Wednesday, October 31, 2018

120 Years Ago: The Portland Gale

Looking toward the South River in the Rexhame Dunes (2018).

Friday morning, November 25th, 1898: sunny and clear. Thanksgiving now over for another year, the citizens of Marshfield and Scituate begin their days. Not too cold, not too windy, it is the kind of weather in which people are glad to be outside, soaking up a last few warming rays of sun before the biting chill of winter sets in.

Friday evening: a low pressure area is noted to be moving northward from the Gulf of Mexico along the eastern seaboard. Other reports show a similar weather system moving eastward from the Lakes Region. As these are not unusual conditions for a seaside New England town at this time of year, no special precautions are taken. 

Saturday morning, November 26th: a gray day, strangely quiet. 

Saturday evening: the temperature drops. Snow flurries begin, and there is talk of an oncoming squall. 

The gale comes on quickly and severely, and lasts through Saturday night, its winds churning the waters, bringing on floods that destroy ships and houses, bridges and roads. The eye passes over Marshfield and Scituate around 6 o'clock Sunday morning, offering temporary relief from the relentless snow and winds. After another 24 hours of storming, the sun of Monday, November 28th rises to reveal death, disaster, and drastic change.

Under normal circumstances, the Portland Gale would have gone down in history as another characteristic Nor'easter, its fierce winds and waters causing the usual damage along the coast. However, in the towns of Marshfield and Scituate, a storm surge washed away the land between Third and Fourth Cliffs, at Humarock. This cut in the beach created a new outlet to the sea, redirecting the course of the North River, and adding three miles to the length of the South River.  

Until the Blizzard of 1978, the 1898 Portland Gale was known as the most intense storm ever to pass through New England. Its fierce, icy winds blew throughout the weekend, generating huge breakers that pounded the shore steadily, day and night. Cape Cod was hit the worst, but there was destruction up and down the coast. From Maine to Massachusetts, 141 shipwrecks were reported. A total of 100 bodies were found along the South Shore, from Nantasket to Plymouth. 

Along the South Shore, electric and telegraph poles lay among fallen fences and uprooted trees. Many houses displayed toppled chimneys and broken windows. Brant Rock resident Carrie Phillips wrote, “Sea walls are all gone. There is hardly room to drive a team. . .  the bank has washed away so. . . . The roads are full of wreckage of all kinds, lobster traps, boats and furniture, I can look out my window and see a nice bed lounge and stoves, etc. scattered around.”

The steamer Portland, which had set sail from Boston on Saturday evening, was wrecked at sea, sparing not a single passenger. Clothing, cabin furnishings and merchandise -- boxes of tobacco, cheese, and oil, barrels of whiskey, tubs of lard --  were among the salvage found up and down the shore. 

In earlier times, the town of Marshfield was known as Missaukatucket -- "At the large mouth of the river." The North and South Rivers flowed together and emptied into the sea at what is now Rexhame Beach. Until the Portland Gale, the peninsula of Humarock ran south from Scituate's Third Cliff, extending far past Fourth Cliff to the river mouth. What is now the mouth of the river, was then a narrow shingle beach connecting the cliffs. 

A 2018 view of the Rexhame Dunes, the former location of the mouth of the North River.

When the new mouth of the river broke through, three miles north of its original inlet, Humarock was suddenly detached from the mainland. It became, if only for a few days, an island. Despite the efforts of a group of divinity students, armed with shovels and determined to keep the mouth open, the inlet at Rexhame filled in with sand, and Humarock was once again a peninsula, attached to Marshfield now, instead of Scituate.

It may not have been entirely nature's choice to cut a new river mouth. In 1831, Samuel Deane, in his History of Scituate, observed, “The beach between the third and fourth cliff, is composed of sand and pebbles, . . . it is slowly wasting, and the river probably will eventually find its outlet between these cliffs.”

This was likely music to the ears of North River shipbuilders. The river was so shallow that large ships could only be brought downstream during high tides. It often took a full week to navigate a newly-constructed vessel to the sea. 

An attempt to relocate the mouth of the North was made in 1843. Citizens drew up a petition requesting a cut between the cliffs. After a local hearing, the state decided against the proposal, concluding that such a cut would damage the meadows upstream. Despite the state's rejection of their plea, proponents of the cut set out one night with picks, shovels, hoes, and axes, driving ox and horse teams, using only dim lanterns to light their way. 

Working through the night, they managed to dig all the way across the beach, only to discover a rock-hard meadow bank beneath the sand, dense enough to prevent the completion of their mission. Water flowed through the newly-dug channel temporarily, but the beach soon filled back in. There is speculation, however, that because of this initial effort, the land between Third and Fourth Cliffs was weakened, and thus more vulnerable to the Portland Gale’s tidal wave. 

The mouth of the North River in the 1990s.

Please join me for a walk to commemorate the 120thAnniversary of the Portland Gale. We will meet at the Rexhame Beach parking lot (at the end of Standish Street in Marshfield) at 11am on Saturday, November 24th, and spend some time touring the riverbank and dunes. I’ll discuss the storm, how it received its name, and the damage it wrought, and also talk about what life was like on the South Shore in the 1890s. No dogs please. The walk is free, but please register by visiting

by Kezia Bacon
November 2018

A trail through the Rexhame Dunes.

