Home / Rhode Island / Flashback Photos: The Great 1938 Hurricane

Flashback Photos: The Great 1938 Hurricane

The Great 1938 Hurricane took almost everyone by surprise. September 21, 1938, was supposed to be a breezy fall day in New England. Few paid attention to the storm barreling up the coast. By 4 pm, one of the most powerful and destructive hurricanes ever to hit Southern New England made landfall between Bridgeport  and New Haven, Conn. 

Photo courtesy NOAA/NWS.

1938 hurricane storm surge. Photo courtesy NOAA/NWS.

The damage was horrific. Estimates vary, but  at least 400 people died that day and maybe as many as 800. The Great 1938 Hurricane crossed over the tip of Long Island, slammed into New London and raced up the Connecticut River Valley at 50 miles per hour. Cemeteries were destroyed, boats slammed into shore, orchards uprooted and structures smashed into splinters.

Photo courtesy Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.

Photo courtesy Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.

The hurricane chewed away at roadbeds, like Shore Drive in Winthrop, Mass., above. It washed away railroad tracks, sent bridges downstream and downed electrical wires, leaving some New Englanders without electricity for weeks.

 

Photo courtesy Archives and Special Collections at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, University of Connecticut Libraries.

Photo courtesy Archives and Special Collections at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, University of Connecticut Libraries.

In New London, Conn., a five-masted ship, Marsala, was pushed by high waters into a warehouse and started a fire that demolished a quarter-mile section of the city’s business district. The hurricane also tossed the lighthouse tender Tulip, pictured above, ashore.

Photo courtesy Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.

Photo courtesy Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.

Houses were washed off their foundations, like the one above that landed in the Cape Cod Canal. Ten people clung to the floor of the Moore family beach house as it floated across the water from Westerly, R.I. , before depositing them safely in Connecticut.

Photo licensed under public domain by Wikipedia Commons.

Photo licensed under public domain by Wikipedia Commons.

The Connecticut River was forced over its banks, inundating cities and towns with floodwater. In Hartford, the river reached 35.4 feet, 19.4 feet above flood stage. Above, Bushnell Park in Hartford after the storm.

Photo courtesy Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.

Photo courtesy Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.

Parts of Falmouth and New Bedford, Mass., were submerged under eight feet of water.

Photo courtesy Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.

Photo courtesy Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.

Rhode Island got the worst of it. Parts of downtown Providence were under 14 feet of water, with people sheltering on the second and third floors of buildings. According to the National Weather Service,  a storm surge of 12 to 15 feet destroyed most coastal homes, yacht clubs and marinas on Narragansett Bay.

Photo courtesy Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.

Photo courtesy Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.

Above, the steamship Monhegan sits at a pier in Providence after sinking during the hurricane.

Photo courtesy Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.

Photo courtesy Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.

In New Hampshire, Peterborough was in flames and part of the Cog Railway on Mount Washington was blown down. And in Vermont, the storm caused a train derailment and uprooted maple trees and apple orchards. The hurricane blew this house onto railroad tracks.

It was one of the most costly hurricanes to hit the U.S. mainland, with damage estimated at $308 million. A total of 4,500 homes were destroyed and 25,000 damaged. About 26,000 automobiles were totaled and 20,000 electrical poles blown over. An estimated 2 billion trees were knocked down in New York and New England, devastating forests.

Photo courtesy Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.

Photo courtesy Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.

And an unknown number of pants needed to be dried out.

To see newsreel footage of the Great Hurricane of 1938, click here.

This story was updated from the 2014 version.

 

 

 

 

18 comments

  1. Kevin M Kelly

    My father had vivid memories of 38.

  2. Anne Marie Courtois

    I remember my mother saying she got the last bus out of downtown Providence go home to Jenkins St I think they were living there then.

  3. Peter Mayo

    By extension, might I assume that global warming began in ’38?

  4. Diane London Haskins

    My 92 year old father is still talking about it…

  5. Mike Poirier

    Our summer house is in Misquamicut which was wiped out. Stone stairs from a washed away house stood on Atlantic Ave through the 80s

  6. Bob Simmons

    My Dad lived through this storm in Westport Mass. Horseneck beach was changed forever!!!

  7. Cathy Bloxsom

    I highly recommend the book: Sudden Sea by R. A. Scotti. Has some interesting accounts from people and some.good photos.

  8. Bob Macon

    I have some books printed the next year , with 100s of picture , tv, nh, ri, and ct I have a book for each

  9. Rae Thompson

    My Mother remembers a tree falling through their roof in North Conway, NH. Even up there the damage was great.

  10. Melanie Haslam Kolek

    My grandparents were on their honeymoon and when they returned to Salem, CT from Niagra Falls, the whole region was in disarray. They talked about the bridges that had washed away.

  11. Karol Buchanan

    I remember hearing my dad talk about this and how it affected the trees.

  12. Will Sipsey

    I remember water lines painted on telco poles along the Merrimack river. Could not imagine the river that high.

  13. I was 7 yrs old and I remember getting out of school late afternoon. All the kids screaming,”it’s the end of the world”.. I felt safe when I arrived at my house.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*