THE STORM THAT CHANGED
CAPE COD HISTORY
The October Gale of 1841 The Cape has experienced a great many destructive storms through history
but the people were usually able to rebuild following them and continue on. This storm was different, however, not because it was so severe; a few others have been more powerful. But because it struck when the Cape and the nation were languishing under an economic downtown that had begun four years earlier.
Cape fishing fleets were decimated by the storm. Most were at Georges Bank when the storm struck and were literally wrecked. Hundreds of Cape fishermen lost their lives in that single storm. As hardy and resilient as Cape natives have proved themselves, the fishing fleets never recovered. For in the years following, new fishing methods were introduced which demanded larger vessels and deeper harbors to handle them. The small boats so common on the Cape were made obsolete. And the storm drove so much silt into rivers on the Cape that they lost their tidal flow.
Even the numerous Saltworks on the Cape at that time were dealt a death blow. With fewer ships to buy their salt (used to preserve the catch), and with so much cheap imported salt available, they were unable to rebuild.
Few storms have hit at a worse economic time. Starting in the decade after the storm, Cape Cod’s population experienced a decline that wasn’t reversed until the century ended. The Civil War, which started 20 years after the storm, provided the death knell of the present economy. Only the rise of tourism, which began after the Civil War, brought the economy of Cape Cod some new hope. The Great October Gale of 1841 marked the start of the destruction of the old maritime economy and the beginning of the tourist industry.
THE SINKING OF THE PoRTLAND
What Was He Thinking? At 7 pm Saturday, November 26, 1898, the sidewheeler steamer Portland sailed from Boston bound for Portland, Maine, with 192 passengers and crew. A severe blizzard had already begun and many other steamers were returning to their wharfs. Few seamen were willing to risk facing the increasing gale. Around the region on that dreadful night, four hundred vessels would be damaged or sunk and 475 people would lose their lives. The agent for the Portland's owners, said, Captain Blanchard, the skipper, "took a fearful responsibility. I personally ordered him not leave before 9 o’clock, and not to go then if the storm was thick. He saw the other steamers coming back. He might have returned, but he did not. He assumed a fearful responsibility.”
No one knows what was going through Captain Blanchard’s mind when he sailed. Perhaps he thought that, by sailing promptly, he could beat the worst of the storm. Three different schooner captains said they thought they saw the Portland, laboring in heavy seas off Cape Ann. The vessel was never seen again and all of its passengers and crew perished. Her wreckage was strewn all the way along the coast, her wheel picked up on Cape Cod at Orleans. At least 40 bodies were recovered from the surf. By mid-day Monday, a cyclone had swept through the town of Sandwich and a four-foot tidal wave had swept inland. The wind reached velocities of between 90 and 100 miles per hour. Gigantic elms (fifteen to twenty in number) and silver oaks were uprooted and there was a gigantic washout of two miles of railroad track between Sandwich and Sagamore. At Provincetown thirteen vessels came ashore in the harbor. The schooner, Jordan L. Mott, bound from New York for Rockland, sank, its captain and five crew members taking to the rigging. The captain lashed his father, who had been acting as steward, to the mast and the two were there for eighteen hours before assistance arrived. When rescuers came within hailing distance the Captain called, “I can hold on; save my crew; my father is frozen dead to the mast; do not wait to cut his body down for the crew are freezing.”
On August 29, 2002, underwater researchers found the remains of the Portland lying in more than 460 feet of water about 17 miles north of Provincetown. Side-scan sonar and remotely operated vehicle-mounted imaging equipment confirmed the ship's probable fate: The storm ripped off the ship's superstructure and it foundered in high waves.
THE GREAT PANDEMIC
The Influenza Pandemic of 1918 The Spanish Flu virus emerged in mid-September and quickly spread around the world. By the time it ended in 1920, it had taken more lives than any other outbreak in human history except for the Bubonic Plague—and about half of the dead were in their 20s
Although called the Spanish Flu, it originated in Kentucky. Massachusetts was particularly hard hit. The Cape soon felt the impact. But it took a while for people to recognize they were facing an extraordinary challenge. At first the local papers reported deaths in the local town pages. Eventually realizing the threat, people took steps to curb the spread of the virus, closing schools, ceasing church services, cancelling meetings—reducing contact with others. In some towns, Boy Scouts in uniform delivered food to the infected in their homes. When papers reported that coughing and sneezing could spread diseases, people began wearing masks.
