Across Vineyard Sound, Charlie Tilton says there were about 35 to 40 year-round residents on Cuttyhunk Island back in the 1930s and—to educate the islanders—a one-room schoolhouse. Charlie, his sister, and another girl made up the entire student body.
“I was 6 years old at the time,” Charlie says, “but what I remember from [the storm] I remember very vividly. They let us out of school early because the wind was blowing so hard, and we went up on the big lawn and the wind would blow us so we fell down.”
Charlie recalls watching water wash up over the beach, and seeing boats blown across Cuttyhunk Pond and up onto the beach. A barge that had been dredging a mooring area was washed aground and Charlie watched as 10-12 buildings were smashed to pieces. “We had houses wash across the harbor and that type of thing,” he says. “It was pretty grim.”
Charlie also recalls that a fairly large dog, known to islanders as ‘G-Dog’, survived a harrowing adventure during the storm. The dog was a mutt, with close, curly hair, Charlie says, and he was weathering the storm on a shed built on the dock. The dock itself was heavily damaged during the storm, Charlie says, but the dog was found the next morning, unharmed, on the other side of the harbor. “He had to have taken a ride across the harbor somehow,” says Charlie.
Across the state—in Leominster—Louis Cormier was an elementary school student, and today, he retains vivid memories of the hurricane. “It was the worst storm we ever experienced,” says Louis, now 82 and a 20-year resident of Dennis. “We were caught short. We were unprepared.”
Like his contemporaries on the Cape, Cormier recalls walking home amid strong winds and rain that day, under a dark, menacing sky. Once inside, Louis and his two sisters sought shelter in the basement—with their “hurricane (oil) lamps”—because of the violence outside. “Two blocks away, we saw roofs being lifted off the houses,” he says, adding that he viewed a man holding onto a signpost with both feet in the air; he was held aloft by the wind. “It was,” Louis says, “unbelievable.”
New England Cable News meteorologist Tim Kelley owns a home in Dennis; he says it was his fear of the weather that inspired his choice of profession. “I think the biggest lesson [from 1938] is when a huge storm hits, we’re going to have very little time to prepare,” Tim says. The 1938 hurricane moved quickly, he says, and it took less than 12 hours to travel north, from just off the North Carolina coast to New England.
Slow moving storms, he adds, generally weaken by the time they hit New England, or they are pushed out to sea. It is the fast moving storms that are most dangerous. “If the storm is steaming by North Carolina,” Tim says, “it is going to hit us hard. We’re going to have to really be quick with our preparedness.”
Though hurricane forecasting has improved dramatically since 1938, Kelley says there is still room for improvement. “Here in the Northeast, we’re still vulnerable,” he says. For example, the logistics of evacuating people during or prior to a major storm are a major challenge. “It’s going to be hard to evacuate Cape Cod during one of these storms,” he says. “Modern Cape Cod has no experience with a major hurricane. We’ve seen a lot of storms come close to New England, and miss (us).”
Tim recalls that early in his career at NECN, Hurricane Edouard hit on Labor Day weekend in 1996. Intending to drive in to work in Newton, it took him three hours just to make it from Harwich to the Sagamore Bridge.
Other factors that may add to the challenge a major hurricane can create, Tim says, are larger populations—and the Cape’s has grown exponentially since the 1930s. Property values have increased as well, he says, which increases the capacity for potential damage and loss—and debris.
Despite his profession, Tim says he does not pine for another storm like ‘38. “I do not want a hurricane,” he says. “I never want to see one. I want them to go out to sea so I can surf them.” However, Tim predicts we will one day experience another storm comparable to that of 1938. “It’s not a matter of if,” he says, “it’s a matter of when.”
Recalling the hurricane now, 75 years later, Ginny Dunham Hutchinson commented on the fickleness of nature. “[Storms] can be disastrous,” she says, “and the next day is gorgeous. It’s calm and pretty, but you look out and everything is in pieces.”
And what about that piano? Ginny, who graduated from Barnstable High in 1942 and went on to raise two children and enjoy a lengthy nursing career, says she never learned from whence the instrument came. “I don’t know,” she says. “Nobody touched it. It was definitely there from the storm. It may have floated in from Wianno.”
Readers who want to share their memories from the 1938 hurricane are encouraged to visit our website: capecodlife.com.
Matthew J. Gill is the managing editor of Cape Cod LIFE magazine.