Object of the Month

The Hurricane of '38

View of a house that floated to the Bourne bridge from Gray Gables, Massachusetts, after the New England Hurricane of 1938

View of a house that floated to the Bourne bridge from Gray Gables, Massachusetts, after the New England Hurricane of 1938

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[ This description is from the project: Object of the Month ]

This photograph depicts the home of Elizabeth Lane of Bourne, Massachusetts. During the height of the 1938 hurricane, the waters of Buzzard's Bay rose rapidly, ripping the house off its foundation and carrying it two miles down the Cape Cod Canal where it came ashore at the foot of the Bourne Bridge. The photograph was taken by an unidentified photographer and is part of the Parker Hurricane Collection.

21 September 1938

"We were never called upon to record so terrible a gale as the one just passed by—and our oldest citizens have no remembrance of having before witnessed so furious a blast." Although this quotation appeared in the Daily National Intelligencer in 1815, it would have been just as fitting a description of the storm that lashed Long Island and many parts of New England eighty years ago this month. Although New England weather is decidedly fickle, and extreme weather is becoming more the rule than the exception, the hurricane of 1938 was one of only a few to cause severe and lasting damage to large swaths of New England—others being the hurricane of 1635 recorded in the journals of both John Winthrop and William Bradford (the hurricane's eye passed between their respective settlements in Boston and Plymouth) and the Great September Gale of 1815.

The days leading up to Wednesday the 21st of September had been stormy, with flooding rains in many parts of New England. Forecasters had been tracking the development of a tropical storm since the beginning of the month, but believing that it would move out to sea, issued no warnings. Rather than going out to sea, however, the New England Hurricane of 1938--or the Great New England Hurricane (giving hurricanes female and now female and male names did not begin until 1953)--made landfall as a Category 3 storm in Suffolk County, Long island, about the time of an astronomical high tide. From there, the storm raged northward at approximately 50 miles per hour, leaving a 90 mile wide path of destruction from Long Island to Quebec, following the Connecticut River and the spine of the Green Mountains. To the west of the storm center, rain caused the majority of the damage; to the east, wind. Coastal areas from Connecticut to Cape Cod faced gigantic tidal surges. At Blue Hill Observatory, 100 miles east of the storm, wind speeds reached 121 miles per hour, with gusts of 189 miles per hour.

The hurricane came and went in less than five hours, but left nearly 700 dead and 2000 injured in its wake. Sixty three thousand people were left homeless and 100 bridges were destroyed. The timber industry of New England suffered tremendous losses—the Harvard Forest, in Petersham, Massachusetts, one of the oldest managed forests in New England, lost 70 percent of its mature trees and half of the white pines in New Hampshire were lost—uprooted by wind gusts. Financial damages were estimated at 400 million dollars (the equivalent of more than seven billion dollars today).

A heroic rescue attempt

The photograph featured above tells the tragic story of five of the victims of this storm. On the day of the storm, Hayward Wilson of Gray Gables (Bourne) observed the rising tides from his home, which sat on high ground. As conditions worsened, he saw the tides approaching the home of his neighbor Elizabeth Lane. Leaving the safety of his home, he battled fierce winds to reach Lane's house where the water was still rising. He telephoned his wife to send someone with a boat to rescue the three women and eleven-year old boy in the house (none of whom could swim), but before help could arrive, the storm intensified and the floodwaters tore the house from its foundation. It was then carried two miles down the canal. All five people in the house were drowned in the house's flooded second story; Wilson's wounds suggested that he had tried to smash through the roof to escape. For his efforts, Hayward Wilson was posthumously awarded a Carnegie Medal for heroism.

Parker Hurricane Collection

The featured photograph is part of the P. Hildreth Parker Hurricane Collection, more than 100 bound volumes of articles, monographs, and photographs on the Hurricane of 1938 and other New England natural disasters. The collection was amassed by Pearl Hildreth Parker, a resident of Belmont, Massachusetts, and a long-time fire prevention engineer for the New England Telephone and Telegraph Company. Parker was born in Lowell in 1880, the son of Israel Parker and Josephine Hodgkins, and married Clara Axon in Dracut in 1905. He was a former president of the Box 52 Association, a group of fire buffs named for the fire alarm box that sounded the alarm during Boston's Great Fire of 1872.

For further reading

Dunn, Richard S., James Savage, and Laetitia Yeandle, eds. The Journal of John Winthrop 1630-1649 (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1996).

Jarvinen, Brian R. Storm Tides in Twelve Tropical Cyclones (Including Four Intense New England Hurricanes).

Long, Stephen. Thirty-Eight: The Hurricane that Transformed New England New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016.

Ludlum, David M. Early American Hurricanes 1492-1870 Boston: American Meteorological Society, 1963.

Perley, Sidney. Historic Storms of New England Salem, Mass.: Salem Press Publishing and Printing Co., 1891.

Hayward Wilson's citation for the Carnegie award is available on the Carnegie Hero Fund website.

The National Weather Service's account of the Hurricane of the 1938.

This day in history: September 21, 1938.