The provincial nature of the Cape actually helped prevent much of the spread of the flu here. But some historians estimate that between 50 and 100 million people died worldwide—650,000 in the US alone. By comparison, the Asian Flu of 1957 took 70,000 US lives. In 1968, another pandemic, the Hong Kong Flu, claimed 34,000 Americans.
Living where we do, the Cape has proved a natural barrier, an insulator against some of the worst the world has to offer.
STrANge SEA CREATURES
SIGHTED ON THE CAPE
What Was THAT? The area around Cape Cod has had more sightings of strange sea creatures than almost anywhere else on Earth. Massachusetts Bay, Cape Cod Bay, and the waters south of the Cape seem to teem with these creatures, if all of the sightings throughout history are to be believed. The crew of explorer Henry Hudson, while stopped at Cape Cod on August 4, 1609, recorded what is the first written contact with a “mermaid.” One might suspect that either the grog the crew was drinking or their imaginations caused this sighting. The Pilgrims landed in the same area on Cape Cod only 11 years later and recorded no such encounters. Perhaps the wild grapes which Hudson’s men had found had fermented!
The first recorded encounter by colonists occurred in 1639. Massachusetts colonists saw a sea serpent playing in the water in Nahant Bay while they were digging clams. Indians in the area told the colonists they had seen the serpent in earlier times as well. John Josselyn separately recorded a conversation with English seamen who had seen the monster the same year sunning itself on the rocks off Cape Ann. Eighty years later years another sea monster surfaced, sighted this time at Provincetown, and an article in the Boston Gazette described it as having a head "like a Lyons, with very large Teeth, Ears hanging down, a large Beard, a long Beard with curling hair on his head, his Body about 16 foot long, a round buttock, with a short Tayle of a yellowish colour, the Whale boats gave him chase, he was very fierce and gnashed his teeth with great rage when they attackt him, he was shot at 3 times and Wounded, when he rose out of the Water he always faced the boats in that angry manner, the Harpaniers struck at him, but in vaine, for after 5 hours chase, he took him to sea again. None of the people ever saw his
Sightings became more common in the 19th century. In 1817, Gloucester had the most famous of the incidents. The monster reportedly played in Gloucester harbor and Massachusetts Bay and more than 200 witnesses saw it. It was generally described as a snake-like serpent, between 50 and 90 feet long, with a head the
size of a horse and the body about three feet in diameter. One report from a ship’s carpenter mentioned that the serpent swam vertically through the water, like a caterpillar.
The following year, not far from Stellwagen Bank, a boat reported spotting a sea monster engaged in a fight with a humpback whale. “The serpent threw up his
tail from 25-30 feet in a perpendicular direction, striking the whale with it. …
At the same time, he raised his head 15 or 20 feet in the air, as if taking a view of the surface of the sea. After being seen in this position a few minutes, the serpent disappeared.”
In 1859 the British Banner reported another attack on a sailing vessel, with the description matching the Gloucester sightings, although it now had a horn on its head. An English warship had also noted that it saw a sea monster swim by, but there was no attack.
After the Civil War, the famous showman P.T. Barnum offered a reward of $1,000 to anyone who would bring him one, dead or alive. He did this because fishermen had been hesitant to bring the creature in, fearing it would spoil their catch. No one took him up on his offer.
In total, there were nearly 200 different sightings in the 19th century. They continued in the 20th century.
Lately reports of sea serpents have been displaced by sightings of Great White Sharks, which appear somewhat regularly during the summer in search of seals that now have made waters around the Cape their home. But you never know what the ocean will turn up next.
THE LADY LASHED TO THE WINDLASS
The Hesperus Gale of 1839 On Sunday morning, December 17, 1839, a severe Nor’easter developed into a gale the likes of which had not been seen for a generation. On Cape Cod, many ships were driven ashore, six vessels were sunk, three with all hands lost. In Boston, the gale became particularly violent at noon and reached a peak around midnight. North of Boston, the damage was especially severe, and a large number of vessels were driven ashore, some tossed to pieces. Many lives were lost and seventeen bodies were found on the beach.
