40 Years Ago, The Blizzard Of '78 Rearranged Chatham's Beaches

By: Tim Wood

Topics: History , Erosion , Storms , Local History

This dramatic aerial photo taken by Richard Kelsey on Feb. 7, 1978 shows North Beach completely overwashed, with camps surrounded by water and some swept down the beach. COURTESY OF SPENCER KENNARD

When the weather cleared on Tuesday, Feb. 7, 1978, local residents emerged from their homes to find that the area's shoreline had been significantly rearranged – in some cases more or less permanently.

While the Blizzard of '78 paralyzed many areas of Southern New England with several feet of snow, trapping people in vehicles and ultimately accounting for 54 deaths in Massachusetts alone, the snow wasn't the news on the lower Cape. Only about six inches fell here. Rather, it was the storm's fury, whipped by winds of up to 90 miles per hour, that cut Monomoy Island in two, tossed around North Beach camps as if they were toys, and sunk the remains of the Pendleton, which had been visible just offshore since its grounding in 1952.

While most of the North Beach camps were repaired or rebuilt – only to be lost in the years since due to erosion of the barrier beach – Monomoy remains two islands. And the Pendleton is long gone, now only a destination for adventurous divers.

The break at Monomoy's Inward Point “killed all the quahoging down there, and the scalloping,” recalled Richard Matteson, a longtime shellfisherman and member of Chatham's shellfish advisory committee at the time. The breakthrough basically covered the Common Flats west of Monomoy, which for years had been a major shellfish resource. In her report to selectmen that year, Shellfish Constable Kassie Abreu wrote that the break destroyed all the soft-shelled clams on the flats and sanded over the quahogs, “a hardier species.”

“The area lost to scallops alone was estimated by fishermen to be more than one square mile of productive ground,” Abreu wrote.

It took a couple of years for the flats to recover, said Matteson. When they did, there was a huge bonanza in sea clams.

“We all survived,” he said of the impact the storm had on the town's shellfishing industry. “We dug in the harbor and up north. But we thought it was a big disaster.”

Driven by winds clocked at the Chatham Weather Station on Morris Island at 90 miles per hour, waves some said reached 20 or 30 feet surged over North Beach. The entire outer beach from Truro to Chatham was battered. The parking lot at Coast Guard Beach in Eastham was flooded and the bathhouse pounded by surf. Tides estimated to be the highest ever recorded at the time carried away Henry Beston's famed Outermost House from Nauset Inlet and inundated many coastal areas, flooding Commercial Street in Provincetown and the Morris Island causeway in Chatham.

“There was a lot of destruction on the outer beach,” said Don St. Pierre, who was taking care of the Costa camp at the time. “Nelson Long's outhouse ended up on Old Harbor Road at the Cow Yard.”

While doing little damage to the mainland, the storm “wreaked havoc” on the outer beach, recalled Tim Pennypacker, then a Chatham selectman. On Tuesday, as the eye of the massive storm passed over the Cape and the clouds cleared, he looked out at North Beach and it “looked like little houses floating on the water.” It looked as if there was “no beach, just houses set on the water.”

That same day Selectman Edward Harrington, Police Chief David Nickerson and Lt. Barry Eldredge flew over the beach. Harrington, in the Feb. 9 issue of The Chronicle said it was “like flying over a wasteland. Cottages were split, toppled, washed away. There was water everywhere.” Selectmen ended up closing the beach for several weeks to everyone except camp owners.

Donna Lumpkin's family camp survived the storm, but the Young camp next door was swept halfway across the beach. The storm flattened the dunes that had protected her ocean-side camp, and after a land swap with the Cape Cod National Seashore, it was pulled by a tractor to the bay side.

“We moved to the driest point during the storm,” she said. The camp was destroyed a storm in 1991, after which it was rebuilt and survived 2012, when it was razed as erosion encroached.

Other camps were swept as much as a half-mile from their original spots. In Frances Higgins' 2004 book “Drifting Memories, the Nauset Beach Camps on Cape Cod,” George Costas recalled the dune in front of his camp washing away and burying the building. He rebuilt after burning the half-buried structure.

It's uncertain how many camps were destroyed, how many swept down the beach by the storm, and how many survived in tact. A report in the Feb. 9 Chronicle lists 20 without damage, eight with some water damage, and 10 with serious damage. Lumpkin recalls that most were eventually rebuilt. Previously most had nestled on blocks close to the sand, the restored camps were largely on pilings, which made it a bit less cozy, she said.

Eventually, the beach healed. Lumpkin said camp owners put up snow fencing, planted rosa rugosa and old Christmas trees to build up the dunes. “It worked,” she said.

On that same Feb. 7 flight, town officials also flew over the wreck of the Pendleton. Since it grounded after breaking in two during a blizzard on Feb. 18, 1952 – when 32 of its 33 crewmembers were saved in the now-famous rescue by Chatham Coast Guardsmen – the stern section of the tanker had protruded from the water about three miles off Monomoy and could be seen from the Lighthouse Overlook. The 1978 storm shifted and crumbled the wreck so that it was no longer visible above water. Richard Hiscock, an assistant harbormaster at the time, recalled climbing an observation tower on Morris Island with then-harbormaster Peter Ford the morning after the storm “and saying oh my goodness – the Pendleton is gone!”

When they took a boat to the site later, there were just a few shards of steel sticking up above the surface of the water. “We knew this was going to be a significant hazard to navigation, because nobody could see it,” Hiscock said. They contacted the Coast Guard which placed a buoy on the location marking the wreck. A year later the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers hired a contractor to cut away pieces of the wreck close to the surface, and the entire wreck was then blown to pieces to prevent it from ever again becoming a hazard to navigation.

“The Pendleton was the big event in the harbormaster department,” Hiscock said of the storm. “It was a significant hazard.”

The storm no doubt left a lasting impression on many residents, even if they weren't stranded by record snowfalls like folks in Boston, the South Shore and Rhode Island. There are stories of locals taking four-wheel drive vehicles off Cape and rescuing drivers stranded in their cars. James Dempsey, for instance, was a senior at Chatham High School working for photographer Richard C. Kelsey. One of his big regrets, he said in a message to The Chronicle, was missing a call from Kelsey the day after the storm asking him to go up as the eye passed over town.

“The photos he took that day were spectacular and ended up on news wires and in the national news magazines,” Dempsey wrote. “I was very busy in the darkroom the next several days printing many copies of them for distribution, including the one on The Chronicle cover that week.”

“It was quite a storm,” said St. Pierre. Despite the damage to North Beach and Monomoy, “we were lucky,” he added.

Author Don Wilding will give two talks on the Blizzard of '78 in the next week. He'll be at the Harwich Community Center on Saturday, Feb. 3 at 2 p.m., and at the Snow Library in Orleans on Tuesday, Feb. 6 at 7 p.m. The Harwich talk is sponsored by the Harwich Conservation Trust; there is a suggested donation of $5 per person. The Snow Library talk is free. Both will include include videos and slides as well as photos and interviews with people who were here at the time.