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