APPLETON — A severe wind storm carrying gusts in excess of 58 mph ripped through Pine Grove Cemetery in Appleton, splintering massive pines, wreaking extensive damage to historic tombstones, and effectively closing down one side of the nearly 200-year-old graveyard.

A spokesman for the National Weather Service said they had issued a severe storm warning for Wednesday night, Nov. 30, meaning gusts in excess of 58 mph were expected, according to Stephen Baron in the NWS’s office in Gray. Nothing near those velocities were experienced Thursday night, he said.

A town official estimated the damage total would far exceed $6,000 set aside for cemetery cleanup and said the danger may not be over because high winds are also expected Saturday.

“I have not seen anything this bad since the last big storm,” which was in 2017, said Select Board Chair Lorie Costigan as she surveyed the scene Friday afternoon.

Some pines appeared to have been split in two when they came down on stronger tombstones. Photo by Jack M. Foley

And that was before she’d seen the worst of it. The damage was laid out in a diagonal direction, along a swatch of land perhaps 50 yards long, on the far west side of the cemetery off Pine Grove Lane.

The cost of cleanup and repairs will exceed what’s currently in the budget and the matter will be addressed at the Tuesday Select Board meeting on Dec. 6, Costigan said.

An estimated four to six towering pines, each about six to 10 inches in diameter were downed completely, or trunks were split off 15 to 20 feet up, while parts of hulking trunks and massive limbs covered scores of gravestones, hiding many. In one case, the tree came down so hard it split in two as it hit a grave marker.

Many gravestones, an as yet unknown number, were severely damaged, having been bent over, flattened, cracked or smashed under the weight of the falling trees, which were themselves twisted and splintered.

Nearby, at a Veteran’s Memorial at Gushee Corner on Sennebec Road, the flagpole was blown over, apparently also in the same storm. And beyond the cemetery to the northwest a bit,  Costigan said part of her greenhouse was lifted and knocked over. Because the flagpole, cemetery and her greenhouse are in roughly a straight line, she suspected the winds cut a diagonal swath of destruction along one straight line.

Indeed, nothing else in the cemetery was damaged and the whole scene had the feel that a tornado leaves in its wake after having flattened homes on one side of the road and spared those right across the street.

The damaged area of the cemetery has been taped off to keep people away, according to Costigan, and all members of the board had been notified of the disaster by about 3 pm Friday.

One tombstone was left broken and wedged into the split tree trunk by the storm’s fury. Photo by Jack M. Foley

In 2017, a storm of similar ferocity tore though a nearby area but further back in the cemetery and one of the trees that came down did extensive and costly damage to the elaborate Sumner Tomb. It was repaired earlier this year. Also, a tree expert told town officials that some of the big pines were diseased and they were cut down, according to Costigan.

“Areas where diseased and damaged trees had been removed earlier in the year and last year were unaffected,” Costigan reported in a written summary of the storm damage.

In the same written communication, Costigan said she placed warning cones; alerted the emergency management contact and Fire Chief Prent Marriner; contacted the town sexton Bruce Libby for assessment; called a local tree company that has worked on the cemetery in the past to assess initial damage and with assistance of the town treasurer began an insurance claim.”

She also reported that Select Board  Member Scott Esancy helped tape warning signs “as heavy winds forecasted for Saturday may cause more damage.”

She continued, “The immediate concern is to warn residents of the possibility of increased damaged, particularly because of forecasts for more wind.”

Costigan said the full extent of damage to headstones won’t be known until downed trees are removed.  “In the meantime I would ask people avoid the cemetery or use extreme caution as the risk for continued downed branches is high,” she said.

“The damaged trees were among mature pines along the property line with abutting neighbors and were trees that were not impacted by fungal rot that had caused crown decay in trees closer to the Sumner Tomb in past years. Those trees were removed in 2021 and 2022,” Costigan said in her written comments.

The number of damaged tombstones won’t be known until the felled trees are be removed. In the meantime, the public has been asked to avoid the damage area. Photo by Jack M. Foley