Scituate storm historian will be in his usual front-row seat for nature’s wrath

SCITUATE, Ma. 12/22/10: Dave Ball (cq) President of Scituate Historical Society at the Maritime & Irish Mossing Museum. Maritime and Irish Mossing Museum in Scituate. The exhibits there tell the story of Irish mossing - a trade that brought hundreds of Irish immigrants to this coastal town over a century ago. Please get several shots of the museum's "Irish Mossing Room" and the exhibit on Daniel Ward, the father of Irish Mossing in Scituate, and one of the town's earliest Irish settlers. ( David L Ryan, globe staff ) SECTION: SOUTH SLUG: xxxsoriver REPORTER: Emily Sweeney Library Tag 01092011 Globe South
The Boston Globe
Scituate’s Dave Ball said that he hopes the fact that Thursday’s nor’easter will be a “one-tide storm” will help take some of the sting out of the gathering blizzard.

SCITUATE — A weak morning sun, obscured by a wispy layer of thin clouds, was still low in a frigid eastern sky on Wednesday when the first of the television satellite trucks rolled into town.

A big storm was brewing. Must-see TV. The pummeled coast. The crashing waves. The flooded streets. All of it awaited viewers watching the live feed from ice-choked Scituate Harbor.

Just down the street from this town’s iconic lighthouse, Dave Ball took it all in with the clinical stoicism of the middle-school science teacher that he once was.


“This is going to be a big one, yes,’’ Ball told me, sitting on his living room couch in the neighborhood his family has called home for 110 years. “I’m hoping it’s not a record storm. The good news is it’s only going to be a one-tide storm.’’

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Ball is the president of the local historical society, an amateur meteorologist, and the author of several local history books that have given him a long lens on how weather has realigned the local coastline, affected its economy, and has shaded local lore with more than a dash of Technicolor.

Ball is 75 years old now. He taught in the local school system for 35 years, a revered educator who took his students each spring to an overnight camp in Plymouth, where they learned about science and nature in a way books and chalkboards can’t convey.

On Wednesday, he was studying still.

Ball was checking data from a weather buoy 16 miles outside of Boston Harbor, examining wind patterns and wave heights and praying for a storm track that would funnel the storm parallel to the coastline.


He was realistic enough to collect 10 gallons of gasoline to feed the generator he will need if the power goes out.

He knows in microscopic detail how storms have battered Scituate for centuries now. But he needs no histrionics or hyperbole to explain or respect the power of Thursday’s gathering storm.

Why? He knows what’s preceded it.

He was just a teenager in 1954, when his uncle asked him and a cousin to accompany him to Swansea to help him secure his boat against the ferocious winds of Hurricane Carol. “It was a marina of 75 to 100 vessels and at the end of the whole thing, his boat was the only one still afloat,’’ Ball recalled.

Two years later, at the end of what had been a mild winter, a blizzard drove the huge Italian freighter, the Etrusco, onto the rocks next to the Scituate lighthouse, a marine accident that electrified the town.


“It made the lighthouse look like a toy,’’ Ball said of the ship that was 441 feet long and weighed 7,000 tons. “Everybody was rescued but it was a huge tourist attraction. There were many weekends when they estimated there were 50,000 people who came out here. Imagine that. It’s true. You’d pull into the house here and you couldn’t back your car out. There was one weekend when the traffic was backed up almost to Norwell center. It was a huge event.’’

As cement-mixing trucks idled a mile away, where workers were shoring up a section of seawall damaged in previous winter storms, Ball said there have been three history-making storms in Scituate.

In April 1851, a multi-day violent nor’easter destroyed the newly constructed Minot Light, which had been built on iron-legged stilts.

On the Saturday night after Thanksgiving in 1898, a well-appointed side-wheel paddle steamer, the Portland, sailed into 90-mile-per-hour winds. The ship was lost off Cape Ann and an estimated 200 people drowned. That storm broke through the beach that connected Scituate’s Third Cliff to Fourth Cliff and Humarock and forever altered the course of the North River and the local Scituate geography.

The Blizzard of ’78 leveled homes as winds gusted at more than 100 miles per hour and produced history-making high tides.

The history – some of which he’s written himself — helps inform the vigilance that Dave Ball displayed at his home here on Wednesday afternoon.

Waterfront residents were urged to ensure their shutter systems were up and in place. He was relaying updates from the National Weather Service to an e-mail chain for roughly 2,500 homeowners in the town’s coastal zone. He was fielding calls from the local fire chief, John Murphy.

“He likes to have everybody thinking on the same page,’’ Ball said. “He’s concerned about it. The good news is that it’s a one-time deal. We’re hoping the storm is well out at sea. We’re hoping the forecast is correct in that the winds will be out of the northwest.’’

High tide in Scituate Harbor will be at 12:40 on Thursday afternoon, the only high tide that has Ball intensely concerned.

“The real bad ones like the Blizzard of ’78 and the Halloween storm – those were several tide cycles that they just raged on,’’ he said. “So I’m hoping that if the forecast holds, although it got a little worse overnight, that it will be the one high tide tomorrow afternoon that will be our problem. And then the big news is that it’s probably going to be the terrible cold that’s going to follow and the winds and the power outages.’’

He knows the TV trucks are out there. He’s seen the shots of monstrous waves crashing against the curving seawall just steps from his front door.

He’s more interested in the information collected by that buoy miles outside Boston Harbor.

“I’ll get up early tomorrow and we’ll see how things are looking and then we’ll decide what we’re going to do,’’ Ball said. “The trick will be getting back in here.’’

And then he was back at his computer, examining National Weather Service data that television meteorologists were breathlessly doling out.

But Dave Ball, the ex-science teacher who had always seen things for himself, wanted to see for himself again. And then he would draw his own conclusions.

Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at