Sept. 21 is the 85th anniversary of the great Hurricane of 1938, considered the most destructive storm in the recorded history of New England. It followed a path that hurricanes were not supposed to travel. Hurricanes had been storms of the Caribbean and Florida. They did not happen here.
It sped up the East Coast like an express train, knocking out communications along the way. It made landfall in Long Island a little after noon and hit southern Connecticut a few hours later with unprecedented force. Its 121-mph winds, with gusts up to 186 mph, downed huge elms and chestnut trees, leaving the streets a mass of twisted sheet metal, electrical wires, crushed automobiles, roof slates, broken glass, fallen shop signs, and shattered church steeples.
Connecticut and Rhode Island were hardest hit. But Cape Cod was not unscathed. Provincetown’s streets were covered with three feet of sand. The hurricane extinguished the Provincetown Light, tore the large dragger Stella from her mooring, and carried her ashore, settling her in the back yard of the Arctic explorer Donald MacMillan. It isolated Cape Cod, forcing the Orleans cable station to relay messages from worried relatives off Cape to those here by routing them by cable from New York to Brest, France, and then back under the Atlantic to Orleans.
More than 1,700 New Englanders were injured in the storm, and at least 564 died, mostly along the shore.
The storm surge coincided with an astronomical high tide at the autumn equinox, a tide that measured between 17 and 25 feet from southern Connecticut to Gloucester. Waves were recorded at 50 feet high, although some witnesses reported waves up to 80 feet. The tide raced up swollen rivers, flooding cities 40 miles inland.
The Hurricane of ’38 necessitated the creation of 50 Civilian Conservation Corps camps to clear downed timber over the next three years. It reshaped beaches from New York to Massachusetts and decimated the New England fishing fleet, destroying at least 2,600 vessels and damaging perhaps 3,370 more. As late September brings a heavy stillness to the air, let us pause in memory.
Chris Wisniewski lives in Wellfleet and works as a personal historian at Saving Stories. Readers with local stories of the storm may contact her at [email protected].