nearly on to the back street.

Sea walls are all gone. There is hardly room to drive a team by Churchill’s, the bank has washed away so, but the hotel was not hurt much, or the houses up the street. The roads are full of great rocks and wreckage of all kinds, lobster traps, boats and furniture. I can look out of my window and see a nice bed lounge and stoves, etc. scattered around.

Webster Park (this is now Fieldston) is a thing of the past: the sand hills are flat. Scarcely a house remains to tell there ever was a settlement there. Mr. Foster and Mr. McLaughlin must be losers by thousands of dollars.

Duxbury beach is nearly destroyed. A great many houses are destroyed and others are badly damaged. In the height of the storm a schooner was driven over the beach into the bay safe. H. says your house seems to be all right. Our own dwelling only had some glass broken.

I have tried to give you an idea how things are, but I cannot describe things half as bad as they are, and now I will give you a little of my own experience. There are others who had just as narrow escapes, but I can only give you mine.

Saturday we felt there was a storm brewing, but the water was very calm. Towards night it commenced to thicken, and at 6:30 it commenced to snow and blow. The southeast wind changed to northeast. We did not sleep much for the wind was something fearful. At 8 a.m. Sunday the breakwater gave way and seas broke through on the street.

At 8:30 the street was full of water, and H. said Mr. Bryant’s family had gone to the church and must get the children dressed to go. So the men took Mr. C’s three little ones, Mr. Landry’s two, and my two little ones to the church; also Mr. Peterson’s two youngest. It was all they could do to get there.

We went into the station (Coast Guard) and I thought I was wet and uncomfortable then, but it was nothing compared to what I got later on.

We had only been in the station a few minutes when Mr. Cahoon’s house and one of the station hand’s houses went down with the ‘Clifton’ the second house from the station next to ‘Melrose.’ Mrs. Cahoon just escaped with her four children, the youngest five months old. They only had what clothing they had on.

Then we thought the station was going, but they ordered the men to break down the doors on the street side to let the water and rocks go through, and that was what saved us. They did not dare for us to go upstairs. They ran a line over to the church and fastened it to the stone porch, thinking we might get over on that, but Mr. Harris, who carried it over, nearly lost his life getting back. The rope slackened up and the rocks knocked his feet from under him and the rope got around his neck. Henry and Baker went to his rescue.

So you can see what danger there was to get into the street and off your feet. They ran the lifeboat out and strapped life preservers on us, even to the little baby. When we found there was a chance for the station to stand, and we were drenched through, and the rocks were coming in by carloads, the men said we better get up stairs.

It was full sea at 10:30 and about 11:10 Bryant’s house caught fire and burned down. At that time the tide had ebbed so the men fought their way down with the wind blowing a gale, but the fire was confined to Mr. B’s dwelling and his house next to it he used as an ‘office.’ The office was only partly destroyed. He only saved a few papers however.

We came back to our house thankful to escape with our lives and find a dry house. If we had only known, we could have stayed in our house, safe, but there are houses piled up all around us.

Mr. P’s houses all came down on us. Mr. P, Leslie, Annie and Mrs. P left and went to The Ocean House when their house got so full of water the kettles washed from under the sink. They thought the Ocean House was built stronger, as the piles it rested on were driven by a pile driver very deep in the mud.

Mr. Peterson’s family and mine left our homes at night and went up on the hill and stopped in a house of Mr. Flavell’s over night. Others, about 30, stopped in the church. We were afraid of the night tide, but the wind changed and we were saved. I consider we were fortunate, compared with Mr. P. and Mr. Bryant, but have lost enough.

by Kezia Bacon-Bernstein
October 2008

Kezia Bacon-Bernstein’s articles appear courtesy of the North and South Rivers Watershed Association, a local non-profit organization devoted to the preservation, restoration, maintenance and conservation of the North and South Rivers and their watershed. For membership information and a copy of their latest newsletter, contact NSRWA at (781) 659-8168 or visit www.nsrwa.org.