The Epic Blizzard That Swallowed the Playground of the Rich and Famous

Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Reuters/Courtesy of the Boothbay Region Historical Society/National Park Service
Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Reuters/Courtesy of the Boothbay Region Historical Society/National Park Service

During his 1604 voyage to the Gulf of Maine, Samuel de Champlain sailed north along the coastline. Leaving the principal expedition to explore the Maine coast in a smaller boat, Champlain cruised past the many islands, coves, and reefs. While the land he saw from the water was forested with pine and firs, he was impressed by the towering cliffs with summits void of trees. He named it L’Île des Monts Déserts: Island of barren mountains. Three hundred years later, Mount Desert Island was firmly established. For decades it had been the summer home for visitors from cities like Boston and New York, called “rusticators” by the locals. The town of Bar Harbor was overrun with mansions filled with Vanderbilts, Fords, Carnegies, Astors, and Morgans. Opulent parties thrown in parlors and aboard yachts commanded their social calendars.

Among the wealthy summer residents were Ernesto Fabbri and his brother, Alessandro, both born and raised in Manhattan with moneyed family connections in Italy. Ernesto, who was described as a linguist and world traveler, had married Edith Shepard, the great-granddaughter of Cornelius Vanderbilt. As 1900 brought the country into a new century the couple was busy building Buonriposo, a cottage in Bar Harbor that could claim status as an Italian villa. This was on Eden Street, five miles north of the towering rock promontory named Otter Cliffs that jutted out over the Atlantic Ocean and had once inspired Champlain.

The unmarried Alessandro spent his summers at Buonriposo with his brother and Edith. More scientist than playboy, his passion was wireless telegraphy, the transmission of telegraph signals using radio waves. And there was no better place for radio transmission than at Otter Cliffs. When Great Britain declared war on Germany on August 4, 1914, gossip soon made its way into Maine newspapers that German spies were afoot in the state. With those invisible radio waves in the skies over Bar Harbor, suspicion fell on the Fabbri brothers, with that foreign-sounding name, despite their attempts to quell what they saw as a ridiculous accusation.

When the United States entered the war on April 6, 1917, Alessandro Fabbri saw it as a chance to prove his loyalty to the country of his birth. He bought the land overlooking the ocean at Otter Cliffs and had it cleared at his own expense. He then directed the installation of a superb wireless telegraph station and offered it to the United States government as part of the war effort. In exchange, he wanted a commission in the Naval Reserve and to be made officer in charge of the station. On August 28, 1917, the Otter Cliffs Radio Station went to work receiving and transmitting signals under the charge of then thirty-nine-year-old Ensign Alessandro Fabbri. It was the best location on the East Coast, free of man-made noise and sitting atop an open span of ocean between Maine and the shores of Europe.


While the navy considered the Otter Cliffs Radio Station “the most important and most efficient in the world,” the place fell into disrepair after the war ended. Alessandro Fabbri had died in 1922, leaving his vision to weather the coastal storms and harsh Maine winters. By the early 1930s, it had become an eyesore. Driving past the dilapidated sight was unpleasant enough for local residents, but it was more distasteful for the summering millionaires and billionaires. Since the navy had no funds to restore the station, they made a deal with John D. Rockefeller Jr., the financier and philanthropist. Rockefeller already wanted to expand the motor road system on Mount Desert Island. If he agreed to build a new receiving station within a fifty-mile radius, the navy would allow him to widen the road. And the Otter Cliffs site would be donated to Acadia National Park, which Rockefeller was also instrumental in developing. A deal was made. Five miles across Frenchman Bay from Otter Cliffs was Big Moose Island, at the tip of the Schoodic Peninsula and near the town of Winter Harbor.

In 1950, the station’s name became the U.S. Naval Radio Station at Winter Harbor. With its elaborate structures and landscaped grounds, the Winter Harbor station was a dream come true for any young man lucky enough to be assigned there.

