75 years ago today, the 1938 Hurricane slammed into New England, changing it forever
This 1938 photo shows the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries building on the south side of Main Street in Woods Hole, Mass., during the Hurricane of '38. Monday, Sept. 21, 1998, marks the 60th anniversary of the storm that claimed the lives of 600 people and still ranks as one of the century's worst storms. (AP Photo/C&GS Season's Report Thomas 1938-84/National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/Dept. of Commerce)
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Flipped planes at Turners Falls Airport.
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A buried car in Sunderland.
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A toppled elm adorned with local kids.
Men work to free a Deerfield fire truck.
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Workers clear mud off Deerfield Street in Greenfield. The Northfield library has a film that shows cleanup efforts in that town after the hurricane.
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This view, looking west, shows the Meadows area of Deerfield flooded by the Deerfield River.
This watercolor by Eileen Brennan, Morton and Mardis Whithed struggle to keep the door of their parent’s home closed against the furious winds and flooding rain of the hurricane of 1938, the most devastating natural disaster to strike New England in the 20th century. The door today is the front door of the Farm Table Restaurant at Kringle Candle Co. in Bernardston, where this painting now hangs.
“The greens and commons of New England will never be the same. Picture postcard mementos of the oldest part of the United States are gone with the wind and flood. The day of the biggest wind has just passed and a great part of most picturesque America, as old as the Pilgrims, has gone beyond recall or replacement.’’
— A.P. Dispatch, Sept. 22, 1938
That Associated Press reporter was describing the aftermath of the hurricane that had swept through New England just one day before, the most destructive storm to hit the Northeast in the 20th century.
The hurricane of 1938 was the most powerful and deadly storm strike our region over the past three centuries. When describing this extraordinary hurricane, diarists wrote of its “unimagined fury.’’ It arrived like an “angel of death,’’ smashing into New England on Sept. 21 without any warning during an unusually high tide. The moon was full and it happened during the autumnal equinox, (when tides are highest, anyway).
Narragansett Bay is especially vulnerable to storm surges. A similar hurricane in 1815 pushed a 9-foot wall of water into Providence, R.I. By contrast, the 1938 storm surge buried Providence under 15 feet of seawater. In its wake, only the tops of trolleys could be seen. Cars were quickly trapped by the rising sea and were abandoned; and since salt water is conductive, the headlights of submerged cars shone dimly while their horns blared.
During the previous four days before the hurricane arrived, more than 9 inches of rain fell across New England. Every river and stream was already out of its banks when the great storm swept through, adding another 10 to 15 inches. The hurricane was the coup-de-grace — the finishing blow that would take the lives of 680 to 700 people, most by flooding. The soggy ground was easily disturbed and the furious winds uprooted or toppled millions of trees.
The hurricane developed near the Cape Verde islands in the eastern Atlantic on Sept. 4. By coincidence, on that same day, a French meteorological station near the coast of North Africa detected a cluster of spiraling winds but it was a common event, they thought little more about it.
The storm slowly chugged across the Atlantic for the next two weeks, all the while gaining strength. At one point in its journey, it had become a category 5 storm, the strongest class of hurricanes. It lost some of its punch when it encountered cooler water as it approached the east coast of North America. It then turned northward into a low pressure trough that had set up along the eastern seaboard, (the same trough that had brought so much rain to New England over the previous four days). The trough also provided the energy to sweep the hurricane northward at incredible speed. The storm had passed Cape Hatteras, N.C., just 12 hours before it reached Long Island, moving north at almost 70 mph. Its great forward speed also prevented it from weakening in the cooler waters along the U.S. East Coast.
When the eye of the hurricane crashed ashore on Long Island, it created a scene of utter devastation. Scattered across the landscape as far as the eye could see were kitchen sinks, upended refrigerators, old fences, children’s toys, road signs, beds, soiled clothing that had been hanging on a line, desks, cabinets, plates, drinking glasses, silverware, old cars, shingles, battered doors, stoves, dolls and an assortment of food. The damage was almost total in most seaside communities. Where many homes had existed before, the view became bare sand. Homes were ripped from their foundations, reduced to rubble then carried off by the sea. In the wake of the storm, cleanup crews found live crabs and fish in kitchen drawers and cabinets.
