1938 hurricane, flooding left extensive damage behind in North Quabbin

  • For many months after the 1938 hurricane on Sept. 21, a sawmill was located across the road from Fay Bennett’s New Salem home to deal with all the fallen timber, which blocked most roadways. Her brother, Ward Hunting, shown in the foreground, assisted. Contributed photo

  • For many months after the 1938 hurricane on Sept. 21, a sawmill was located across the road from Fay Bennett’s New Salem home to deal with all the fallen timber, which blocked most roadways. Her brother, Ward Hunting, shown in the foreground, assisted. Contributed photo

  • A van-load of Metropolitan District Water Supply Commission (MDWSC) engineers, who were involved in the building of the nearby Quabbin Reservoir, had to stay overnight in the one-room Fay School because of the hurricane of 1938. They also helped clear trees from the roadways once the hurricane was over. Contributed photo

  • Flooding in Orange nearly engulfs cars following the hurricane of 1938. Contributed photo

  • Because of so many downed trees, traffic on Route 202 needed to be redirected. People traveling to Greenfield would need travel south instead. Fay Bennett’s brother, Ward Hunting, stands behind the detour sign. Contributed photo

  • BENNETT

Published: 2/15/2019 2:24:07 PM

My brother, Ward, and I were sitting in class at New Salem Academy on Sept. 21, 1938, when the “aggie” teacher got a phone call.

It was his wife, calling to tell him that if he wanted to make it home to North Orange, he would need to leave school right away because the bridge in Orange was about to be engulfed by floodwaters.

We had had a week of unrelenting rain up until then that had caused rivers to swell and the ground to be saturated, but at that hour in the morning, we had no idea that a hurricane, one that would go down in history, was headed our way.

With this teacher leaving class, Ward and I had to go home as he provided our transportation to school each day. When we got home, our family decided to take Dad’s old Dodge to see the flood damage in Athol and Orange.

As we stood near the site of the old covered bridge in Athol, my father, Nathan Hunting, looked up at the sky and said, “There is wind in those clouds, I had better go pick my peaches.” The peach orchard was located on the hill at Hunting’s Farview Farm in Shutesbury some 14 miles away, so he dropped us off back at the Fay Farm in New Salem. He didn’t end up picking his peaches; they had already been picked (by the wind) when he got there.

At about 1 or 1:30 p.m., we noticed the wind was blowing quite hard, and suddenly a sumac tree in the middle of the yard blew over. A friend from Orange had stopped in and decided he would stay with us until whatever this storm was had passed. He proved to be only the first of many refugees we would take in that day.

Next, a van-load of Metropolitan District Water Supply Commission (MDWSC) engineers, who were involved in the building of the nearby Quabbin Reservoir, stopped as they often did to consult with my uncle, a self-educated engineer. Cars began stopping on the recently built Daniel Shays Highway (Route 202) in front of our house as the high wind was hampering their progress. Thus, the next refugees were strangers, a young man and his fiancée. The latter had recently broken her arm and it was healing improperly so he was taking her to a Worcester hospital for evaluation of the situation.

This high wind blew for nearly four hours before it began to quiet down. I remember I was totally terrified.

My mother and brother busied themselves attaching strong cord to the outside shutters of the house and closing the windows from the inside to prevent the banging shutters from shattering windows. It was 44 years since that very house had withstood a mighty tornado when my mother was 12. I am sure her thoughts must have been going back to that frightening day, as a look at her diary entry for Sept. 21, 1938 bears the telling exclamation, “We are alive!” It was when she looked out to see daylight where a forest of trees once stood that she realized what a ferocious storm it really was.

Providentially, the ladies of the North New Salem Church had put on a supper the previous night for a group of grangers out for a “Mystery Ride,” where only the drivers knew where the grangers would be going. When Uncle Harry Fay, who was a New Salem selectman, returned home after walking from New Salem Center by climbing over the 400 trees down across the road in that 3-mile stretch, he looked at the chimney and determined it was all right to light a fire in the kitchen stove to warm up the leftover baked beans. Along with those, there was ample potato salad, baking powder biscuits and other goodies that we otherwise would not have had for unexpected guests. It must have been 9:30 or 10 p.m. by the time we sat down to eat.

We didn’t worry about a power outage as we were still using kerosene lamps in those days anyway. The major problem was the lack of telephone service for many weeks. I remember how we joyfully waved to the linemen from Ohio who came in a caravan past our house some time later.

We provided beds and blankets for our storm guests both in our house and in the nearby one-room Fay School, where the men slept on benches and the floor. Altogether, I believe we had eight extra people to feed and house that night.

Of course, the next morning dawned bright and beautiful, but to a dramatically changed landscape. Every able-bodied man and boy was out with crosscut saws and by noon, one-way traffic was restored on Route 202 — the major route bringing food from New York to Worcester and Boston. The white paint of our house had turned a sickly yellow-green because the chlorophyll from the leaves had been literally ground into it. There was no bright autumn foliage season that year, but rather a very scary dry spell, making the downed timber a sitting duck for fires. The trees did not break; they just toppled because the roots were easily released from the rain-soaked ground.

At last, we realized that we had survived a hurricane — the one that resulted from the lowest barometric pressure ever recorded in New England. Why had no one warned of its coming?

It was later learned that a Boston department store had just purchased a lot of glass gooseneck barometers containing red fluid. When they all began spilling the fluid a day or so prior to the storm, the manager determined they must be defective and considered returning them to the manufacturer. If only someone had heeded the message they were trying to bring! Then perhaps the 600 or more fatalities of that day might have been avoided. Many were the result of the astronomical high tide that roared over the coastline from Long Island into New England.

When my father finally made it back from Shutesbury, there was a rear door missing on his car. It blew off in the wind even though the door was closed! We thought it a great lark to ride around in the doorless car to see the evil done by the wind.

One of the most memorable sights was the steeple of the Central Congregational Church in Orange, which had toppled over and lay smashed in the middle of South Main Street. Water ran completely through the New Home Sewing Machine factory as well as the Minute Tapioca Plant for the second time in a two-year period. After those disasters, they both closed up shop in Orange.

We had no school for the remainder of that week and all of the next. I remember being terribly frightened  when a rumor circulated that the storm was turning around and going to come back.

For many months thereafter, a sawmill was located across the road in our upper field to deal with all that fallen timber. Our loss was great in terms of dollars and cents, but nothing compared to those whose loved ones died or who lost their homes on that tragic day.


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