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Thursday, March 26, 2009

Hurricane of 1938

Many old orchards, such as this apple orchard, were ruined by the fierce winds of the Hurricane of 1938 (photo: Farm Security Administration).

Millions of board feet of lumber was processed from the "windthrow" in area forests. Lakes and ponds were used for emergency storage of the logs (photo: Farm Security Administration).

The trees in front of the North Haverhill Elementary School lay in splinters from the hurricane's winds (photo: Dr. Edwin Blaisdell).

A South Pleasant Street home in Bradford (top) narrowly escaped the kind of damage done to the Brock House on the Bradford-Newbury line (photos: Bradford Historical Society).

Trees lay like giant jackstraws across Bradford's Main Street on the morning following the Hurricane of 1938 (photos: Bradford Historical Society).

Originally printed on September 17, 2008
Journal Opinion

“A gust of wind picked me up, carried me two or three feet off the ground for 50 feet and set me down gently, unharmed”. That was Dr. Edwin Blaisdell’s experience with the “big blow,” the Hurricane of 1938. That childhood experience of 70 years ago is mild by comparison to that of other residents. The Eastern Seaboard Hurricane or the Great New England Hurricane of 1938, it was one of the most destructive storms to strike the area, caused major damage throughout the Northeast. Damage was especially high in coastal areas where winds reached 80-100 mph.

Six hundred and eighty Northeast residents lost their lives, 30,000 were injured and 93,000 were left homeless. Sixteen hundred homes and businesses were destroyed along with major loss of livestock, automobiles and boats. There was major damage to forests, fruit groves and crops, caused by both wind and soggy ground. In Vermont and neighboring New Hampshire, the damage was second only to the 1927 flood and, in fact, more widespread. Total damage from the storm was estimated at $600 million in 1939 dollars.

The storm hit with little advanced notice. Early predications had it well offshore, heading for the North Atlantic. Instead, the category 5 hurricane turned toward the northeast at 60 miles per hour and hit Long Island in the mid-afternoon of September 21st. Advancing with little warning, it entered Connecticut near New Haven, flooding major cities. Charging north along the Connecticut River, it then veered northwest across the Green Mountains with Burlington in its sights. While the full force of the storm was diminished by passing over land, the local area lay in the windy eastern danger zone. Damage was greater in the Connecticut River valley and on the adjacent mountains than on the western side of the state. Rainfall, added to the significant rainfall of the previous week, caused considerable flood damage. Some towns even suffered greater flood damage than they had in 1927.

A number of sources, including R. A. Scotti’s Sudden Sea, speculate on why the storm hit with so little notice, catching residents unprepared. The Northeast generally escapes direct hits by hurricanes. Not since the Great September Gale of 1815 had Vermont experienced such a storm. This particular storm moved very rapidly, and usual weather reporting sources “lost the storm.” This was caused in part because ships that normally report on a storm’s progress had been warned away. Therefore, radio stations and newspapers were unable to spread warnings to those areas that would be affected. An article by E. S. Clewes, written in 1939, suggested that news about the weather was ignored as reports concentrated on attempts to prevent the outbreak of another European war.

The September 23, 1938 edition of The United Opinion described the storm as it hit the area. “By five o’clock, the wind had attained a high velocity and whole trees, to say nothing of branches, began to obstruct the main streets and put a stop to traffic. Power lines were taken down by the falling trees and light and power were completely gone when an early darkness set in. Darkness, rain and hurricane winds of cyclonic intensity prevailed until 9 o’clock when the winds abated. To add to the fear and discomfort, the moan and whine of the hurricane frayed already overtaxed nerves. Roofs were ripped off and tossed aside like kindling wood and hard old maples were uprooted like field flowers.”

Each town had its examples of significant damage. Area reporters at the time, and later town histories, chronicled the storm’s victims. Churches and other buildings throughout Haverhill and Newbury suffered damage. The grove near the Grafton County Farm known as Thousand Pines was gone. Flooding damaged crops in the riverside meadows. Roofs disappeared. In Bradford, the main street was completely blocked by fallen trees (see photo) and damage to buildings was significant.

In Fairlee, on the road around Lake Morey, trees were “crossed and crisscrossed like giant jackstraws, with considerable damage to lake cottages.” The high tension wires that run through Fairlee "were crumpled and twisted incomplete wreckage." In East Thetford, Huntington Dance Pavilion was just one of the buildings destroyed. The local paper reported :"Huntington's dance hall was litterally made into k indling wood and strewn across the railroad track and highway".
West Topsham’s general store had its roof blown away. The Woodsville Times reported that the main street of Wells River “looked like an upside down forest.” In many communities, schools were closed for up to two weeks. There were similar reports from all the surrounding towns, with more than 100 buildings receiving significant damage. In Orford a tree crashed on a car driven by a Mr. Evans of Wentworth, N. H., killing him and injuring the other occupant.

The storm and the resulting damage are clearly etched in the memories of older area residents. My late father-in-law, Harry Martin, recalled the damage to his father’s farm on the Bradford-Newbury line. He said that “he looked up and the barn roof was gone, hay uncovered”. Damage to the horse barn dumped hay on the animals below, resulting in the death of three work horses. The adjacent Brock house was left in “shambles” as the roof was blown away and set down in the owner’s garden (see photo). Papers from the attic of that home were found strewn over neighboring fields the following spring.

