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.
At 12:30 PM, a 30-foot bank of what looked like fog rolled in toward Long Island. It turned out to be the storm surge, topped by waves 30 and 50 feet high.
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. It destroyed cemeteries, slammed boats into shore, uprooted entire orchards and smashed structures 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 wiped away entire communities, 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., high waters pushed a five-masted ship, Marsala, 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 washed off their foundations, like the one above that landed in the Cape Cod Canal.
A Wild Ride
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.
Damage From the 1938 Hurricane
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 storm forced the Connecticut River 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 sank. Before the storm, 100 boats fished the waters between Point Judith, R.I., and New London. Afterward, the hurricane left only three.
Cost of the 1938 Hurricane
In New Hampshire, fire destroyed four buildings in Peterborough and wind blew down part of the Cog Railway on Mount Washington. And in Vermont, the storm caused a train derailment and uprooted maple trees and apple orchards. The hurricane blew the house pictured above onto railroad tracks.
As one of the most costly hurricanes to hit the U.S. mainland, it caused damage later estimated at $308 million. A total of 4,500 homes were destroyed and 25,000 damaged. The storm totaled about 26,000 automobiles and blew over 20,000 electrical poles. And high winds knocked down an estimated 2 billion trees in New York and New England, devastating forests.
The dead filled funeral homes. Homeless refugees crammed into town halls, armories and fire stations. Clinics then ran out of typhoid vaccine. It took a week to restore power in Provincetown, and 200 men spent a week trying to open the roads to Newport, R.I.
The storm blew down so many trees that paper mills processed them for nine years.
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. It then took two years for the 50 CCC camps and 15,000 WPA workers in the region to finish the job.
To see newsreel footage of the Great 1938 Hurricane, click here.
This story was updated in 2020. With thanks to The Great Hurricane: 1938 by Cherie Burns. New England Historical Society subscribers can download our free premium, Weather History of New England, Six Storms That Changed Everything, here. If you’d like to read about a wild ride one family took during the storm, click here.