Sunday, March 3, 2013

It's the 95th Anniversary of Provincetown's Most Miserable Winter Ever Recorded

This 1918 photo of Robert Lewis was taken by his father, Captain William Lewis,
on the tidal flats at the foot of Cook Street. The ice stood 10 feet, two inches high.
Despite the Blizzard of February 9th and the brutal nor'easter that followed it, along with a few other snow flurries, we've really had a pretty mild winter. I saw my first crocuses springing up today in the yard at Saint Mary's Church in the East End. It's only the second day of March, and I'm sure we're going to get a bit more snow before it's all over, but those winsome little purple flowers popping up are what I always think of as the first real sign of spring. I don't remember ever seeing any this early. They weren't open yet, just little bullets the color of amethyst, but they stood straight up on sturdy little stems a good four inches tall, and if I go back tomorrow (if it isn't snowing...) they'll surely be open, heralding the joys of a Provincetown spring, which will surely follow.
Around this time in 1918 PTowners weren't so lucky. They were enduring bitter winds in subfreezing temperatures and many were struggling to keep warm. In eight days of extreme cold the town had exhausted its entire supply of coal, the main fuel used for heating in those days, and the coal barges attempting to make deliveries were unable to navigate through the thick, treacherous ice floes that we're choking the harbor. The Advocate, Provincetown's weekly newspaper at the time, said “Taken all together it was the most disagreeable eight days endured by the community within recollection.” 
No ships could get in or out of Provincetown Harbor. The paper reported that “With the exception of a mere handful of days, ice has continued to form in day or night almost constantly on the shore of Cape Cod bay since early in January." On Valentine's day a large ice floe drifting near the mouth of the harbor was driven toward the shoreline at 571 Commercial Street, where the old fish shack at the end of Lewis Wharf had been converted to a theater for the Provincetown Players. The force of tons of ice pushing against the pilings of the old wharf threatened to destroy the magical spot where the career of unknown playwright Eugene O'Neill had been launched two years earlier. Although the structure survived this onslaught, it was indeed ice in the harbor that demolished the wharf in the winter of 1921.
In the photo above we can see ten foot, two inch thick chunks of ice that clogged the harbor in that dreadful winter of 1918, coming to rest on the tidal flats at low tide, creating tremendous physical hardships for townsfolk and wreaking havoc on their economy as well. Not only were fuel barges turned away by the ice, but the impassable harbor kept the fishing fleet ashore for more than 30 days. When a northeast wind finally breached the ice and began pushing it, little by little, toward Truro, the harbor once again became navigable, but the exceptional cold and a frozen harbor had made January through early March of 1918 the most brutal winter in Provincetown's memory.

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