The Great 1938 Hurricane blew down so many trees that paper mills were still processing them nine years later. Trees downed by the hurricane could still be seen in 1951.
Comparable to Hurricane Katrina, the 1938 Hurricane struck on Sept. 21, 1938. It was the most powerful storm to make landfall in the Northeast in 200 years, killing nearly 700 people and destroying 19,000 buildings and 26,000 automobiles. 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.
Often forgotten in accounts of the 1938 Hurricane is the damage it wreaked on New England’s timber. The storm blew down trees in over a third of the region – mostly in southern New Hampshire and central Massachusetts.
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?
Preventing Forest Fires
“Local residents felt they were sitting on a powder keg,” wrote Earl Peirce, chief of the division of co-operative forest protection within the U.S. Forest Service. Peirce wrote an account of the cleanup 30 years later.
The biggest tree cleanup would take place on the north shore of Long Island Sound, central Massachusetts and southern New Hampshire. New Hampshire Gov. Francis Murphy sent a telegram to President Franklin Roosevelt asking for help. So on Oct. 8, 1938 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 tree cleanup continued for two years.
Some damaged areas were too far from the CCC camps or WPA workers. The Forestry Service recruited crews of local men and trained them to do the work. They were ready to go in April 1939, working from 19 camps of between 50-100 men.
Most of the timber damage from the 1938 hurricane was on private land, and landowners had to be tracked down so they could give permission to have the government clean up their blowdowns –at no cost. Still, a few landowners refused to give permission because, in their words, they ‘had no use for Roosevelt.’
They cleared 10,121 miles of roads and trail and disposed of 214,902 acres of debris. All told, 600,000 acres of debris were cleared -- nearly the size of Rhode Island.
Too Much Wood
What to do with all that wood piled in hundreds of lots scattered throughout New England?
The Forest Service estimated 1.6 million board feet of lumber -- enough to build half a million houses -- could be salvaged. Most was white pine.
So the federal government created the Northeastern Timber Salvage Administration (NETSA) to salvage the usable timber.
NETSA set up 246 wet sites – ponds and lakes – to store the logs so they wouldn’t be destroyed by insects or rot. Dry sites were established as well, along with offices in Boston, Hartford, Portland, Worcester, Manchester, N.H., Providence and Montpelier.
The agency was supposed to buy the logs, saw the logs and sell the lumber. NETSA paid $8.3 million to 13,000 landowners, mostly farmers, for timber damaged by the 1938 hurricane. Nearly 59 percent went to New Hampshire landowners.
It had to train people in lumber work: scaling and grading lumber, running sawmils and preventing and suppressing fires.
NETSA bought logs from November 1938 through June 1940. Selling them was another matter. The Great Depression was still on and there wasn’t much demand for lumber. With the exception of a sale to the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad, there was little interest in buying the hurricane logs.
Tree Cleanup Proves a Windfall
So the Eastern Pine Sales Corporation formed to buy the lumber from NETSA and to sell it – without flooding the New England lumber market. It was largely controlled by L. Grossman & Sons of Boston. What seemed at first like a risky venture for the Grossman company turned into a coup when the United States entered World War II. L. Grossman & Co. became the largest lumber company in New England.
Most of the lumber from the 1938 hurricane went to local companies with government contracts and used for the war effort.
NETSA’s salvage program ended on Dec. 31, 1943, but the lumber would be processed for several more years.
The paper industry bought millions of logs. The National Archives photo above, taken in 1947, shows the Northern Kraft Paper Mill in Howland, Maine. The mill still used wood from the tree cleanup after the 1938 hurricane.
This story was updated in 2019. If you'd like to read more about the 1938 hurricane, click here.