Wild Weather

The Ocean State vs. the Elements

Rhode Island has earned a reputation for ever-changing, and sometimes unreliable, weather. 

Accumulations of snow over 28 inches left an indelible mark on Rhode Island in the famous Blizzard of 1978, but our wild weather didn’t start or end there. 

Clearing the runway after snow (February 16, 1962) by Rhode Island. Department of TransportationRhode Island State Archives

Significant snow leads to clean-up efforts

Even when storms do not create disaster, state government works to ensure safety on roads, including Rhode Island’s main airport.

Exterior night shot of the State House after a snowstorm (view from Francis Street), view #1. (February 1950) by Rhode Island. Department of TransportationRhode Island State Archives

The Independent Man looks over Providence

Snow glistens across the State House lawn in this street view photograph following a mid-twentieth century storm.

Rhode Islanders have been experiencing, documenting, and recovering from unpredictable weather for hundreds of years. These blizzards, floods, hurricanes, and other disasters are one part of the story of our state and its relationship to the ocean, climate, and coming together to restore the damage left behind by these memorable events.

The Blizzard of '88 pamphlet The Blizzard of '88 pamphlet, March 27, 1933, From the collection of: Rhode Island State Archives
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“As the night advanced, the wind increased ; the snow piled higher and higher and the streets of the city were deserted. Telephone communication was impossible since the wires were broken down with the weight of ice and snow” (p.2)

The Blizzard of '88 pamphlet The Blizzard of '88 pamphlet (March 27, 1933)Rhode Island State Archives

Blizzard of 1888 pamphlet

Blizzard of 1888 pamphlet 

Immense snow is not a new phenomenon in Rhode Island. One famous storm occurred in 1888 and brought the state to a halt with increased winds and heavy snow, with over 50 inches of snow hitting New England. 

Starting on Monday, businesses came to a standstill and the railroad was unable to keep up with the rapid snowfall. It took until the following Thursday for limited travel to open back up with snow drifts reported to have reached between 20-40 feet in New England.

Camp Fornance, South Carolina (February 1899) by UnknownRhode Island State Archives

Soldiers prepare for a snowball fight

These men were part of the 1st RI U.S. Volunteer Infantry at Camp Fornace in 1899.

In October 1954, the Rhode Island Development Council issued an interim report exploring weather characteristics of hurricanes, the extent of damage caused by past hurricanes, and broad principles to be followed in development of shore areas to safeguard for the future.

R.I. vs. Hurricanes report R.I. vs. Hurricanes report, p. 1 (October 22, 1954) by Rhode Island. GovernorRhode Island State Archives

This report was issued following the effects of Hurricane Carol earlier that year.

Rhode Islanders called the storm a “monster.” It ripped apart homes and boats, and left residents without electricity or water.

R.I. vs. Hurricanes report R.I. vs. Hurricanes report, p. 3 (October 22, 1954) by Rhode Island. GovernorRhode Island State Archives

Over 200,000 Rhode Islanders were unable to work as crews attempted to assess the damage and begin the hard process of restoration.

Later hurricane reports identified suggested actions to improve protections against this wild weather.

Rhode Island's most famous hurricane struck in 1938, making landfall on September 21 with a tidal wave that decimated coastal communities.

Cole River (1938) by Rhode Island. Department of TransportationRhode Island State Archives

Hurricane Damage, Cole River, 1938

With storm surges over 12 feet, substantial recovery efforts by the federal Works Progress Association and local Department of Public Works were vital in getting the state back on its feet.

Hurricane damage at the Pleasant View Hotel, Misquamicut (1938) by United States. Works Progress Administration (R.I.)Rhode Island State Archives

The 1938 Hurricane left significant damage

Famous Pleasant View Hotel, located right on the beach, was left decimated.

Main Street in Warren (1938) by Rhode Island. Department of TransportationRhode Island State Archives

The 1938 Hurricane left significant damage

In Warren, Rhode Island, a boat was forced onto Main St by the surging waters.

Hurricane damage at the Main Dining Hall, Rocky Point (1938) by United States. Work Projects Administration (R.I.)Rhode Island State Archives

The 1938 Hurricane left significant damage

The Main dining hall at the beloved Rocky Point Amusement Park had to be reconstructed following the storm.

The biggest storms in living memory left an impact on our communities from store closures, to landmarks sustaining permanent damage, to cars being abandoned on the highways. 

In 1978, a blizzard left snow piles two and a half feet high, resulting in Governor Garrahy activating the National Guard, emergency response, and law enforcement agencies throughout the state to assist Rhode Islanders harmed by the storm. 

General Assembly Resolution following Blizzard of 1978 General Assembly Resolution following Blizzard of 1978, p. 1 (1978) by Rhode Island. General Assembly (1643-)Rhode Island State Archives

This Resolution expressed gratitude to RI National Guard in 1978 following one of the state's largest winter storms.

Response by the National Guard was vital during the 1978 Blizzard.

Wild weather goes beyond the rain and snow.

Civilian Conservation Corps Fire Training Manual Eastern Region Civilian Conservation Corps Fire Training Manual Eastern Region: Foreword (March 1941) by United States. Department of AgricultureRhode Island State Archives

Fires present a serious risk to loss of land and property, and like other extreme and wild weather, can account for the loss of irreplaceable land, scenic areas, and personal material.

Civilian Conservation Corps Fire Training Manual Eastern Region Civilian Conservation Corps Fire Training Manual Eastern Region: A-2 (March 1941) by United States. Department of AgricultureRhode Island State Archives

The control of forest fires, probably more than any other branch of forestry, demands the efficient functioning of all personnel.

Forest Fire Prevention for Rural Residents Forest Fire Prevention for Rural Residents, page 6, Rhode Island. Department of Agriculture & Conservation, From the collection of: Rhode Island State Archives
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Forest Fire Prevention for Rural Residents Forest Fire Prevention for Rural Residents, page 1, Rhode Island. Department of Agriculture & Conservation, From the collection of: Rhode Island State Archives
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Forest Fire Prevention for Rural Residents Forest Fire Prevention for Rural Residents, page 2, Rhode Island. Department of Agriculture & Conservation, From the collection of: Rhode Island State Archives
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In a 20-year span, Rhode Island suffered 5,400 forest fires, resulting in the loss of over 90,000 acres of forest land. As a result, by mid-century Smokey asked Rhode Islanders, and Americans, to make a pledge for forest safety:

“I give my pledge as an American to save and faithfully to defend from waste the natural resources of my country – its soil and minerals, its forests, water and wildlife.”

Fire Ladder Company (c. 1940-1959) by UnknownRhode Island State Archives

RI Memories, The Early Years

Rhode Island still faces danger from fires today, with recent brush fires in West Greenwich and Exeter burning over 500 acres of forest in 2023, the largest in the state since 1942.

Rhode Island’s reputation for unreliable and ever-changing weather has left an impact on Rhode Island, with many local legends being inspired by these impactful events.

Learn more about RI's wild weather and other historic memories by visiting the Rhode Island State Archives Digital Archives.

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