‘Freak Week’ 1926

Something was amiss with the cosmos during the third week of July 1926. The temperature hovered near 100 all up and down the eastern seaboard and as far west as Ohio. All but convicted murderers were released from the stifling prisons in North Carolina where temperatures reached 107. Hundreds slept out in the open on the Boston Common.

Just before sunrise on July 18th a blinding bluish light filled the cloudless Maine sky from Dexter to Saco. The flash was immediately followed by an explosive sound that awakened the whole City of Portland. Vivid lightning, hail, and torrential downpours followed.

On July 22, another storm swept into Maine from the Southwest in dirty whirlwinds for a mere 10 minutes. Several York Beach cottages were blown from their foundations. The bell tower at The Nubble was blown off its base and moved 4 feet to the edge of a deep cliff. Three houses were destroyed at Wells Beach.

In Kennebunkport, author Booth Tarkington, seeking relief from the heat, had put out in his three-ton speedboat, the Zantu. He was accompanied by his secretary Betty Trotter and Captain Harry Thirkell. When they were 6 miles from shore, a fire started on the boat. Tarkington and Thirkell sustained minor burns extinguishing the fire but that was the least of their problems. The ignition wires had burned through. The craft was disabled. Betty and Captain Thirkell began the long row to shore for assistance leaving Tarkington to guard the double-anchored Zantu. Just as the dingy was reaching shore, storm clouds darkened the sky. The Zantu was buffeted about until her anchor ropes parted in the ten-minute squall. Tarkington, drifted out untethered into the dark open sea, setting paper fires in a bucket to make his vessel more visible. His last scrap of paper was burning when Captain John Peabody finally spotted him and towed his disabled speedboat back to shore.

Temperatures in southern Maine dropped from 104 F before the storm to 72 F immediately after. Freak Week on the east coast resulted in 160 deaths and over $1,000,000 in damages. The sudden storms of Freak Week 1926 were called cyclones at the time but in retrospect they were more likely tornados.

Booth Tarkington managed to repair the Zantu in plenty of time to doll her up for the Kennebunk River Carnival in late August.

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