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This is the unedited history of the Great Hurricane as reported by The Providence Journal in it's book, "The Complete Historical Record of New England's Stricken Area, September 21, 1938."  Selected pages from this book follow the text. More Links to other sites which explain the storm in detail follow the pictures.


Roaring its way from the West Indies in mid-September of 1938, a hurricane at first threatened Florida, then turned north past Cape Hatteras and suddenly swooped into Long Island and New England, the most populous region in the Western Hemisphere.  The result was death and destruction, with more than 500 lives lost, 57,034 homes destroyed or damaged, and a property loss that extended into hundreds of millions of dollars.

A region prepared for hurricane might have been prepared as the result of past experience.  But the last hurricane that struck New England was September 23, 1815, and no living person recalled that.  The U.S. Weather Bureau was able to give only meager advance warning because there were few points to report the progress of the storm north off the Atlantic Coast.  Barometers foretold a disturbance but this information was not widely available.

Miami and the Florida coast was prepared for the hurricane which had first been reported September 18 due north of Puerto Rico and east of the Bahama Islands.  During the next 24 hours the storm traveled 300 miles west by north and seemed due to strike the Bahamas and Southern Florida.  The rate of speed was about 12 1/2 miles per hour.

Rate Advances

Then the disturbance characteristically veered north and the center was reported off Cape Hatteras at 8:30 am on September 21.  The rate of speed was advanced to 32 miles per hour.  The storm continued to pick up speed, something unusual.

Weather Bureau observers then expected the hurricane to do one of two things.  First, either swing to the west and sweep over the Virginia and Delaware Capes, and perhaps into the national Capital, or else continue into New Jersey and Pennsylvania.  Second, swing into the East and vanish out to sea, the usual procedure with such storms.

The storm, following a low pressure area as the course of least resistance, was unable to swing westward because of a high pressure area which had developed over the Middle Atlantic States - fortunately for that region.

Unfortunately for Long Island and New England, another high pressure area had developed over the Atlantic.  Between those two areas was a valley of low pressure.  A Valley of Death that was a dagger pointed into the heart of New England.  Into that valley or trough went the hurricane, now sweeping along at more than 60 miles per hour.

Strikes Long Island

At 8:30 am, the storm was off Cape Hatteras.  At 3:30 pm, the hurricane was devastating Long Island beaches and crossing the Sound into Connecticut and Rhode Island.  Soon the outside of the storm swept up Vineyard Sound and into Buzzards Bay and the Acushnet and Taunton Rivers.  There was no time to give warnings and to arouse a population to which a hurricane was only a name vaguely associated with annoying weather.

A hurricane is a cyclonic storm that is created in the ocean regions known as the doldrums.  Hot, moist air is forced upward by cooler and drier air and a rotary motion is imparted to the mass.  Winds start to spiral inwardly about a center that is calm.  The winds move in a counter-clockwise direction.  Such a storm is roughly circular in form and may be from 100 to 300 miles in diameter. 

At the rim, the wind may blow from 30 to 40 miles an hour, which is not particularly dangerous.  Toward the center the speed may be up to 200 miles an hour.  That is destruction.  Sudden and final destruction when it is encountered.  No measuring instrument known can survive long enough to measure the hurricane's utmost strength.

The center of the hurricane may be from seven to 20 miles in diameter and is it an area of comparative calm.  But the sea within the area is likely to be greatly disturbed and to toss in all directions.  Barometer pressure is lowest at the center.  Rain is likely to fall heavily and hail-like in the foremost half of the hurricane.

Tide Aids Destruction

Destruction was increased in New England by the tragic fact that the tide was rising to its peak at the time the hurricane struck.  Another unfortunate thing was that the tide was the highest of the year, due to the nearness to the autumnal equinox when the sun and moon both are in line with the earth and so exert a double gravitational pull.

The hurricane was also driving the tide before it and, as the water hit the shallows of the continental shelf, the sea was spilled onto the land with terrific force.  In fact, the seismograph of Fordham University at New York recorded the smash of the tide hitting the New England shore as if it were a major earthquake.

These high tides swept over the unprotected Long Island beaches and destroyed them.  Then the storm and the tremendous waves gathered force across Long Island and Vineyard Sounds and poured into the inlets of the Thames River at New London, Connecticut; Narragansett Bay; the Acushnet and Taunton Rivers and Buzzards Bay as into funnels.  The result was catastrophe.

Providence experienced a tide of 13.02 feet above mean high water while New Bedford has a tide of 11.53 feet.  This, combined with the wind which at times doubtless exceeded 100 miles an hour, swept all before it.  Rhode Island and the Providence Area suffered a property loss of $100,000,000 and the loss of 312 lives.  New Bedford, Fall River and the smaller communities suffered in proportion.

