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Stormy Weather

 Don Wilding is the author of a new book on Cape Cod storm history

by Steve Desroches

If Cape Cod had an unofficial pastime it could very well be talking about the weather. With four distinct seasons, the Cape, jutting out into the North Atlantic, is prone to getting clipped by most any weather phenomenon steaming up the East Coast, or mercifully, have it blow out to sea. 

There are certain weather facts on the Cape. Wind is just a constant, especially on the Outer Cape, from November to April. We don’t really get spring, just kind of a wet late winter with flowers, and then bam—it’s summer. And storms, big ones, are a certainty. Each time one hits there is an instantaneous comparison to previous storms and whether or not it deserves to be a before and after kind of meteorological event, a sizable event but just for that year, or insignificant and only a tourist would find it a big deal. Those storms that do register high on the local consensus scale become part of the folklore of Cape Cod. And historian and author Don Wilding chronicles the greatest hits in his new book Historic Storms of Cape Cod.

For decades Wilding has been an expert on writer and naturalist Henry Beston, who wrote The Outermost House in 1928 about his year of living in the dunes of Eastham in a shack called Fo’castle. Wilding’s 2013 book, Henry Beston’s Cape Cod: How The Outermost House Inspired a National Seashore chronicles the life, times, and influence of Beston as well as the Outermost House itself, which sadly was destroyed by the epic Blizzard of ‘78. The storm that hit from February 5 to the 7 in 1978 was of catastrophic proportions for Cape Cod, and despite severe storms since, it still ranks as the worst weather event for the Cape. Wilding moved on to write Shipwrecks of Cape Cod: Stories of Tragedy and Triumph and Cape Cod and The Portland Gale of 1898, which combined with the wintery end for the Outermost House, compelled him to write his latest work. Starting with the Great New England Hurricane of 1938 through the storms of the 21st century like the Blizzard of 2005 and Tropical Storm Irene of 2011, Wilding speaks of each with the familiarity of family, albeit the troublesome kind that might ruin Thanksgiving dinner. 

“They all do,” says Wilding when asked if any of the storms have a story that particularly stands out to him. “But the Blizzard of ‘78 really stands out to me probably because I’ve been focusing on it for so long.”

The roof of Sandcastle Resort on Route 6A in Provincetown was torn off by Hurricane Bob’s wind gusts in 1991.
Courtesy of Sandcastle Resort, Provincetown

In addition to swallowing up the Outermost House, the Blizzard of ‘78 is also one of the most well-documented of major storms to hit Cape Cod. The eye of the storm went right over Cape Cod, allowing residents a brief moment to go out to survey damage mid-blizzard and take dramatic photos before the wind and snow picked up again. But what made that blizzard so destructive and memorable wasn’t the snow, as the Cape got much less than other parts of New England, but the massive tidal surge. It still occupies the memories of many as it was not that long ago and hasn’t been mythologized as other storms have, though often times the true destructive nature of these storms was mythological in reality. Sometimes those myths were created in real time, though, says Wilding. After the hurricanes of 1938 and 1944 (hurricanes weren’t officially given names in the United States until 1953) off-Cape media reported that Provincetown had been destroyed.

“The newspapers of the time, in Boston and elsewhere, said that Provincetown had been washed away,” says Wilding. “In the early aftermath police set up road blocks in Wellfleet telling people to go back because Provincetown was gone. That was certainly not the case as while there was some damage, Provincetown actually escaped the kind of damage that devastated other parts of the Cape.”

A local official called Boston’s WBZ radio station after the Hurricane of 1938 to assure listeners that Provincetown, while beaten and bruised, was very much still there. And after the Hurricane of 1944 the Provincetown Advocate took the Boston Post to task after the latter ran headlines saying, “Cape Tip Left in Ruins” and “Provincetown Placed Under Martial Law; Havoc Piles Up,” none of which was true. Wilding writes that the Boston Globe took a swipe at their rival by running a story that said, “If you’d like a good poke in the nose, just ask a Provincetown man if it’s true they had ‘martial law!’”

While the book is a Capewide look at historic storms, there is a significant amount of stories about the Outer Cape, with tales from Hurricane Bob and the Halloween Nor’easter, often called The Perfect Storm after Sebastian Junger’s book, both of which happened in 1991 as well as Super Storm Sandy in 2012 and the substantial flooding from a storm in 2018. But perhaps the most consequential storm for Provincetown was the Portland Gale of 1898. With no advance warning the storm devastated the town destroying much of its maritime infrastructure and killing many fishermen who were out at sea. It left the town on the verge of economic collapse and that’s when Charles Hawthorne came looking for a place to found an art colony. Busted and broke, Provincetown was all to eager to open up itself to the hundreds of artists who would come the following year and would pay room and board to locals opening up their homes, creating both the art colony as well as the early days of the tourism industry.

One thing that occurred to Wilding while researching and writing Historic Storms of Cape Cod, was that while they might not be a frequent occurrence, you can count on major storms continuing to hit the region, especially with climate change and rising sea levels. And in the major building boom that started in the 1980s and has continued since the Cape, as well as the entire Northeast, has never in its history had a coastline so developed, meaning future storms will be historically destructive both physically and economically.

The train station in the Buzzards Bay section of Bourne was flooded by several feet of water from the Cape Cod Canal.
The canal’s train bridge is in the background. Courtesy of Sandwich Town Archives 

“I interviewed Glenn Field of the National Weather Service and he said we’re going to get hit again one way or another,” says Wilding. “We will get another Hurricane of ‘38 or ‘44 or storm like the one in 1898. It’s not a matter of if, but when.”

Don Wilding’s Historic Storms of Cape Cod is being released on May 20 by Arcadia Publishing. The book is available at your local Cape Cod bookseller or online at

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Ginger Mountain (MS Communications Media, BA Fine Arts/Teaching Certification K-12) has been part of the graphic design team at Provincetown Magazine since 2008. Ginger has worked as a creative director, individual contractor, and freelance designer with clients representing many areas —business software, consumer products, professional services, entertainment, and network hardware to name just a few — providing creative layout and development of a wide range of print media content. Her clients ranged from small local businesses to large corporations and Fortune 500 companies, from New Hampshire to Georgia

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