Landmarks that had been in place for almost a century were also gone. Bath houses and seaside inns were obliterated by the wind, or by the storm surge. The sturdy and palatial mansion of J.P. Morgan on Long Island was reduced to little more than firewood. The only person in the home at the time was a butler and he ended up sailing across Long Island Sound to the shore of Connecticut on an immense oak door that had become a makeshift raft.
In another case, a seaside inn in Jamestown, R.I., that formerly boasted of 100 cabanas on the first floor and a great ballroom on the second floor, was completely smashed and swept out to sea. The only thing left after the storm departed were the stone steps that once led to its front door. The beach was otherwise bare of any evidence that the inn had ever been there.
Katherine Hepburn’s family residence at Fenwick, Conn., at the mouth of the Connecticut River, was also destroyed. She was vacationing at her family’s home and when the rising sea began to invade the first floor, the family waded through waist-deep water to get to higher ground. The home was replaceable; her only regret was losing her movie Oscar. But a neighbor walking through the ruins of their family home later discovered the Oscar in the sand. The home had been lifted off its foundation by the rising sea; it made a slow pirouette as it floated off and finally came to rest a half mile away, little more than a pile of rubble.
On Cuttyhunk Island just south of Cape Cod, an entire fishing village was flattened. On Martha’s Vineyard, piers and fishing shacks that had stood over the harbor for decades were reduced to a forest of bare poles.
Winds of 150 mph
The storm’s great forward speed, combined with its rotation, created winds in its eastern quadrant of more than 150 miles per hour. Nothing could stand before it. Boston was in the path of winds clocked on nearby Blue Hill Observatory at a steady 121 mph, with gusts up to 186 mph. Trees in Boston that had been growing since colonial times bent with the ferocious winds and finally snapped, breaking off near the base of their trunks. At Arnold Arboretum, more than 1,500 trees were uprooted or snapped off.
After the hurricane created a disaster in Long Island, it crossed Long Island Sound and came ashore in Connecticut at the mouth of the Connecticut River, following the river’s path all the way north to Canada, still racing forward at great speed.
As the storm moved northward through Connecticut and into western Massachusetts, its ferocious winds tore through walls and penetrated tiny cracks around windows and doors, driving the rain in with it. It was impossible to keep the wind and rain at bay. In Connecticut and western Massachusetts, more than half of the tobacco barns collapsed. Of the 36 bridges at Charlemont in Franklin County, only four survived the torrent of water that swept down the hillsides. The damage on Route 2 (the Mohawk Trail), kept it closed for months.
In Peterborough, N.H., a fast-moving fire was sparked by heat generated when water came in contact with un-slaked lime. Flooding closed off access by firefighters; there was little else to do but watch. The fire obliterated four blocks of the downtown. A railroad between Ashuelot and Keene, N.H., was smothered by a landslide and badly damaged, a casualty of the saturated ground. In Keene, N.H., the wind and rain obliterated lumberyards and textile mills. In downtown Keene, witnesses watched as glass store fronts were smashed by the wind, their mannequins then floating off in the flood.
Girls killed in Northfield
In Northfield, the wind collapsed a chimney at Gould Dining Hall at Northfield Seminary, a girl’s boarding school. The girls were eating dinner at the time and two young students were instantly killed by falling bricks.
The unnatural shriek of the great winds drowned out all conversation; a person speaking while standing just a few feet away couldn’t be heard. Even the sounds of destruction weren’t heard. In Bernardston, Morton and Mardis Whithed stood just inside the front door of their parent’s home, wedging themselves against the door to keep it closed against the furious wind. The wind-driven rain sounded like nails being thrown at the door at high speed.
The former Whithed home is now the Farm Table Restaurant at Kringle Candle Co. The door was well-made; it survived the blow and is still there. A watercolor is on view at the restaurant, commemorating the event and the two men who bravely wedged themselves behind the door. At the time, immense sugar maples stood just outside and several were knocked down by the wind. Luckily, none fell on the house; if they had, it seems likely that today’s generation of Whithed’s might not have been born. Morton Whithed had been married just a few months before.
The U.S. weather service in Washington gave no advance warning of the approach of the hurricane. It predicted “squalls and rain.” In Bernardston, children attended school that day. After the storm swept through, the children faced the task of making their way home, walking through streets lined with rubble. Tree trunks, branches, power and telephone poles and live wires made walking treacherous. There were no school buses then, but even if there had been, the roads were impassable. There was no other way for the children to get home except by clambering over tree branches and trunks, or over telephone poles or over the pieces of homes that had been torn apart.
