Our reader Colleen LeBoeuf sent us a marvelous letter written by her grandmother describing how her family was stranded in the hurricane of 1938 in Barrington, R.I. LeBoeuf’s grandmother, Eleanor Deans, escaped drowning in the floodwaters when her father put her and other children in a rowboat.
Known as the Great New England Hurricane, it ranked as one of the four worst storms in the region’s written history. As many as 800 people died in the storm, which struck Long Island and all of New England on September 21, 1938. It wiped away entire communities, altered the shoreline of Long Island, washed away bridges, severed train lines and took down 20,000 utility wires. The mess took years to clean up.
The damage to Barrington permanently altered the seaside town. The town’s character changed from summer hot spot to residential suburb after the storm washed away beachfront tent cities, cottages, hotels and boarding houses.
Stranded in the Hurricane of 1938
Here is the letter, typewritten, on three pages. (We made minor changes for readability.) Marguerite Deans wrote it to her friend, Esther.
Sept. 30, 1938
Received your card this afternoon. Yes, we are all safe, I believe. We all had quite an exciting time and for a while I thought you would never see any of us again. If you don’t mind I will try to give you an idea of what we went through.
Of course as you know the wind was high all day, but about three o’clock the wind began to increase and soon after that the big tree around here began loosing its branches. The water began to rise, trees blew down and [at] about four forty-five the trees, the big ones, began loosening at the base and a couple began to fall right across the road – just as Bill drove his car around the corner, with water up to the hubs – the motor stalled – and the big trees crashed to the ground right in front of the machine. Boy, oh Boy. He got out and waded in water then up to his knees to get into the house.
Well, from then on things began to go from bad to worse. The lady across the street and her little boy came over – by that time the water was knee deep right in front of the steps.
A row-boat floated up to the door from out of no-where. Bill grabbed it and the lady downstairs, the boy across the street, Billy boy, Eleanor, and the two little girls down stairs got in the boat and Bill started to push it up the street – the water then was past his waist and the water was like a whirlpool, honestly. He told the rest of us to try to follow on foot.
Well, I stepped off the steps and the terrible tide took my feet from me and I went down. Catherine pulled me up, but I pulled her in. Somehow we got back on the steps and I looked up just in time to see Bill going down. Then the lady downstairs jumped right out of the boat and helped him to get his feet and together they pushed that boat full of children up the street where the water was not so deep.
Bill started back for the rest of us, but he beckoned to me that he could not make it and for me to go upstairs. I saw him go down again and we all, that is the rest of us, turned and ran upstairs and there we stayed, praying to be safe it it was right.
Stranded in the Hurricane of 1938
The old lady who lived in the house next to me saw her house go right off its foundations and land on our lawn with her husband (67) in it. In a few minutes he waved to us from the window where he was perched. With us was the old lady, another old lady across the street and Catherine. She would not go with the other children for she would not leave me. We just watched the waves, and believe me they were waves as big as any I ever saw at Horseneck Beach, as far as we could see in all directions.
In a few minutes that house where the man was, separated and he jumped on a fallen tree. It soon got dark and we just walked from room to room. At five minutes to seven it was high tide and it was simply horrible. Wind rain and waves. The house just swayed. In the meantime, we saw three houses washed away, two barns, two sheds, two garages, mail boxes, fences, trees, cats on rafts, furniture and I don’t know what not. We looked down the back stairs and the water was on the third step coming up stairs.
Well, after seven the wind and the tide receded a little. I got up courage then to light a kerosene lamp and the oil burner. I made some toast and cocoa for all of us. After Catherine and I changed into some dry clothes. Then we waited for we didn’t know what. About eight o’clock we heard someone coming up the stairs and it proved to be the old gentleman. He had hanged on that tree for nearly three hours. I got dry clothes for him and gave him a hot drink. Then about eight thirty Bill and the other lady’s husband came in dressed in someone else’s clothes. Gee, I was glad to see Bill for I thought I had lost him.
I was afraid to ask about all the children. But he said that they and the lady down-stairs was all safe in another house up the street.
The men then took flashlights and went out to look at the foundations of this house. One corner under the kitchen was gone and one side of the house as far as the first ceiling was ripped away. They said as long as the water didn’t rise again it would hold.
Well we all stayed in here for the rest of the night. It was an awful experience for Catherine, poor kid, she’ll never forget it.
When the Wind Whistles
In the morning the sun was shining on a terrible sight. Great big trees way up Ferry Lane – down like dominoes in a row, bots in yards, etc. Well, we were all mighty thankful just to be alive. No deaths in this section, as far as we know.
Towards night we began to get frighten[ed] again as the wind sprung up. I walked up to the Police Station and asked for ap lace for all of us to stay for the night. The Red Cross took us to the Bay Spring Fire Station and we all bunked on army cots. The next day my sister in Warren came and took all of my family to her home. The other two ladies and the family downstairs came to my tenement. The tenement downstairs is a perfect mess.
Tuesday we came back here and since then the family downstairs have been living with us. The other couple are living with another family near here.
I don’t mind telling you I feel timid every time the wind whistles. We still have no electric light, gas or drinking water. But I thank God we have been spared so far. My home is OK too. I don’t believe we ever will get over it. The youngsters today had the second typhoid inoculation. They are very restless tonight.
The Next Day
I asked the family with us to try to find another place to stay. I am getting pretty tired. No one else around here will take them in so I am in hopes she will go to her sisters in Pawtucket tonight. Hope God will forgive me if I am selfish.
Well, write to me and tell me your experience. I too have been wondering about your family and you. Was mighty glad to hear from you. Let me hear again.
Hastily but lovingly, Marguerite
Stranded in the Hurricane of 1938: Postscript
LeBoeuf added a postscript to the story of her grandmother, Marguerite Deans, getting stranded in the hurricane of 1938.
“My mother [Eleanor] distinctly remembers all the kids being given a shot of whiskey when they reached higher ground to warm them up and settle their nerves from what they had just gone through. She further recalls her father going down and a woman with them jumping into the water to keep him from drowning.”
To read more about the hurricane of 1938, click here. Or you might want to read this book:
Images: Waves at Horseneck Beach By No machine-readable author provided. GregRM assumed (based on copyright claims). – No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims)., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=822888.