Canal Gives Outlet

Destruction at the head of Buzzards Bay might have reached immense proportions had not the Cape Cod Canal been able to take the push of the storm and carry the flood tide through an outlet in Cape Cod Bay.  Property and residents along the Canal suffered heavily, but the loss might have been greater, observers believe.

The storm continued unabated until past 7 o'clock and then diminished, carrying death and destruction ahead of it.  The path of the hurricane was approximately 400 miles but only the 200-mile long arm which extended eastward from New York to the Upper Cape did extensive damage.  The high pressure area to the west kept the main force of the storm confined to New England instead of letting it sweep over New York City, Philidelphia and the New Jersey cities.

Northern New England suffered heavily from the hurricane, which fortunately merely touched Boston, and the damage likewise was extensive in Quebec Province, Canada.  Then the storm continued north and doubtless expended itself in the sub-Arctic wastes.

Source: Providence Journal, 1938.

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The following graphics are scanned from the above-mentioned booklet.  The originals are large in size, and by clicking a thumbnail, the original size of the page will be downloaded for viewing.  To return to this page and the thumbnails, use the Back button on your browser. 

front.jpg (208011 bytes) The cover of the book, published by The Providence Journal, with photographs from many area newspapers, New England Telephone and amateur photographers.
page01.jpg (150003 bytes) Providence, RI and New Bedford, MA
Page 1
page02.jpg (127973 bytes) New Bedford, MA
Page 2
page03.jpg (140916 bytes) Middletown CT, Jamestown RI, Providence RI, Warren RI, Hartford, CT, Ware MA
Page 3
page05.jpg (158476 bytes) Stonington CT, Glastonbury CT,  Worcester MA, Southbridge MA, Woonsocket RI
Page 5
page11.jpg (156418 bytes) Newton MA, Fairhaven MA,  Wareham MA, West Brookfield MA,  Mattapoisett MA, Boston MA
Page 11
page17.jpg (154736 bytes) Bristol RI, Providence RI,  Narragansett RI, Island Park RI, Bonnet Shores RI
Page 17
page21.jpg (165005 bytes) Sakonnet Point RI, Providence RI,  Jamestown RI, Plymouth NH, Southbridge, MA
Page 21
page29.jpg (155526 bytes) Newport RI, Jamestown RI,  New Bedford, MA, Hartford, CT, Plum Banks, CT
Page 29
page34.jpg (151271 bytes) New Bedford MA, Fall River MA, Dighton MA, Fairhaven MA
Page 34
page48.jpg (169304 bytes) Misquamicut RI, Point Of Woods CT, Middletown CT, Lyme CT, Wethersfield CT, Bigganum CT
Page 48
page67.jpg (178721 bytes) Ware MA, Mattapoisett MA, Worcester MA, No. Uxbridge MA, Putnam CT, East Brookfield MA
Page 67
page71.jpg (159582 bytes) East Brookfield MA, New Bedford, MA, Worcester MA, Springfield MA, Taunton MA, East Bridgewater MA
Page 71
page80.jpg (169457 bytes) East Greenwich RI, Crescent Park RI, Newport RI, Island Park RI, Conimicut RI
Page 80
page82.jpg (144420 bytes) Sakonnet Point RI, Riverside  RI, Providence RI, Rocky Point RI, North Kingston RI
Page 82
backpage.jpg (199154 bytes) Back page, showing the route of the Great Hurricane of 1938.

Other pictures from the 1938 Hurricane, from the NOAA library

theb0312.jpg (296765 bytes) Woods Hole during 1938 hurricane Heavy surf breaking over SE side of Quadrangular dock 
Image ID: theb0312, Historic C&GS Collection
Location: Woods Hole, Massachusetts
Photo Date: 1938
Credit: NOAA Photo Library, NOAA Central Library; C&GS Season's Report Thomas 1938-84 

 

wea02214.jpg (1698329 bytes) Results of hurricane storm surge from the New England Hurricane of 1938. In: "Wenn die Elemente wuten" by Frank W. Lane, 1952. P. 33. Library Call Number M15 L265eg. 
Image ID: wea02214, Historic NWS Collection
Location: Connecticut
Photo Date: 1938 September 22
Photographer: U. S. Weather Bureau

 

wea02409.jpg (795670 bytes) The Music Shell in Bushnell Park which was now functioning as a reflecting pool. Flooding in the aftermath of the 1938 New England Hurricane. 
Image ID: wea02409, Historic NWS Collection
Location: Hartford, Connecticut
Photo Date: 1938 September 22

