ND 2013

Cape residents, weather experts recall the New England Hurricane of 1938

Cape Cod Life  /  November/December 2013 / ,

Writer: Matthew J. Gill

Cape residents, weather experts recall the New England Hurricane of 1938

ND 2013

Cape Cod Life  /  November/December 2013 / ,

Writer: Matthew J. Gill

Ginny Dunham Hutchinson was 14 and a student at the Barnstable Senior/Junior High School when she and some friends walked to the beach on the afternoon of September 22, 1938.En route from the Dunham family’s cottage by Wequaquet Lake in Centerville, the group had to climb and scramble over countless downed Elm trees that blocked streets and roads, and their way. The weather on the 22nd was calm and clear, Ginny recalls, but damage incurred during the powerful hurricane the day before surrounded the young explorers everywhere.

“All I remember is trying to climb over all of the trees,” recalls the Sandwich resident, now 89. “We did a lot of walking back then. We walked down to the ocean, up onto Long Beach Road. It was very interesting. All of the houses had some damage and a couple of them were in the river.” Looking toward the water, Ginny saw what would prove to be her lasting memory of the hurricane. “There was a huge piano out on the beach,” she says. “Covered with seaweed. You could tell that it was a big grand piano. It was like a movie.”

For thousands in the Northeast, the New England Hurricane of 1938, which brought death and destruction along with its wind, rain, and floodwaters on September 21, 1938, was a nightmare. Unlike today’s storms, this hurricane arrived, metaphorically, out of the clear blue sky. “The big thing about that storm,” says Charlie Tilton, 81, of Cuttyhunk Island, “is we didn’t know it was coming. The weather service, or whoever, totally lost it (the storm).”

The details of the destruction are numbing. In all, nearly 700 people died in the Category 3 hurricane, and more than 57,000 homes were damaged or destroyed. Hundreds of boats were damaged or sunk. The storm surge left Falmouth and New Bedford under eight feet of water. New London, Conn. was devastated first by wind and floodwaters, then by fire. Providence, R.I. was flooded and many people drowned in store and home basements. More than 50 people died in Long Island, N.Y.; five perished in Buzzards Bay when their home was washed away.

The 1938 hurricane is considered the worst to strike New England in modern times—dating back to the Great Colonial Hurricane of 1635—and in its day, it was deemed the costliest in U.S. history. During the storm, the Blue Hill Observatory in Milton recorded a sustained wind speed of 121 m.p.h. for five minutes as well as a high of 186 m.p.h.—the highest in the observatory’s history.

Charles Orloff, the observatory’s executive director and a resident of Yarmouthport, describes the hurricane as “the most significant storm event ever observed in the history of the Blue Hill Observatory. It was the greatest single event in the last 500 years on the Cape,” he adds. “It was quite an event.”

This year—2013—marks the 75th anniversary of the hurricane, which sped up the Eastern seaboard with such speed and energy it was dubbed “The Long Island Express.” In interviews this month, we spoke with several Cape and Islands residents who experienced the storm first hand, as well as some local weather experts who weighed in on 1938 and what lessons can be learned from it.

Gertrude Rogers, a resident of South Dennis, was 22, and living in Brockton when the storm struck. “They let us out of work early,” recalls Gertrude, 96. “Then, transportation got tied up, and trees got blown over. We didn’t know what was happening really. In Brockton it was plenty bad, but not like the Cape.”

A few days after the storm, Gertrude drove by car with her parents and fiancé, Kenneth Rogers, to Dennis—her parents’ hometown—to check on relatives. When they arrived, the weather was nice and her family members were okay, but the damage all around them was stunning. “Everything was just messed,” she says. “I recall silverware on the beach.” Gertrude says the water had come up over the road and houses had been washed away. “Everything was just sort of wiped clean.” The group also visited West Dennis Beach, and they were happy to find the lighthouse still standing (the spot is now home to The Lighthouse Inn).

A few miles to the west, Dan Knott was 14 and living with his family in Barnstable—near St. Mary’s Episcopal Church. “Hundreds of lives were lost along the Connecticut coast,” Dan says. “It wasn’t near as bad on the Cape, though it was bad enough.”

