Listener Stories: Hurricane of '38

Apr 7, 2016

Author Steve Long was our guest recently to discuss his new book about a devastating storm in New England history. On September 21, 1938, a hurricane slammed into New England killing hundreds and causing long-lasting effects on the economy and the landscape itself.

In Vermont, the destruction was mostly caused to forests and trees. In his book, Thirty-Eight: The Hurricane That Transformed New EnglandLong described how witnesses reacted to seeing what the storm wrought here.

That storm — the Great New England Hurricane, 78 years ago — is still in the living memory of people in our region who remember it as children, and for many more whose family stories of the storm were passed down through generations. So many of you contacted us with stories about the Hurricane of '38 that we wanted to share some of them with you.

Nancy in Danville sent us this piece of family history:
I am enclosing a photo of my grandfather, Raymond LaPorte, taken in 1938. He worked for the water department in Providence, Rhode Island, and this picture appears in a book about the Hurricane, pointing out the watermark for downtown Providence. He was about 6 feet one inches tall and the watermark was over his hat. Eventually they put a plaque up on the building downtown where my grandfather stood.

I am also enclosing a photo of the same building with my mother standing in the same spot as her father, [next to the plaque] - this one was taken in November, 2004.  My grandfather’s parents, French Canadian, lived and worked in Vermont and moved to Rhode Island at the turn of the century, to install the granite and marble in the Rhode Island Statehouse. Thanks for allowing me to share this history!

Elizabeth wrote us:
Quite a few years ago, friends of mine living on a hillside in Braintree, Vermont, got out some old photos, including those showing the damage from the 1938 hurricane. In 1938, the Braintree hillsides were heavily wooded. The photo of the hills on the other side of the road showed every single tree down. Even looking at a small black-and-white photo, it was clear what a disaster the hurricane was.

MaryLou in Bristol was a 7-year-old living in a Boston suburb and she has very kid-centric memories of when the storm hit. She wrote us:
When we realized there was lots of wind, my sister and I tried to fly with umbrellas, jumping off the front porch steps. Needless to say, all we did was turn our umbrellas inside out. It wasn't until later that my parents found how bad the storm was. The next morning there were trees and wires down all over the streets  meaning no school!! This happened to be my sister's tenth birthday. Our backyard connected to a home with driveway lined with poplars. Every one went done like tenpins.

Hogwash Farm writes:
I own an 1825 farm in Corinth that was a large maple producer that was supplying the Boston market [in 1938]. It was put out of business because of the hurricane. And, I have heard stories about how many cattle were lost because they were trapped by fallen trees and ended up starving to death when they couldn’t be freed.

Patricia shares part of a family letter detailing the storm, with this note:
Here is an excerpt from a letter my mother [who was a college junior] wrote to her aunt in upstate New York.  She was in Madison, CT, where my grandmother had a beachfront cottage, to have her wisdom teeth out when the 1938 hurricane struck. She was staying with her Uncle Will inland, and my grandmother's driver, Marland, was staying at the cottage — it wasn't seemly for my mother to stay there with him. That house, built around 1885, still stands and is in our family, when the three-story house next door was razed after being undermined by the receding water.

Here is the excerpt:

"The hurricane was quite terrifying and of course it devastated the shore. I was staying at the Hull’s (sic) but Marland was at the cottage. When Uncle Will arrived home that night and told us Wall Street was a wreck because of all the trees blown down, and that he’d had to walk home with a gang of other people there because the roads were impassable because of the trees and even water in some places on the Post Road, we were worried about the cottage. But later in the evening a man who was in a shore cottage the other side of the hotel telephoned to inform Uncle Will he’d had to swim for his life, and as he looked back over his shoulder, he saw his cottage go. We resigned ourselves then to the fact that the cottage would be gone, and concentrated more on worrying about Marland. He later told us he had resolved not to be frightened, and when the roof started leaking, he went upstairs to see which window was open. Finding the panes blown in and the house tottering, he returned downstairs to put his foot on a floating rug. At this point he decided wisdom the better part of valor and dumped some things in a suitcase. He had to wade out with water up to his neck and the suitcase on his head. People rowing in to rescue the neighbors told him they’d come for him but he got out unaided.

"The following morning Mary and Peggy (next door) and I were going over to investigate the condition of the cottage, and were out in front when Dr. and Mrs. Husson and nurse Pattie drove up. It took us over half an hour to drive over by the Post Road to half-way down Island Avenue. There a tree blocked further car travel so we parked and walked the rest of the way. The beach was a wreck—some cottages completely demolished, others with their first floors collapsed and the second floors sitting down on the ground—not one with a whole porch on the front of it. The beach is completely changed. The dock is half gone, and great pieces of masonry up West Wharf Road. Our cottage was least damaged of any—rear annex separated from the front by about three feet, front porch bashed in, windows broken, floor heaved up by the sea in spots. A hole in one place was convenient for sweeping the seaweed out. Dr. Husson set us all to work and got a broom himself. Of course we only made a dent in it—wiped salt water off the furniture and laid the rugs out in the sun and swept the floor. Tell Margie that Dr. H. took the seaweed off her oil paintings and cleaned them up, and that I was embarrassed because some of them don’t have wearing apparel (sp?).

"You can’t imagine the wreck there was. Houses on the golf course, a garage in the road behind our house, a sailboat and two garages in our backyard, a boat on our front porch, furniture all out over everything, and great heaps of kindling wood everywhere in the yard—a pile completely covering the yard, about four feet high.

"I called up Mother in New York the next day so she wouldn’t worry about us. She hadn’t read the papers so knew nothing about it. She couldn’t seem to realize how serious it was. She arrived that evening as she’d previously planned and is still there at Hull’s (sic). I expect to return to Madison next weekend-end because my packing was harried and incomplete.


"P.S. The Black Maria was submerged and can’t be driven for a week. Our garage the only one that stood. J.

"P.P.S. The funniest thing was saw was a piano sitting nonchalantly under a tree. There are lots of funny stories I’ll tell you when I see you. They even had special police to keep people from going down to the shore and looting."