 

wea02411.jpg (890171 bytes) The seawall at Narragansett Pier, southern Rhode Island. In spite of its destruction, it appears that the seawall saved the seaside homes.  In: The New England Hurricane, Federal Writers' Project of WPA, 1938. 
Image ID: wea02411, Historic NWS Collection
Location: Narragansett Pier, Rhode Island
Photo Date: 1938 September 22
Photographer: Archival Photography by Steve Nicklas, NOS, NGS

 

wea02412.jpg (905466 bytes) WPA workers and rescue squads search for bodies and survivors at Shawomet Beach, south of Providence.  In: The New England Hurricane, Federal Writers' Project of WPA, 1938. 
Image ID: wea02412, Historic NWS Collection
Location: Shawomet Beach, Rhode Island
Photo Date: 1938 September 22
Photographer: Archival Photography by Steve Nicklas, NOS, NGS

 

wea02413.jpg (830788 bytes) Damage to a building in Bristol.  In: The New England Hurricane, Federal Writers' Project of WPA, 1938. 
Image ID: wea02413, Historic NWS Collection
Location: Bristol, Rhode Island
Photo Date: 1938 September 22
Photographer: Archival Photography by Steve Nicklas, NOS, NGS

 

wea02414.jpg (762834 bytes) Island Park was destroyed by a breaker with a reported height of 30 to 40 feet. In: The New England Hurricane, Federal Writers' Project of WPA, 1938. 
Image ID: wea02414, Historic NWS Collection
Location: Island Park, Rhode Island
Photo Date: 1938 September 22
Photographer: Archival Photography by Steve Nicklas, NOS, NGS

 

wea02415.jpg (823000 bytes) Island Park was destroyed by a breaker with a reported height of 30 to 40 feet. A sturdy washing machine is all that remains of a destroyed home.  In: The New England Hurricane, Federal Writers' Project of WPA, 1938. 
Image ID: wea02415, Historic NWS Collection
Location: Island Park, Rhode Island
Photo Date: 1938 September 22
Photographer: Archival Photography by Steve Nicklas, NOS, NGS

 

wea02416.jpg (752818 bytes) All that remains of a beachfront home at Third Beach.  In: The New England Hurricane, Federal Writers' Project of WPA, 1938. 

Image ID: wea02416, Historic NWS Collection
Location: Near Newport, Rhode Island
Photo Date: 1938 September 22
Photographer: Archival Photography by Steve Nicklas, NOS, NGS

 

wea02417.jpg (831916 bytes) The central portion of the bathing pavilion at Bailey's Beach transported to the middle of the road.  In: The New England Hurricane, Federal Writers' Project of WPA, 1938. 
Image ID: wea02417, Historic NWS Collection
Location: Bailey's Beach, Rhode Island
Photo Date: 1938 September 22
Photographer: Archival Photography by Steve Nicklas, NOS, NGS

 

wea02418.jpg (710232 bytes) The pavilion at Easton's Beach being burned intentionally prior to beginning cleanup and rebuilding.  In: The New England Hurricane, Federal Writers' Project of WPA, 1938. 
Image ID: wea02418, Historic NWS Collection
Location: Easton's Beach, Rhode Island
Photo Date: 1938 September 22
Photographer: Archival Photography by Steve Nicklas, NOS, NGS

 

wea02420.jpg (747320 bytes) Remains of the steeple of the First Unitarian Church.  In: The New England Hurricane, Federal Writers' Project of WPA, 1938. 
Image ID: wea02420, Historic NWS Collection
Location: Worcester, Massachusetts
Photo Date: 1938 September 22
Photographer: Archival Photography by Steve Nicklas, NOS, NGS

 

 

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More links to information on the Great Hurricane of 1938

http://www2.sunysuffolk.edu/mandias/38hurricane/  Probably the best and most in-dept historical site.

http://www.nwc.navy.mil/weather/Photo%20Archive/1938_hurricane_text.htm The Navy's archive of photos of the storm.

http://www.geo.arizona.edu/geo2xx/geo218/TERMPAPER/GEOS218Hurricane1938.htm   A student's termpaper on the storm

http://www.usatoday.com/weather/wh1938.htm  USA Today's Weather Page described  the 1938 storm in 1999.

http://www.townonline.com/brewster/news/local_regional/cc_newcahurricanes08082003.htm From The CapeCodder, a story on the storms that ravaged New England, and the inevitability of major storms hitting again.

http://www.msnbc.com/news/960934.asp  "Swallowed By The Sea,"  MSNBC coverage with a slide show of pictures.

http://www.newsday.com/extras/lihistory/7/hs730a.htm  (Long Island) Newsday's story on the Great Hurricane.

http://courant.ctnow.com/projects/cane38/photos.stm  Connecticut's Hartford Courant with coverage of "A Woeful Wind."  Excellent with stories, photos, memories, video and links.

http://www.clan.lib.ri.us/wes/Hurri.htm A bibliography of books and materials in the Rhode Island Library system.