On the afternoon of September 21, 1938, a Category 3 hurricane struck Long Island and southern New England with little warning, causing over 600 deaths, and great damage to property and the environment. Winds of 121 mph, with gusts close to 200 mph, were recorded at the Blue Hill Observatory in Milton, but it was the flooding that caused the most damage. All along the coast, boats sank or were tossed ashore — even “Old Ironsides,” the USS Constitution, was ripped from its moorings in Boston Navy Yard. According to a WPA report, the New Bedford Yacht Club “was plucked bodily from its foundation and scattered in broken wreckage on the surface of the New Bedford-Fairhaven bridge.” There was also water damage inland — in Southbridge, for example, a dam burst and “the flood crashed down upon the town’s center, ripping up roads, tearing bridges.”
Several church steeples toppled, and, in the words of a WPA writer, “The hurricane sliced stories from buildings with the precision of a meat axe.” Across the state, large trees came down. From the WPA report: “Scarcely a Springfield street escaped. Giant hundred-year-old elms smashed houses, fell across power lines, crushed automobiles as if they were toys made of tin”; “Canton lost trees which were standing there when the Puritans landed”; “Wellesley, college town and attractive Boston suburb, kept its homes but lost thousands of magnificent trees” and in Worcester, “Hadwen Park became a logging camp. Streets were labyrinths of trunks and poles.”
Recovery from the hurricane was a slow process. According to Lourdes Aviles, author of the book Taken by Storm, 1938: A Social and Meteorological History of the Great New England Hurricane, “it took weeks to even get access to some places. It took months to clean up, several weeks to restore power to the 80 percent of the region that lost its power. The amount of flooding and tree damage and forest destruction that happened was just immense, unimaginable.”
Learn More About the Hurricane
- Hurricane Devastates New England: September 21, 1938 — Text and audio report from the Mass Moments website
- The Great Hurricane of 1938-75th Anniversary — Post by meteorologist David Epstein on the Weather Wise blog on Boston.com
- The Great Hurricane of 1938 — From This Day in History on the History Channel blog
- New England hurricane, a factual pictorial record (1938) “written and complied by members of the Federal writers’ project of the Works progress administration in the New England states” — This book includes hundreds of photographs from the whole region, showing storm damage to property, trees, farmland and beaches.