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“Wait a Minute”

The Daily Times and Chronicle, Tuesday, October 5, 1982

Burlington Past and Present, by John E. Fogelberg (Article # 172)

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The six-state New England area is famous because of its weather fluctuation. The old saying, “If you don’t like the weather, wait a minute,” is one of many a New Englander likes to make to visitors.

New England weather really does have a few distinguishing characteristics. For instance, it has neither a dry season nor a rainy season, although June this year seemed to defy the latter. Its weather patterns do not go to extremes but do change quickly.

Thus when a powerful storm does strike here, such as a winter blizzard or a tropical hurricane, people are often caught off guard. Probably the worst storm ever to hit this area came almost as a complete surprise and the devastation it left in its wake was phenomenal.

The “Boston Evening Globe” for Sept. 21, 1938 in its weather report called for a cool day on the morrow, partly cloudy, with a chance of rain late in the day. It did add, however, storm warnings for small craft off the southern coast of New England. That “chance of rain late in the day” was an understatement of massive proportion. A tremendous hurricane with winds clocked at 98 miles per hour and moving at an unprecedented rate of speed passed Cape Hatteras at 7 a.m. that day. It covered 600 miles of water in 12 hours.

At 2:30 p.m. the following day the Weather Bureau in Boston broadcast:

“The tropical hurricane is now in the vicinity of New York. The storm is attended by winds of whole gale force around its center and by winds of gale force over a wide area. Indications are that it will move inland within the next two hours and will travel up the Hudson Valley or the Connecticut Valley.” It chose the Connecticut. Persistent September rains had drenched New England that year and the Connecticut, the Merrimac and other rivers were already over their banks in places. Thus the Hartford Weather Bureau broadcast flood warnings but never mentioned the ap- proaching hurricane.

The storm hit at approximately 3:30 on the afternoon of the 22nd, driving a huge wall of water before it, which on top of a record high tide, inundated the shore areas and river estuaries. By 6 p.m., the full fury of the storm was moving north, spreading death and destruction in its path until 10.

Boats moored in their harbors were smashed to kindling. Providence had ten feet of salt water in the streets. Houses further inland were moved from their foundations and some totally demolished. Trees were uprooted everywhere and debris was blown about like chaff. Telephone and electric lines were snarled and down; even heavy railroad tracks were twisted as if made of some soft metal instead of steel.

Mrs. David Ward in the old “Burlington News,” which she published at that time, wrote:

“It seems almost unbelievable that a storm of such short duration … could bring about such havoc and destruction . . . The Fuller home up the Great Pines section is completely buried under fallen trees . . . David Moran has a tree right thru the roof . . . A three-decker henhouse under construction at the home of William McKinnon was blown down.

“The barn on Selwyn Graham’s farm on Stony Brook Road, is practically demolished – one side has blown out and the roof caved in. Just above him, at the farm of his brother, Selectman Chester Graham, a shed was blown down and considerable hotbed sash damaged. Mountain Road is completely blocked by fallen trees . . . Terrace Hall Avenue . . . the greenhouses in that area are shattered, and when one sees the great elm trees crashed down on the Gowing residence, we wonder that any of the family escaped alive.

“On Wilmington Road the front of the new brick garage under construction at Hillside Dairy (James Bustead) was blown in and one side wall blown down. The roof was blown off one end of the long barn at the Reed Ham Works . . . In the Peach Orchard section the garages of Atwood Beals, David Lundin and Maurice O’Connor were completely wrecked . . . the garage at the Maitland Pearsons home was carried right off the property . . . one large tree fell so that it almost hides the home of Nettie Foster.”

Other wind storms in the past also have created considerable damage. In 1777 nearly half the roof of the Meetinghouse was blown away by a hurricane, for the Rev. John Marrett wrote in his diary, “near half the roof was taken off.” The church suffered another buffeting by the elements in 1824 when the door was blown open and considerable damage done to the interior.

Freak storms have also occurred here such as the tornado which tore through Woburn Center in October 1925 which toppled the spire of the Unitarian Church onto Winn Street. While the path of that twister was not wide (it missed the Congregational Church steeple across the Common), its path was freakish and damage considerable.

A more common occurrence is the winter blizzard with its high winds and driven snow. The storm which hit the New England coast during the last few days of November 1898 became one of the worst in history. The Boston Herald for Nov. 30 stated under its headline “Not One Was Saved” the following: “The steamer ‘Portland’ of the Boston &. Portland Steam Packet Company which left Boston for Portland Saturday night, was wrecked at 10 o’clock Sunday morning off Highland Light at Truro on Cape Cod.” Carrying more than 150 passengers and crew, she had been blown more than 150 miles off course.

Several prior blizzards have made history as well. In February 1711 the farmers here suffered heavy loses of livestock when that storm left five to six feet of snow on the level and animals caught without shelter were trapped and frozen to death. The Great Blizzard of 1888 came in March when farmers here felt that most of the winter was over as some thawing had begun. Woburn recorded a record 53-inch snowfall during the four days that the storm took to blow itself out.

The winter of 1905-06 has not gone down in the weather records as a particularly severe one but enough snow did fall to put the Burlington street car line out of commission. A trolley got caught in the snow halfway up Center Street hill and was unable to move up nor down for a week or more. The next spring the tracks were moved to run along Winn Street thus eliminating that hill. That particular storm also was the root cause for the building of Sears Street, made to connect the center of town to the car line. A small waiting station was built at the bottom of the hill.

Recent history has given us the blizzard of 1978 which dropped a record snow fall of some 27 inches in a 24-hour period and tied up every highway around with stalled trucks and cars. Winds were clocked at 79 miles per hour at times. All schools were closed as were many stores and business firms. It was a smaller version of the two major blizzards which struck this area in February 1969 which virtually crippled school activities for an entire month.

New England’s unpredictable weather sometimes produces an intense cold spell. February 1857 was one of the coldest months on record. Boston Harbor froze over from one shore to the other so that an icebreaker had to work continually just to keep one lane open for shipping. People walked across the harbor, in the cold biting air, to Governor’s Island and on to Spectacle Island. Ice on the ponds here was three feet thick and the ice houses on Horn Pond’s northern shore must have had a bountiful harvest.

The New England climate offers nothing as vicious as a norther sweeping through the Texas panhandle, nor anything as sultry and hot as the Kansas heat wave, but, when the weather here becomes rambunctious, it can be interesting.