The Quabbin Reservoir had just been finished in 1938 and there was fear that the 15 to 20 inches of rain would flood or damage nearby towns and homes. The water was held at bay.
In Greenfield, the Green River flooded everything below Bank Row. The cutlery factory at Power Square, where the Bowie Knife was manufactured during the 19th century, was flooded up to the first floor and homes along Deerfield Street were under water. At one time, a wall stood along Deerfield Street in front of the former Greenfield Tap & Die plant. The wall was built in reaction to the ’38 flooding on the Green River. It was recently removed to create a “more inviting” look to the entrance to Greenfield. But if another, equally strong hurricane takes the same path, it won’t seem quite so inviting. The many dikes that can be seen along Route 91 in Northampton were also built in the wake of this hurricane.
Total damage in 1938 was estimated to be in excess of $475 million dollars. But that was just a crude estimate and the storm also happened at a time when the shores of New England were more sparsely settled than they are today.
Almost 300 million trees were destroyed though, by some accounts, the number was far higher. Evidence of forest destruction could still be seen as late as 1961. The downed trees were salvaged for use in World War II to build barracks, or for building boats, or used as firewood by a population still suffering through the Great Depression. Most of the downed trees were salvaged by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and it estimated that more than 3 billion board feet of lumber was harvested in Massachusetts alone.
Half the New England apple crop was destroyed. The wind drove apples through the air like buckshot, often settling in drifts 5 feet high. The entire peach crop was lost. In many communities, power was out for two months.
More than 3,000 vessels along the coast were destroyed or badly damaged when they ran aground. Railroad bridges and homes in Vermont as far north as Montpelier were whitened by the salt spray picked up by the storm and carried far inland. Many trees in Vermont were killed by the salt. Roads in Vermont were so badly damaged that they seemed never to have been there. It took a year or longer to repair the damage. Most of Vermont’s covered bridges were taken out by the floods. Lake Champlain is 435 square miles in area. It rose more than two feet as the storm charged through.
At the Big E in Springfield, the wind twisted the Ferris wheel into a tangled pile.
As the hurricane continued to follow the path of the Connecticut River, it destroyed all of the trees on the side of Rocky Mountain — were Greenfield’s Poet’s Seat Tower stands — that faced the river. On the west side, at Beacon Field, large trees that were sheltered by the ridge survived; a few are still standing today.
The ’38 hurricane literally changed the landscape and culture of New England in many ways. It touched the fisheries, banking, agriculture, road construction and the way homes were built. A Bernardston resident, John Haigis, founder of the radio station WHAI that same year, was appointed coordinator of Red Cross activities in Franklin County.
On a practical level, hurricane preparedness might be akin to tackling a many-headed hydra (in Greek legend, a gigantic monster with nine heads). If a similar storm hit New England today, power might be out for weeks, even a month or two. Gasoline would be unavailable for some time; the few stations with generator power would probably have waiting lines that stretched for blocks. A generator and an adequate supply of gasoline would be a good investment for any homeowner.
Food would also be limited. Stores would quickly run out of bread, milk, eggs, vegetables, cereal and coffee. Frozen foods would thaw, making them unfit for consumption after a few days. Without power, barbecues would be pressed into service across the county and charcoal might also be in limited supply and very expensive. Food, fuel, fresh water, sanitary supplies and the supply of all medicines would be affected.
The Internet would be another casualty, along with telephone services. The batteries in cell phones would run out of juice, quickly making them little more than paper weights. Emergency services might not be able to keep up with demands for assistance.
If a strong hurricane has been predicted and evacuation is ordered, put together a survival kit that includes potable water and food. And include any prescription medicines. Making a list of needed items ahead of time would be useful. It might save a life, or at the very least make evacuation more tolerable.
For a better picture of the ’38 hurricane read “’Sudden Sea’’ by R.A. Scotti, Landmark Press, 2003. Or read “A Wind To Shake The World,’’ by Everett S. Allen. Allen had been hired as a cub reporter at the New Bedford Standard Times the day before, and on his first day, Sept. 20, 1938, he spent an hour or so in a diner, wondering what he would write about the following day. What Indeed?
Bernardston’s town historian, Jim Gildea is working on a history of his town. His “History of the Franklin County Fair” came out in 2008. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Artist Eileen Brennan can be reached at