Where were you for the Blizzard of ’78?


Islanders recall the storm of the century.

Forty years ago, on the morning of Feb. 6, 1978, snowflakes began to fall, and didn’t stop for two days. Boston reported a snowfall accumulation of 27 inches — by most accounts here on the Vineyard we had a little less. But snowfall tells only a part of the story. Flooding and high winds tell the rest. The storm was known as the White Hurricane. Memories of the historic storm are still etched on Islander’s minds. Here, in their own words, are some of their recollections.

Snow-calmed seas

I was living on Ram Island in Marion Harbor, and commuting daily to Boston to the North Bennet Street School in the North End to learn piano tuning. I got the last bus out of Boston to New Bedford, at 4 pm. When we got to the station, the bus driver just drove into a big snowdrift, and we all got out. My ride had a four-wheel-drive car, and managed to get behind a snowplow going up 195, and we got to the wharf in Marion to take our little lobster boat out to Ram Island. It was blowing a storm, but there was so much snow in the water that it calmed the seas, and we made the short trip across the harbor with no problem

–David Stanwood, West Tisbury

Walking down the middle of the road

What I remember was that it was a Monday. That winter we had “no school days,” it seemed, every Monday.

My daughter and I were living in Vineyard Haven at the time, and we were able to walk down the middle of State Road into town in unplowed deep snow. It was probably up to my knees, easily.

I think that school was canceled for three days, no boats, etc.

–Wendy Whipple, West Tisbury

Keep on shoveling

1978 was my first full winter on the Island after graduating from college the previous May. I was the manager and sole employee of the Shed, a store that sold canvas-and-rubber shoes on the corner of Main Street, Vineyard Haven, under the old Tisbury Inn (now rebuilt as the Mansion House Inn). It was my first “real-life job,” and I was thrilled to be 22 years old and entrusted to run a business all by myself.

Thrilled, that is, until the snow started coming down — relentlessly — and it became evident that I was also responsible for shoveling the sidewalk that ran around the steep hill from Main Street and down toward Five Corners. That sidewalk was the only way customers could find their way to my shop’s door. I had seen the forecasts, and made sure the shelves were well-stocked with rubber snow boots.

I spent the Blizzard of 1978 in a back-and-forth duel with the DPW’s plows, which came by every 45 minutes to heave mountains of dirty snow boulders onto the sidewalk. I would go out and try to clear a narrow path for human feet, and then the plows would return. There was simply no place for all the snow to go: Either it was on a main thoroughfare or it was where pedestrians needed to walk.

Forty years of living on the Island have taught me many lessons, but one of the first was, “It’s January, it’s the Vineyard. Take a snow day!”

–Dan Waters, West Tisbury

Blizzard of the century

I don’t think we got it as badly as the mainland, but I noted in my engagement calendar that the schools were dismissed at 1 pm on Feb. 6, and didn’t open until Feb. 9. I noted that it was “the worst blizzard of the century.”

–Shirley Mayhew, West Tisbury

The Islander adrift

As I remember it, and it was a long time ago, we got hit hard. My son Jon was about 2 years old. We were coming home from off-Island, trying to catch a boat, and it started to snow and the wind was picking up. We got to the Leeside, but all the boats were canceled. We couldn’t get out of Woods Hole; thought we’d have to spend the night at the Leeside. Meanwhile the Islander had started for Nantucket, and decided to come back. Most of the crew were from the Vineyard, so they wanted to get back home. So about 10 o’clock at night we all piled into the Islander and headed out. Now as I recall it, we got about halfway back, we’re in the dark, waves are breaking over the bow, water is coming in under the doors, and the boat dies. We probably were adrift for what felt like 10 minutes or so, and finally the captain got the boat going and made it to Vineyard Haven. He saved the day.

–Bob Mone, West Tisbury

‘Damn the roses!’

I was part of that ’70s migration to the Vineyard, and I opened a flower shop called Tellurian. It started out as just another day, heading off on the 7 am boat to go to Boston Flower Market for my weekly pick of fresh-cut flowers, but with a heavy dose of pink and red for Valentine’s Day.