Peggy Pierson, eight years old at the time, recalls trees in her grandfather’s woods were “broken off like matchsticks.” Her husband, John, said his family had to reinforce the front door of their home with a 2x4 in order to keep it from blowing open. Elisabeth MacDonald of Topsham said the sky turned yellow and the wind was “frightening.” Her family’s apple orchard and sugar bush were ruined. As many fences were down, neighbors’ cows wander, but her father kept his herd in the barn. Newton Bolles of Fairlee, tells of a 3-story barn filled with hay and cattle at his home place in East Barre, lifted 14 feet off its foundation with little damage.

If there was anything to be thankful for, it was that the damage was less than that experienced in areas south. One local newspaper reporter wrote “It was a terrible night for everyone. When morning came, to see trees uprooted all around us was a sight we never shall forget. We are all so thankful that no one was hurt in our little village.” Not all towns were so lucky, with Vermont reporting seven storm-related deaths. The late John Smith of South Newbury suggested that his father’s fatal heart attack was caused by the enormous damage to his woodlands.

The residents immediately set about clearing the roads, repairing damaged buildings and restoring power and communication. Dartmouth Outing Club recruited 1000 students to help with clearing roads. In Lyme, as in other towns, it was reported that the supply of window glass was used up. Two thousand telephone workers were sent to the Northeast from around the nation to help with the repairs. Service was gradually restored to the hard hit railroads. The local reporter for the River Road in Piermont commented in October that “time took the bad taste of September away.”

But many orchards and sugar bushes would never be restored. Damage to woodlands was either permanent or took decades to recover. There was “a windthrow” of billions of board feet of lumber, some splintered beyond use by the force of the storm. In the largest timber salvage project in history, more than half of the damaged trees were harvested from private, state and federal lands. Hundreds of men were hired by the Works Progress Administration, Civilian Conservation Corps and Forest Service to work in the woods, moving downed trees and reducing fire dangers. Most of that work was done with hand tools and teams of horses. A plan was created to provide for the storage of lumber instead of saturating the market or leaving it to insect attack, disease or rot. To preserve them, softwood logs were stored in many “wet-sites” including Post Pond, Muddle Turtle Pond, French Pond, Woods Pond and Lake Tarleton.

Throughout the area, salvage saw mills were opened to handle the lumber, reviving the depressed forest industry. Lewis Woods, who was in charge of a large mill in Piermont, is quoted in that town’s history: ”The Gould Field site produced the largest amount in New England of any dry site … a bit over six million feet. In a radius of 10 miles of Piermont, approximately 25 million feet of salvage timber was sawn into lumber by the operation of seven saw mills.” The Northeastern Timber Salvage Administration operated mills in West Newbury and on Roaring Brook in Bradford. Haskin’s History of Bradford states that the project “revived temporarily the faltering sawmill operations in this area.” Saw mills in Lyme turned out millions of board feet of lumber from the water-soaked logs. One logger was quoted in Lyme’s Patterns and Pieces, saying it was “like cutting wet towels.”

Additionally, those area mills producing wood products were in full operation. Bowen-Hunter’s bobbin mill in East Corinth was reported as “running at full capacity” with an increased workforce as was a shingle mill and veneer mill in Bradford. Lumber was used to repair or rebuild buildings and produce wood products. Some was requisitioned for the war effort during World War II.

Another aspect of the forest recovery was the prevention of forest fires. Esther Eastman, who now lives in Newbury, worked for the WPA as secretary to Ed DeGraff. He was in charge of the Forest Service’s fire hazard section for Vermont. She recalls working on the damage maps and noticing that Newbury had suffered the most forest destruction of any town in Orange County. Roads were constructed and firebreaks created. Lookouts, including one on Wright’s Mountain, watched for forest fires. Eastman says while she could recall no major fires, an outbreak would have created fires similar to those experienced recently by California. Blaisdell says his father worked for the Forest Service in New Hampshire and recalls that several mountains burned, the flames fueled by the “slash and blowdown.”

All of this additional work came near the end of the Great Depression with its high unemployment. When viewing the damage left by the storm, one area lumberman was reported to have said: “FDR’s been trying to create work for five years and God Almighty has created all the work we need in half an hour!”

The Hurricane of 1938 was a 100-year storm for our area. That means that in any year there is a one percent chance of a repeat. In a 1965 article on the storm, Harold Haskins wrote “in the West Indies, the natives call it ‘huracan’-the evil spirit.” From this hurricane and others since, we have learned the meaning of a hurricane, its dangers and consequences. We know that weather reporting services will make us aware of pending storms early. We have learned how to prepare for one from recent hurricane disasters on the Gulf coast. However, as the editor of The United Opinion wrote that on September 21, 1938, “Mother Nature has again demonstrated her supremacy over human beings.” In the ensuing years, we have done little to mitigate that supremacy or conquer that evil spirit.
Hurricane Damage on Main Street, Fairlee, VT (Courtesy Robert OLeary)  


  1. Mr. Coffin, thanks for your efforts to keep our history alive.
    I took note of your mention of the sawmill in Piermont. I, along with my partner bought the Gould site including the mill rights. In 1982 we put the first of two hydroelectric stations in service. The second was put on line in late 1984. Both are still delivering electricity to the grid. Like many streams, that particular area of Eastman Brook had several mills along it's length. Saw mills, a ladder factory, a butter box factory & a whetstone factory are some I've heard mentioned.
    Thanks again
    Don Smith
    San Miguel De Allende, GTO, Mexico