1938 Hurricane

August 28, 2018


with a mind like a tornado redefining the landscape

-Haki R. Madhubuti

Nineteen-thirty-eight certainly had an abundant amount of what everyone often refers to as “the good old days.” At the movies the Academy Award for Best Picture went to You Can’t Take it with You, starring James Stewart and Jean Arthur, another comedy was Bringing Up Baby with Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant and of course the leopard named Baby. The Adventures of Robin Hood with Errol Flynn and Basil Rathborne drew audiences along with Angels with Dirty Faces starring James Cagney, Pat O’Brien, Humphrey Bogart and period favorites, The Dead-End Kids. Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire danced together again in Carefree, and Astaire had his hand and footprints cast in cement at Grauman’s Theatre in Hollywood.

On the radio, hits included A-Tisket-A-Tasket by Ella Fitzgerald, You must have been a Beautiful Baby by Bing Crosby, Jeepers Creepers and When the Saints go Marching In by Louis Armstrong, and Two Sleepy People by Hoagy Carmichael and Ella Logan.

That year also unfortunately included New England’s most damaging weather event ever, occurring September 21, 1938. Stephen Long’s preface to Thirty-Eight: The Hurricane That Transformed New England states, “The region’s infrastructure required repairs costing $300 million in Depression-era dollars, approximately $5 billion today.” In an era long before satellite weather forecasting the total human fatalities numbered well over 600.

A hurricane is really a tropical cyclone, born in the tropics and powered by passing over the warm waters. Developing rotation, it can progress through tropical depression, tropical storm, into hurricane categories one through five, defined by sustained wind speeds. This storm began off the coast of Africa and was forecast to make landfall along Florida’s Atlantic coast. Instead it changed course heading northeastward, picking up speed, with meteorologists anticipating it would curve eastward out to sea. It diverged a second time and kept heading north, picking up strength and speed, 60 mph off Atlantic City, New Jersey.

It hit Long Island, N.Y. at 2:10 pm (just before high tide), with a north track, crossing Long Island, hitting Hartford, Connecticut at 4:30, and the Vermont border at 6:00. Long’s research reminds us, “Since European settlement, interior New England has been hit by only three devastating hurricanes: in 1635, 1815, and 1938…To reach Vermont and New Hampshire with full force, a storm has to avoid spending a lot of its energy over land, so it has to take an almost diabolical path to make it up the Connecticut River Valley. That’s just what it did in 1938.” There was a ninety-mile-wide swath northward from the Long Island Sound shore.

The usual counterclockwise rotation of hurricanes places the most damaging winds to the right of the eye, to the east in this case. Nearly 100-miles to the east of the storm track at the Blue Hills Observatory in Milton, the highest unobstructed hill (635’ above sea level) in the Boston area, there were recorded sustained winds of 121 mph, and gusts topping at 186 mph. Further north at the Mount Washington Observatory in New Hampshire, New England’s highest spot (6288’) and 290 miles from the Connecticut coast, peak gusts of 163 mph were recorded.

A week of steady and at times heavy rain had preceded the hurricane. In addition to the tragic loss of 600-plus lives, during the hours of this hurricane countless boats, roads, bridges, dams, railroad tracks, 4500 cottages, farms and other houses, even whole neighborhoods were destroyed. New Englanders were thrown into darkness. While it is impossible to know how many trees were lost overall in that one day (some estimated two billion trees), trees were blown down in 904 townships, in 51 counties in six states. We again turn to Long’s forestry-based research and reporting, “an estimated 2.6 billion board feet of timber was blown down…one board foot is a one-inch thick board twelve inches long and twelve inches wide. You’ve probably handled a two-by-four; an eight-foot-long, two-by-four totals 5.3 board feet. If it were 16 feet long, it would be 10.6 board feet. Logs are also measured in board feet, and a typical logging truck today carries 6,000 board feet of logs. It would take 430,000 of these trucks to transport the wood that was blown down that day.”

Nearby at Harvard University’s Arnold Arboretum, their one-day loss totaled 1500 trees blown down or very badly damaged. At Mount Auburn, in one day we lost 811 trees, 16% of the living collection then.  In an era before chainsaws were used by Mount Auburn workers, the long clean-up was by axes and bowsaws, weeks into months of upper-body aerobic workouts. Here we refer you to our Curator of Plant Collections, Dennis Collins, who authored the definitive report and analysis of our tree loss in the Summer 2001 issue of Sweet Auburn. During 1939-40 there was an extensive tree and shrub replanting project at Mount Auburn, along with many other New England sites. Join us this September 23rd to look at a sampling of trees planted as part of this historic recovery effort.

May the Wind breathe healing upon us,

prolong our life-span,

and fill our hearts with comfort!

            -Raimundo Panniker

About the Author: Jim Gorman

Visitor Services Assistant View all posts by Jim Gorman →


  1. Georgia Cummings says:

    Thank you for this very interesting article about the power of nature. How reassuring to see the regeneration that follows the devastation and loss

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