On September 21, 1938, one of the most destructive storms ever to strike Long Island and New England made landfall with little warning. This Category 3 hurricane caused hundreds of deaths, destroyed thousands of homes, businesses and marine vessels, and felled large swaths of forest. In this exhibit, NARA records demonstrate the hurricane’s impact throughout the New England region.
Originating from near the Cape Verde Islands on September 4, 1938, this storm system intensified to a Category 5 hurricane while east of the Bahamas. Weather systems over the Appalachian Mountains and Bermuda influenced the hurricane's path northward and the storm accelerated up the Eastern seaboard, retaining much of its strength as a Category 3 hurricane.
This map shows the hurricane's path from September 16-22, 1938.
Long Islanders and New Englanders were surprised by the hurricane’s power and speed, as the latest weather reports, limited, in part, by the technology of the day, forecasted gale-force conditions and the potential for the storm to remain out at sea.
In The Hurricane of Westport Harbor, Richard K. Hawes describes the storm's unexpected impact.
At 2:00 p.m. on September 21, as the hurricane rapidly approached Long Island, New York, the keeper of Fire Island Light Station observed an abnormal rise in water level.
Within the hour, the "Long Island Express" made its first landfall near Bellport, New York.
Just before 4:00 p.m., the hurricane made a second landfall near New Haven, Connecticut, battering the southern New England coast. Tide heights ranged from 14-18 feet along most of Connecticut's shoreline to 18-25 feet between New London, Connecticut and Cape Cod, Massachusetts.
Storm surge smashed the docks at the foot of State Street in New London, Connecticut.
Winds and waves washed away and tossed about entire beachfront homes, including these at Crescent Beach in East Lyme, Connecticut.
The New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad passenger train Bostonian was carrying 275 passengers aboard its afternoon trip from New York City to Boston, when flood waters, high winds and flying debris derailed it near Stonington, Connecticut. Two passengers drowned while attempting to escape to safety, as the hurricane threatened to wash away the rail bed and the train. The Bostonian's crew eventually succeeded in clearing the rails and guiding the train into Stonington.
The hurricane's storm surge was most destructive along the Rhode Island coastline, where this house bore the brunt of the winds and waves.
At Watch Hill Coast Guard station in Westerly, Rhode Island, the officer-on-duty noted the hurricane's arrival.
"Hurricane now raging at station," reads the afternoon log entry. In addition to bracing the station against the storm, Coast Guardsmen responded to a call for assistance, rescuing five persons.
At nearby Misquamicut Beach along Atlantic Avenue, the hurricane destroyed most of Westerly's beachfront community.
Throughout the summer, Atlantic Avenue had bustled with the activity of beach-goers.
Storm surge wiped out most of the homes of this summer hotspot.
Approximately 100 people in Westerly lost their lives during the hurricane.
Further east along the Rhode Island coast, Whale Rock Light had marked the entrance to the West Passage of Narragansett Bay since its construction in 1882.
The hurricane dislodged the lighthouse from its foundation, washing it into the Bay, killing keeper Walter Eberle in the process.
Today, a lighted buoy marks Whale Rock, on which part of the lighthouse's foundation remains.
Tidal surge sunk entire marine fleets and ripped whole structures from their pilings, such as the clubhouse of the Rhode Island Yacht Club in Cranston.
A photographer braved the roaring winds to get this close up of the Washington Park Yacht Club in Providence, Rhode Island, just moments before the swirling waves washed it into the sea.
The storm wrecked the Gaspee against the cribbing of the India Point railroad bridge in Providence. The vessel had been trying to reach safety up the Seekonk River.
The bridge would survive the wreck of the Gaspee, and the swelling Seekonk River, continuing to operate until 1974.
A storm tide of nearly 20 feet inundated Downtown Providence during the afternoon rush hour, submerging automobiles, trolley cars and storefronts.
In East Providence, this Standard Oil heavy tanker was torn from it moorings and cast upon the rocks near Squantum Point.
Flooding along the southern New England coast intensified due to the hurricane's landfall coinciding with astronomical high tide.
This water level gauge recording of Wychmere Harbor in Harwich, Massachusetts shows the fluctuating water level between high and low tide prior to and during the hurricane.