Kezia Bacon's articles appear courtesy of the North and South Rivers Watershed Association, a local non-profit organization devoted to protecting our waters. For membership information and a copy of their latest newsletter, contact NSRWA at (781) 659-8168 or visit To browse 20 years of nature columns, visit

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Should We Ban Plastic Bags? (updated)

Have you heard about the colossal gyres of plastic trash in our oceans? The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, off the coast of California, is estimated to be 1-2 times the size of Texas! To date, we have not found an effective way to eradicate these monstrosities. Which unfortunately means that sea animals are dying in great numbers – about 100,000dolphins, seals, turtles, porpoises and whales per year – plus another 2 million birds – all from ingesting, or becoming entangled in, single-use plastic bags.

This sort of news makes me think twice about the disposable plastic products I use regularly – things like sandwich bags, drinking straws, and food wrap. There has to be a better way.

So let’s talk about the ubiquitous single use plastic shopping bag. Even those of us who bring our own bags to the store sometimes forget, and end up carrying our purchases home in plastic. I generally repurpose those flimsy bags for trash disposal. But even when I’ve doubled the life of a single-use bag, it still ends up in the garbage, contributing to the ongoing global problem.

One way to address this issue is at its source: to ban the use of single-use plastic bags, like they’ve done in Europe, China, and California, as well as cities like New York, Los Angeles, DC, Boston and Chicago, . . . and small towns too. Right here in Massachusetts, there are 83municipalities with restrictions on plastic bags, including Plymouth, Duxbury, and Marshfield. Pembroke and Scituate will consider town-wide bans of single use plastic bags at their Town Meetings this fall.

When I first began reading about these bans, I shrugged. How could they succeed? People are reluctant to give up their conveniences, and getting into the habit of always having a shopping bag with you is a lifestyle shift. But after delving a little deeper into the research, I now see how effective such bans can be. Here’s what I learned.

How Many Bags?
Every year, Americans discard 100 billion single use plastic bags. In Massachusetts, that’s about 51,000 plastic bags per week for the average market. These bags are our third largest source of litter, behind cigarette butts and bottle caps. 

Where Do They Go Next?
What happens to these bags when we’ve discarded them? They don’t just disappear. Plastic can be recycled, but it doesn’t biodegrade. Instead, over time, it breaks down into increasingly smaller fragments, eventually into microplastics that can do grievous harm to animals, the oceans, and our environment in general. 

Why Are Plastic Bags A Problem?
• From the start, single use plastic bags cause trouble. The oil or gas required to produce them, and the greenhouses gases released during production, simply do not justify their very short period of use. We’re depleting non-renewable resources in order to make bags that continue to do harm in their afterlife.

• Many communities are unable to recycle them, due to repeated issues with machinery jams. In the past, we could send our recycling materials to China, but not anymore.

• It takes 200+ years for a plastic bag deposited in a landfill to decompose. During this time it releases methane gas and carbon dioxide. If incinerated, it releases, toxic fine particles into the air.

• In the oceans, where many of these bags ultimately end up, tiny fragments of plastic are consumed inadvertently by fish and other sea animals. These toxins move up the food chain, eventually appearing -- imperceptibly -- in the fish we eat.

What Kinds of Bags Get Banned?
Plastic shopping bag bans are becoming increasingly popular because they significantly decrease waste while encouraging the use of more sustainable (often cloth) shopping bags. These bans don’t prohibit heavier plastic bags, nor the ones used for meat or produce, newspapers or dry cleaning. The only bags banned are the thin plastic disposable type most commonly found at grocery store checkouts. 

How Can I Help?
Scituate resident Kate Glennon, who has helped bring a plastic bag ban to the town’s upcoming own Meeting Warrant, puts this all in perspective. She writes, "Now more than ever, we are seeing how small local choices, personal choices, can effect change on a larger scale. That's how we started polluting, and that's how we can abate the damage we've done. Changing our consumer habits to become less dependent on conveniences like single-use plastics creates a ripple effect visible to manufacturers and retailers, and visible in shorelines and waterways—not just in Scituate but all our interconnected communities." Scituate’s Town Meeting takes place November 14th. If you’re a Scituate resident, please vote to support the ban of single use plastic bags.

Pembroke residents have a similar opportunity, taking place at Town Meeting on October 23rdIn support of the ban, resident Stephanie Hagan writes, “Although a plastic bag ban could be an inconvenience to some, the economic and environmental inconveniences are greater. I believe most consumers are unaware they’re paying 4 cents a bag, built into their commodities. At 9 million bags a year in Pembroke alone, that’s over $350,000 and about $30 a year per family. . . The mere inconvenience of bringing your reusable bag or choosing paper does not outweigh the importance of this issue.”

Glennon adds, "I'm not sure anyone will miss the thin plastic grocery bags. They're flimsy and we know they end up in the landfill by the millions, and in waterways. There's no shortage of other thin plastic bags (like bread bags) that can be kept for household re-use."

If you live in a town that does not presently ban these bags, you can still choose not to use them personally. You might also advocate for a ban in your own town. 

by Kezia Bacon 
October 2018

Kezia Bacon's articles appear courtesy of the North and South Rivers Watershed Association, a local non-profit organization devoted to protecting our waters. For membership information and a copy of their latest newsletter, contact NSRWA at (781) 659-8168 or visit To browse 20 years of nature columns, visit