Saturday, March 31, 2018

Goodbye to This Odd Winter, the 100th Anniversary of PTown's Worst on Record

This was quite an odd winter, with mostly mild weather, peppered with occasional back-to-back nights of bitter cold, interspersed with temperatures in the 40s. That's not to mention four nor'easters in the space of a couple of weeks, though the fourth one was barely more than a drenching, blustering inconvenience. The first three each knocked out the power throughout the town, then teased us with just enough electricity to put on a pot of coffee, followed by several more dreary hours without light or heat, another moment or hour of power, another day without heat, and so on.
I've got to say, the eleventh time my electricity went off, I began to get discouraged. We were lucky the temperatures stayed above freezing for most of that. Even so, I was sleeping in a stocking cap, a jacket with a hood, and gloves, all tucked under a stack of thermal blankets and down quilts, barely able to move. Every few minutes the windows rattled under the force of the wind, and a few times the whole building actually shook a little.

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.
Without community radio station WOMR, and the distant, scratchy NPR broadcasts from Boston on my little pocket radio keeping me company, I'd have lost it.
Still, it could have been worse...
A few years back I wrote about an extended, bitter cold snap that occurred 100 years ago.
This was perhaps the most trying stretch of winter weather PTown residents have ever endured. Here's a recap:
Around this time in 1918 Provincetown residents were bearing up under cruel winds in subfreezing temperatures, and most were truly struggling to keep warm. In an article written about this extended cold snap, The Advocate, a weekly Provincetown newspaper at the time, reported “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."
The extraordinary cold had formed chunks of ice more than ten feet tall, drifting and bobbing out beyond Long Point on Cape Cod Bay, and along the shoreline of Provincetown and Truro. As strong, steady winds developed, they pushed those massive chunks of ice past the Long Point Light and into Provincetown Harbor. Each low tide left giant ice floes resting on the tidal flats along the waterfront.
In an eight-day stretch of extreme cold the town had exhausted its entire supply of coal, the main fuel used for heating in those days. The paper said “Taken all together it was the most disagreeable eight days endured by the community within recollection.” The coal barges attempting to make deliveries were unable to steer through the thousands of tons of huge, treacherous chunks of ice that we're choking the harbor. It had become impossible for the ships to deliver the coal that the town so desperately needed.
Ice of this sort is also dangerous. On Valentine's Day, a large ice floe drifting near the mouth of the harbor had been driven by prevailing winds 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 a couple of years earlier. 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 in the summer of 1916. Although the structure was sturdy enough to survive this onslaught, it was indeed ice in the harbor that demolished the wharf in the winter of 1921.
In the photo above we see some of the enormous chunks of ice that smothered the harbor in that dreadful winter of 1918, resting on the flats at low tide. Those solidly frozen, ten-foot, two-inch thick slabs behind young Robert Lewis created tremendous physical hardships for townsfolk, and wreaked havoc on their economy. 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. Even though the weather eventually began to turn a tiny bit warmer, massive chunks of ice like these would take a long time to melt, and in the meantime, no ships were able to sail in or out of Provincetown.
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, February, and a good bit of March of 1918, the most brutal winter in Provincetown's memory.

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