Over 100 miles away from the track of the hurricane's eye, Blue Hill Meteorological Observatory in Milton, Massachusetts observed the strongest winds ever recorded in the region with sustained hurricane-force winds of 121 mph and a peak gust of 186 mph.
The hurricane did not spare the North Shore of Massachusetts, either. In Marblehead the storm carried this sailboat from its anchored position and wrecked it on rocks near the shoreline.
As the hurricane progressed northward up the Connecticut River Valley, its heavy rains and high winds caused many rivers, already swollen from recent weather, to overflow into surrounding communities.
This manufacturing plant on the Ware River in Gilbertville, Massachusetts sustained heavy damage.
Further east, Beaver Brook, a tributary of the Merrimack River, submerged bridges and flooded neighborhoods in Lowell, Massachusetts.
By 6:00 p.m., the storm had tracked into Vermont, pummeling terrain as far east as New Hampshire and Maine. Around 10:00 p.m., the storm crossed into Quebec, where it finally dissipated.
In East Jaffrey, New Hampshire, storm waters overflowed the Contoocook River, flooding the town center and rendering roads and bridges impassable.
In neighboring Peterborough, New Hampshire, the overflown Contoocook kept town streets flooded for weeks following the hurricane.
The storm decimated New England's maple sugar industry, including Bert Cloud's sugar orchard near Norwich, Vermont, in the Connecticut River valley.
Mr. Cloud had 700 trees in his sugar orchard and three-fourths of them were broken down by the hurricane.
The sudden loss of New England's sugar supply necessitated the importing of maple syrup from the Appalachian region, causing a spike in syrup prices.
In the White Mountains of New Hampshire, the storm caused a mountain slide that scarred the face of Mount Jeffers.
This barograph documents the sudden changes in barometric pressure, wind speed and temperature atop Mount Washington, New Hampshire, where the storm knocked down a trestle of the Cog Railway.
The hurricane gashed large swaths of forest throughout the region, its winds shearing most of this stand of white pine near Willimantic, Connecticut.
Many trees that survived the hurricane sustained permanent damage, including this Massachusetts plantation of red and white pine left standing at an angle.
A Works Progress Administration (WPA) clean-up crew tends to blown-down trees between Boylston and West Boylston, Massachusetts.
Joseph Kaylor of the U.S. Forest Service inspects a heavy blowdown of red spruce five miles north of Grantham, New Hampshire.
To address the extensive forest damage resulting from the hurricane of September 21, 1938, the U.S. Forest Service established the Northeastern Timber Salvage Administration (NETSA). This program sought to salvage, conserve and market as much fallen timber as possible, and to mitigate forest fire hazards created by the storm.
This photograph depicts Earle H. Clapp, Acting Chief of the U.S. Forest Service, signing an agreement to sell 425 million feet of softwood logs and and salvaged lumber to the Eastern Pine Sales Corporation.
NETSA administered many timber salvage sites throughout New England, including at Chandler Pond in Landaff, New Hampshire, where nearly two million board feet of white pine logs were recovered.
Stumps of hurricane-destroyed trees and piles of cleaned up cord wood abut Wildwood Pond in Gardner, Massachusetts, where floating timber logs await transport to area mills.
At Turkey Pond in Concord, New Hampshire, Norma Webber uses a pike poll to pull a log into a slip for conveyance into the adjacent saw mill.
The Turkey Pond sawmill was operated entirely by women, who filled the labor void throughout many homefront industries during World War II.
In this photograph, boss lumberjack Lucy Willey inspects the head saw blade.
A local farmer's prize yoke of oxen hauled this sled load of salvage logs out of the woods near Bridgton, Maine for delivery to the Northeastern Timber Salvage Administration.
Working with federal, state and local agencies, as well as private industries, NETSA salvaged over 700 million board feet of hurricane-fallen timber by 1941.
The hurricane of September 21, 1938 claimed approximately 700 lives, mostly in southern New England, and destroyed approximately 8,900 homes, 3,300 marine vessels and 2 billion trees.
National Archives at Boston
National Archives at College Park
For more information, the National Weather Service's Boston and New York offices provide synopses of the Great New England Hurricane of 1938 on their websites:
NWS Boston: https://www.weather.gov/box/1938hurricane
NWS New York: https://www.weather.gov/okx/1938HurricaneHome