The most disturbing of these was that of a female, found lashed to the bits of a windlass, probably from the brig Favorite, wrecked on the reef of Norman's Woe. The gruesome discovery of the woman’s body led the poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, to compose his poem The Wreck of the Hesperus forever immortalizing her. You may remember how it begins:
"It was the schooner Hesperus,
That sailed the wintry sea;
And the skipper had taken his little daughtèr,
To bear him company."
The actual Hesperus was a three-masted schooner docked at Boston’s Long Wharf during the storm. When the storm ended it was found across the street, smashed into the third story of a building.
THE MOST DARING SMALL BOAT RESCUE
IN COAST GUARD HISTORY
The Rescue of the Pendleton On February 18th, 1952, struggling in one of the year's most violent storms, the tanker M/V Pendleton enroute to Boston from New Orleans, broke in two six miles off the Cape Cod coast. In what has been called the greatest small boat rescue in Coast Guard history, the 36-foot motor Rescue Boat CG36500, manned by a crew of four—Bernie Webber, Andrew Fitzgerald, Richard Livesey and Irving Maske—managed to locate the foundering tanker. Pulling alongside the stern of the Pendleton, despite hurricane force winds, snow, sleet and pitch dark, the crew rescued 32 of the 33 crew members trapped on the stern of the ship. One of the Pendleton's sailors fell into the sea in the attempt and was crushed. Eight crew members trapped on the bow were lost when it sank. Their bodies were never recovered.
Although lacking a functioning compass, the crew of the Rescue Boat made it back safely to port with the tanker survivors.
The heroic exploits of the four Cape Coast Guardsmen have been celebrated in books, the mural you see above (the original of which is on display at the Coast Guard Academy in New London, CT), as well as a movie, The Finest Hours. The men were honored for their efforts with Gold Lifesaving Medals for "extreme and heroic daring." And in 2005, CG36500 itself was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It can be viewed by the public nearly year-round at its berths in Orleans on the Cape.
THE MAN WHO WAS
EATEN BY A WHALE
Thar She Blows! The December 25, 1857, issue of the Yarmouth Register contains an account of a Nantucket skipper, later a resident of New Bedford, who successfully survived having been chewed up by a whale.
Captain Gardner, skipper of a whaleship, was cruising off the coast of Peru when a lookout spotted the beast he would come to know on somewhat intimate terms. The ship launched its boats within a mile of the monster, six men to each boat, with Captain Gardner taking the harpoon in the lead boat. As soon as the harpoon was hurled and fastened on, the stricken whale, instead of diving out of sight, turned and made straight for its enemies. Rolling over its huge bulk to get a better grip, it brought its huge jaws together upon the boat’s prow, and Captain Gardner, standing thereon, disappeared into the whale’s maw. The remainder of the crew jumped overboard. As the whale dove down and out of sight it disgorged the unswallowed Captain, by this time rather worse for wear. He and his shipmates were soon rescued by a relief boat.
Four of the whale’s teeth had penetrated the Captain: one entered his skull (leaving a cavity the size of an egg), a second broke his collar bone, a third broke his arm and a fourth crushed his right hand, leaving a stump “like a twisted rope’s end”. Amazingly, despite these injuries, Captain Gardner retained full possession of his senses. He ordered his first mate to make splints and set the broken arm. The collar bone was left to heal by itself and the other wounds were bandaged. The Captain lay on the cabin floor and gave orders that he should be allowed to sleep no more than five minutes at a time. Lying there and keeping watch for six days, he supervised the navigation of the ship until it reached a port in Peru where he ultimately was transported in a litter forty miles into the mountains for treatment. There he recovered after six weeks of kind nursing—although he refused to have his collar bone set saying if the bones were left where they were, nature would heal them in due time.
Remarkably, Captain Gardner then returned to his ship and continued hunting whales—probably with a vengeance, searching like Ahab for his own particular nemesis.
Photo of the mural depicting the rescue of the M/V Pendleton by the crew of CG-36500, courtesy of the artist, Tony Falcone.