New Inlet as viewed from Third Cliff. The mouth of the North River since November 1898.

When it comes to legendary weather events here on the South Shore, we measure everything against the Blizzard of ‘78. Hurricane Bob and the No-Name Storm of 1991 may have caused more damage in certain areas, but that great snowstorm of nearly twenty years ago will go down in history as the fiercest and most destructive natural disaster to hit our coast in more than a century.

Those of us who were here for the Blizzard of ‘78 will probably always look back on that time with a combination of horror and pride. I am still taken aback when I view photographs taken after the storm had run its course: trees and telephone poles splintered and toppled, homes torn apart and swept off their foundations, debris ranging from household goods to automobiles strewn everywhere. But when I remember those few anxiety-ridden days in February, when I hear the stories of friends from Humarock and other oceanfront communities combining their resources and strengths to see their families through the storm safely, I think about survival. We endured the storm — some in our homes, others in shelters — and when it was over we picked up the pieces and moved on. I am proud to see how our community survived. Perhaps we learned a few lessons along the way as well.

Earlier generations looked upon the Portland Gale of 1898 with the same combination of emotions. The Portland Gale struck the Massachusetts coast just after Thanksgiving on November 26 and 27, 1898. Named after one of over 100 ships that were wrecked during the course of the storm, this gale claimed more than 400 lives. Despite widespread destruction of homes, railroad tracks, sea walls and bridges, the Portland Gale is remembered not so much for damages it wrought but for the changes it made on the landscape.

Before 1898, the mouth of the North River sat at the southern end of Humarock, near present-day Rexhame Beach. The site of the current mouth between Third and Fourth Cliffs was then a narrow barrier beach. The winds and extremely high tides of the Gale stirred up the waters of the North River with such vigor that by the storm’s end the river had washed over the beach, cutting itself a new outlet to the ocean. The old mouth, two miles away soon filled in with sand.

The Rexhame Dunes, the former location of the mouth of the North River.

For years there had been a movement to make a cut in the beach between Third and Fourth Cliffs. Earlier in the century shipbuilders had lobbied for a “new inlet” that would make it easier to sail a newly-constructed ship downstream to the ocean. Because of the shallow and winding nature of the waterway, it often took an entire week to get a North River ship out to sea. The final few miles of river along Humarock were particularly difficult to navigate, and since this stretch could only accommodate a certain size vessel, it set a limit on the size of the ships that could be built. An inlet between Third and Fourth Cliffs, they thought, would alleviate this problem, but when the shipbuilders petitioned the state legislature to fund such a cut their request was denied. After a hearing with residents from all of the riverfront towns it was determined that relocating the mouth of the North River would have far too much impact on the other river industries, namely agriculture and salt marsh haying.

But some people were not easily discouraged. In 1843 a group of concerned citizens set out under cover of night and with shovels, picks, and teams of oxen and made a clear cut across the beach. However a rock-hard meadow bank beneath the sand made it impossible to complete the task. Water flowed through the cut temporarily, but the beach soon filled back in. A similar effort, for which a dredging machine was hired, was made in 1958. There is some speculation that these attempts to relocate the river mouth weakened the resolve of this stretch of beach so that when the Portland Gale arrived in 1898, it was all the more susceptible to the force of the water.

It’s been almost one hundred years since the Portland Gale cut a new inlet for the North River. Since that time the size of the mouth has increased fifteen times over. What was once only 200 feet wide and ten feet deep is now 1/2 to 1 mile wide and up to 60 feet deep. A large sand bar known as “The Spit” shifts position from time to time, making the mouth unpredictable for navigators.

The Rexhame Dunes now stand at the site of the old mouth. The old inlet is filled almost completely by sand, and is covered with cedar trees and other seaside dwelling vegetation such as beach plums, heathers, and deep-rooted dune grass. The dunes rise at least 20 feet above the mean high tide level, helping to enclose one of the more unique landscapes on the South Shore. This little pocket of sand and scrub between the ocean and the South River is like nothing else around: it is similar to the dunes at Truro on Cape Cod, only smaller in scale.

The Rexhame Dunes are well worth exploring. Trails throughout the sand dunes and a gravelly path along the shore of the South River provide access to the area. It is important to stay on the established trails: the dunes are extremely fragile and must remain protected.

Not only beautiful, the Rexhame Dunes are rife with history. Follow a path to the top of one of the dunes and look riverward. Not only will this provide you a wide view of the South River valley, it will reveal to you the location of the old North River mouth. Look for a small cove cut into the beach where one of the river’s many bends stretches unnaturally seaward. Take a moment to imagine what it was like at this site one hundred years ago, when the North and South Rivers met here and flowed out to sea.

by Kezia Bacon
November 1996