<div class="inline-image__credit">1: Composite by The Daily Beast/Courtesy of Simon and Schuster</div>
1: Composite by The Daily Beast/Courtesy of Simon and Schuster

When a good-looking New Yorker with dark wavy hair and hazel eyes turned up at the U.S. Naval Radio Station at Winter Harbor, he seemed a good candidate for the commander’s prediction about the young men assigned there. “You will do one of three things while you are here,” the commander told incoming sailors. “Marry one of the local girls, have a car accident, or reenlist.”


Paul Delaney looked around at the fancy digs and knew he’d make out fine. He had no intention of a career in the navy, or any other branch of the military. He’d already had a car accident serious enough that the police had come to inform his parents and scare the daylights out of his little sister. And at twenty years old, the last thing on his mind was marriage. But the local girls were certainly pretty. Paul had met one from Bar Harbor, a shy girl with shiny brown hair. Her name was Mona and he liked the way she smiled. Paul was off duty for a couple days, so he asked his roommate if he could borrow his car.

Harris’s Drugstore had closed and the other patrons disappeared by the time the infatuated young sailor from New York realized he should get on the road. Mona had been encouraging him to do so ever since the movie ended. It wasn’t a big deal, he assured her. He would be fine.

Leaving the theater, Paul brushed five inches of snow that had collected on the windshield since he parked. He got behind the wheel and edged out of the parking lot. He turned onto Eden Street, following what is a spectacular view of the ocean in good weather. All he saw then were waves of snow beating at the car. Along that road, the greatest mansions in the world had once sprawled. Some were still there. With his wipers working furiously, the snow blinding him, he didn’t notice the well-lit villa to his right, towering over the ocean. Off-season, it was likely empty of rich and famous guests, with just a household staff doing upkeep. Its name was Buonriposo, once the summer home of Ernesto and Edith Fabbri.

Less than three miles past the magnificent Fabbri “cottage,” Paul reached the foot of Ireson Hill. He had realized his folly back when he saw snow piled on the windshield. Mona was right. He should have departed earlier. He pushed gently on the accelerator pedal and began the climb that would curve up and around near Hulls Cove. Halfway up the hill, the car fishtailed. Panicked, Paul hit the brakes. Buoyed by the wet snow that was freezing on the hillside, there was no stopping the vehicle. He sat helpless behind the wheel as it slid backward. At the bottom of the hill the car skidded, spinning out into a ditch filled with snow.

The car refused to budge. Because of the pounding storm, Paul didn’t see the lights of a residence sitting a hundred and fifty feet away. Just as he hadn’t seen the sign at the foot of the hill that warned detour. Even the locals didn’t want to challenge Ireson Hill in a snowstorm. Sailors had been trained when they arrived at the Maine station that it was wise to carry supplies in one’s vehicle during the winter months in case they became stranded in a snowstorm. But no one paid much attention to that warning. At least Paul had bought that pack of Chesterfields at the theater. He lit one and smoked it with the narrow vent window pushed open. When he finished, he flicked the butt out into the snow and closed the window. He lay beneath the blankets to wait. In minutes he dozed off.

Eventually buried beneath ten feet of snow, Paul Delaney would stay locked inside his car for sixty hours before being rescued. He had no way of knowing that the original idea for the naval base where he was stationed at Winter Harbor had begun in the mind of Alessandro Fabbri back at the turn of the century, and not far from where the he now waited for rescue.

Falling victim to time and neglect, Buonriposo, the Italian-styled villa overlooking the ocean in Bar Harbor, was demolished a decade after the 1952 northeaster. A new residence later replaced it. But rubble from the home where Edith and Ernesto Fabbri summered, along with his brother, Alessandro, often surfaced on the beach below. Years later, one resident reported finding fragments in the sand, such as a terra cotta angel and a belt buckle engraved with the name Edith.

Excerpted with permission from Northeaster: A Story of Courage and Survival in the Blizzard of 1952 by Cathie Pelletier. Published by Pegasus Press.

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