The Great Hurricane of 1938

Hello everyone! Before we start today’s discussion I want to touch on a couple of subjects that affect the Ashland Directions and the Ashland Historical Society. First of all, the Directions is quickly approaching a critical crossroad. We have a volunteer staff of highly dedicated members who manually assemble the newspaper for publication. It is what is known as a “cut and paste” operation where each column and advertisement is physically cut from sheets of paper and placed on a template and hot waxed to keep it in place. While this may seem a bit archaic, it brought us all together each month for a few hours to serve a common cause. Unfortunately we are faced with increased publication costs and a declining volunteer staff. Our publisher now prefers the paper to be submitted in an electronic format which brings its own costs, and some of our hard working staff is retiring. The next few months will be pivotal for us.

The second subject is the passing of our good friend Dick Fannon. Dick was unquestionably one of the best sources of information on the history of the town of Ashland. He particularly loved trains and the electric clock. He could talk for hours on either subject, and often he did. His stories were particularly interesting because a lot of them were first hand accounts. He once told me he could tell which train was traveling through Ashland just from the pitch of the train’s whistle! I am pleased that he left me some of his notes on various subjects and I frequently use them for research material for many of my articles. Ashland Historical Society president Cliff Wilson referred to Dick as the “go to” person regarding historical events in Ashland and he is certainly correct. We will miss Mr. Fannon.

Well, on to today’s story. We all see the paths of destruction that hurricanes and tornados cause but for most of us, the closest we get to them are our television sets. Other that the occasional mirco-burst that hits our area, we are generally spared the carnage of these mega storms. Not so in 1938. Ashland didn’t have Dickie Albert and his Doppler radar to warn us. Television was in its infancy, and even if you had one I doubt there were enough stations broadcasting to do any good. Radio and newspapers were all we had, and due to the speed of the hurricane, and a few misinterpreted reports by weather officials, they probably wouldn’t have helped either.

New England hadn’t seen a hurricane since 1869. Long enough, I expect, for memories to fade for those young enough to have witnessed one. The hurricane of 1938 was considered a Cape Verde type, originating off the coast of Africa and travelling up the Atlantic coast. Hurricanes of this type generally veer off to the right of land and head out to sea. This was the thinking of the U.S. Weather Bureau (now the National Weather Service) on September 20th 1938. Unfortunately, they were wrong. As early as 9:00 AM on September 21st, the Cunard ocean liner Carinthia was passing close to Cape Hatteras and reported a barometric pressure of 27.85 inches, and they were not near the eye of the storm. This should have convinced the U.S. Weather Bureau that the storm was not heading out to sea. Additionally, the hurricane had an unusually strong forward speed of upwards of 70 MPH, and along with internal wind speeds of 120 to 150 MPH enabled it to take a more northern route before heading east. Labeled the “Long Island Express” the storm crossed over Long Island into Connecticut, Rhode Island, and finally into Massachusetts. The Blue Hills Observatory in Milton, Massachusetts recorded the peak wind speed at 186 MPH which was the second largest wind speed ever recorded on earth. The seas faired no better. They surged 17 feet above normal high tide in Rhode Island, and peak wave heights of 50 feet were measured in Gloucester, Mass.

Back in Ashland it is now 4:30 in the afternoon on September 21st. No one is expecting anything more than a typical New England storm. Quickly though, the sky turned black and the hurricane hit, twisting and toppling Elm and Pine trees, snapping branches, lifting roofs off of buildings, and breaking glass. By all accounts the hurricane lasted until around 7:00 PM. Edison crews were dispatched to begin restoring power, and the townsfolk were outside their homes trying to assess the damage.

Not surprising anyone, the roads were impassible, and the public schools were closed for the next two days. As with any unusual event that occurred in Ashland, the teachers often instructed the students to write down their experiences. In an early article by Kay Powers, she quoted one of the students, which I found particularly interesting. He wrote:

“About 6:00 PM there was plenty of free kindling wood lying in the streets of Ashland. At 6:30, I was looking out the window. At 6:30, there was no window to look out of. At 6:45 Mr. Nutter had one half of Mr. MacNear’s barn on his house and one third of it in his house.”

This recollection, along with others, was printed in a small booklet titled “Hurricane Highlights.”

Considering the enormity of this event, Ashland survived relatively well. By October 3rd, the electricity had been restored and the roads cleared. And that was less than two weeks! Other towns and cities were not so fortunate though. In New England alone, the death toll met or exceeded 600 people and caused an estimated $300,000,000 in damage (1938 dollars).

Steve Leacu for Ashland Directions