Now 89, Dan says one of the details he remembers most about the storm was his family’s monitoring of the Zelkova serrata tree in the front yard, wondering whether it would survive. According to Dan, the tree had been brought from Japan during the nineteenth century, following Commodore Matthew Perry’s trade-opening visits. The sapling was one of the specimens brought back from the journey and during the 1930s, Dan says it was the only one—or one of just a handful—in the United States.

The unique tree features serrated leaves and the Japanese use the wood, which is both durable and flexible, for boatbuilding. Dan says the tree in his yard had several trunks extending out of it—all of them swaying in the storm—but in the end, not a limb was lost. “The house shook plenty,” he recalls, “but the tree didn’t fall down.” As a result of sewer issues, Dan says the tree eventually died years later. Today, vines cover its resting place.

Dennis resident Phyllis Horton, 86, was a student at the Dennis Consolidated School (site of today’s Ezra Baker School) and 11 years old back in 1938. She recalls that the towns of the Mid and Outer Cape did not face the storm’s full wrath, as did Falmouth and Bourne.

A few days after the storm, Phyllis drove with her father to see how the Onset community had fared. They made it over the bridge, Phyllis says, but a heavy National Guard presence in Bourne prevented them from driving any further west; the soldiers had blocked Route 28 to all but residents of the hard-hit region.

“That was some storm, some storm,” adds John Myers, 82. A resident of Brewster today, John was 7 back in 1938 and living with his family in Mansfield. “I was probably in the third grade. I was walking home from school and I remember getting knocked down. I can remember practically the exact spot.”

At the time, John’s father, the Reverend Lester Myers, was the minister at the Orthodox Congregational Church in Mansfield. When Reverend Myers and his wife Elsie arrived home that evening after a harrowing drive from Seekonk—they had to drive through some residents’ backyards to avoid downed trees—and found that their son was okay, John says his mother grew concerned about the state of their church’s steeple. Likely unknown to Mrs. Myers at the time, the hurricane would knock down dozens of church steeples across New England that day, so her concern would prove justified.

John says his father tried to convince her otherwise, but his mom—who he described as ‘headstrong’—was undeterred, and set out in the storm to check on the steeple. “She walked about eight blocks in the middle of the hurricane,” John says. Both the steeple and Mrs. Myers survived, undamaged, John says, though his mother was reprimanded by a police officer. “[The steeple] didn’t have any damage at all,” John says. “But between that church and our house there were dozens of trees down.” Mrs. Myers’ adventure that night would become a running joke in the family for years to come.

On a sad note, Reverend Myers had to oversee a funeral service for a local mother and daughter who drowned in the storm. The pair had been staying at their summer home in Mattapoisett when the storm hit.

The hurricane caused one fatality on Martha’s Vineyard. Josephine Clark, a Jamaican cook working for the Thielen family, drowned while attempting to escape rising waves imperiling the family’s summer home. Benedict Thielen attempted to rescue her, to no avail.

A lifelong resident of the Vineyard, Jimmy Morgan, 89, was a teenager in 1938. In those years, he says most of the big storms—“they didn’t call them hurricanes back then”—would turn off shore, but that was not the case in 1938. “That one had a mind of its own,” he says.

Morgan recalls returning home from school that afternoon, and though the weather was not immediately alarming in Menemsha, it soon picked up. “I walked down to the harbor and the wind was increasing and the tide was coming up and things were starting to go adrift,” he says. “Some docks were coming up.”

Morgan’s family lived in a home overlooking the harbor, on what’s known today as Basin Road. During the height of the hurricane, Morgan says the storm surge came right up onto the edge of the lawn. “When you talk to an old-timer like me,” he adds, “you might want to get a second opinion. Maybe even a third opinion.”

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.”

Matthew J. Gill

Matthew Gill is the former editor of Cape Cod LIFE and Cape Cod ART magazines. A graduate of U-Mass Dartmouth, Matthew has worked as a journalist since 2003 and has written on topics ranging from the sinking of Nantucket’s whale ship Essex and the history of the Barnstable-Falmouth Thanksgiving football rivalry, to the Cotuit Rowing Club, Provincetown’s Art’s Dune Tours, and more! A relative newcomer when it comes to the Cape, Matt and his wife Melissa just celebrated a Cape Cod-themed wedding.