I heard about the storm coming, but thought I’d make a run for it anyway. Surely I could make it up and back. As soon as I got there, though, my wholesaler turned me right around. “Damn the roses,” he said. “Go home!”

Well, I’m glad I did, but it was one hell of a scary ride in my VW bus. Spinouts to the left of me, spinouts to the right … yikes!

I somehow made it to Woods Hole, and caught the noon boat to Vineyard Haven. That was a rough ride, and that boat turned out to be the last run for many days. Everything was shut down, and the blizzard wreaked havoc with everything from here to Boston and beyond for a long, long time.

–Louise Sweet, West Tisbury

Lack of water?

I was alone here with 3½-year-old Adrian, a wood stove, and a malfunctioning pump.Tony was away on a boat delivery. The lack of water made me fear fire, and ask friends if we could sleep at their house.

–Abigail Higgins, West Tisbury

Flood at Burt Marine

I was running Burt Marine back in 1978. My recollections of the Storm of ’78 are almost exclusively concerned with the general conditions at Burt Marine, and in particularly, salvaging my tools and machinery. The day before the storm, I recall things being relatively mellow — we knew there was a blow coming. We had already been through a couple that winter, and everything in the yard had proven to be snug for the season.

Next day the storm hit Burt Marine for real in the morning — again, as I recall — and I say morning because the storm was in essence a winter hurricane — a counterclockwise swirl around a distinct and well-formed eye — and the eye passed over us mid to late afternoon — the sky clear and a pleasant blue — no wind to speak of — and a transcendent quality to the light — seeming to illuminate the very concept of tranquility. It formed what remains an enduring image for me. The light was unique.

And then it was who let the dogs out. The trailing quadrant of the storm had arrived with an unexpectedly good uppercut, quickly shredding the very concept of tranquility and triggering the adrenalin pumps. Rounds were made, windows and doors rechecked, boat tarps resecured, blocking restacked. When darkness set in, the storm was still enraged; however, we were well battened down, things seemed good, and we had reached the point of “is what it is.” We had done everything we could, and I headed home, feeling pretty confident that we’d come through this one just fine.

It didn’t work out that way. When I came down in the morning, the yard had been devastated overnight by a massive tide. Anything that could float had done so — blocking and skiffs were strewn all about — no great damage, but a helluva mess. The tide had been high enough to cover the cabinets where all my electrical tools were kept, as well as the motors that drove my floor machines — thickness planer, jointer, table saw, finish sander … the only high and dry survivor being the drill press. All these tools were my own — of course uninsured and not covered by the yard’s policy — I could barely afford to insure my truck back then. I thought I was done for. And then Bill Searle showed up.

Bill Searle was a Navy man with extensive sea time in the Pacific and a notable period stationed in Mauritius. He bore a well-earned presence of quiet knowledge and capability.

In next to no time, all my electrical hand tools and machine motors were completely submerged in a 55-gallon drum of fresh water. Then once he was set up, Bill would retrieve a tool from the water drum like selecting a lobster, and immediately submerge it in a vat of denatured alcohol that he had set up. After a few moments, determined by Bill’s internal metronome of experience, he would withdraw the tool and hand it to me to be immediately dried with compressed air and misted with CRC. We didn’t lose a single tool. Bill Searle had saved my ass.

–Alan Look, West Tisbury

Snug as a bug

I know we didn’t have a TV, so we had little idea of the storm other than what we saw out the window … I’m pretty sure we were living in two rooms of the Davis House (where we live now, filled with 40 years of our life together!). We had nowhere we had to be, so it was not as stressful as blizzards are today!

–Lynne Whiting, West Tisbury

P.S. And of course, Allen just reminded me that we knew exactly where we were and what we were doing. We were falling in love, packing the wood stove, and building a life on the farm. The storm was insanely beautiful outside, and warm and cozy inside. We loved it.