The Great 1938 Hurricane took almost everyone by surprise. Sept. 21, 1938, was supposed to be a breezy fall day in New England. Few paid attention to the storm barreling up the coast.
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.
The hurricane altered the shoreline of Long Island, washed away bridges, severed train service between New York and Boston and between cities in Connecticut and Rhode Island. It brought down 20,000 miles of power and telephone lines.
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.
Perhaps the most astounding story of the storm comes from the Moore family of Westerly, R.I. As the storm grew stronger, the family tried to evacuate their beachfront home, but could not. As the ocean waves began surging into the house, Catherine Moore recalls her father bracing against the front door literally trying to hold back the ocean.
The family moved first to the second floor and finally to the third floor to stay above the storm surge, watching as house after house succumbed and neighbors were washed away. Finally, the waves overwhelmed their own house, lifting it off its foundation.
“Next thing I knew, we were floating,” Moore recalled. “We were on the water with the waves crashing over us, and part of the house still attached, one of the walls still attached to this piece of floor, and it almost acted as a sail.”
In all, 10 people clung to that bit of floor as it hurtled across the Sound to land in Connecticut. There the family stepped back on to land and back into their lives.
Westerly, a bastion of quiet old wealth, never quite regained its prestige after the Great 1938 Hurricane. Charlestown, R.I., lost a bit more: 160 out of 200 homes were annihilated.
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. Two-thirds of the boats in New Bedford Harbor were sunk. Before the storm, 100 boats fished the waters between Point Judith, R.I., and New London. Afterward, there were only three.
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.
Funeral homes were filled. Homeless refugees crammed into town halls, armories and fire stations. Clinics ran out of typhoid vaccine. It took a week to restore power in Provincetown. Two hundred men spent a week trying to open the roads to Newport, R.I.
The storm blew down so many trees that paper mills were still processing them nine years later.
The blowdowns posed a dilemma: What to do with enough woody debris to nearly fill Rhode Island? And how to do it quickly enough so it didn’t set off tremendous forest fires?
President Franklin Roosevelt ordered the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration to clean up the mess. There were then 50 CCC camps and 15,000 WPA workers in the stricken region. The clean-up continued for two years.
To see newsreel footage of the Great 1938 Hurricane, click here.
This story was updated in 2017. With thanks to The Great Hurricane: 1938 by Cherie Burns.