Sunday, March 5, 2017

Extreme Cold Snap Recalls Provincetown's Brutal Winter of 1918

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.
This bitter cold snap combined with strong, steady winds has given us two or three days of piercingly cold temperatures, with wind chill temps dropping into the subzero range. This is the sort of weather where being outdoors for more than a few moments can be dangerous.
Thankfully, today's temperature rose well into the twenties while winds were dropping to 20 mph or lower, and we'll be into warmer weather in a couple of days. Whew!
A few years back I wrote about an extended, bitter cold snap nearly 100 years ago, perhaps the most trying stretch of winter weather Provincetown has seen. Around this time in 1918 PTowners were enduring cruel winds in subfreezing temperatures, and most were truly 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 extraordinary cold had formed  chunks of ice more than ten feet tall along the coastline,, and strong, steady winds kept the ice pushed into the harbor. At each low tide there were giant ice floes resting on the tidal flats. 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.” 
Even though the weather began to turn a tiny bit warmer, those enormous chunks of harbor ice would take a long time to melt, and in the meantime, 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, resting on the 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 fishing fleet was kept ashore for more than 30 days as well. The harbor was simply unnavigable.
When a northeast wind finally breached the ice and began pushing it, little by little, toward Truro, the harbor once again became passable, 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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