As Hurricane Irene threatens Londonderry and local cities this late-August weekend with winds expected to be 80 miles per hour, we in the newsroom are reminded of this history piece by Richard Holmes. Take a trip back to the late 30′s, the last time a hurricane really tore through our New England town.
Try and remember the last time a hurricane visited Derry. Your answer is probably wrong. The year is 1960. It’s a trick question. Hurricanes Gloria (1985) and Bob (1991) weren’t hurricanes at all by the time they reached our little corner of the world. By definition, a hurricane must have sustainable winds in excess of seventy-four miles per hour. The last true hurricane was Donna (1960), which did only relatively little damage here. Before that, there was Carol (1954), which caused considerable local flooding and wind damage. To all true New Englanders, however, the only real blow was the unnamed hurricane of 1938.
The year of the Great Hurricane was the ninth year of the Great Depression. Roosevelt was in the White House and the Red Sox had lost the pennant to the Yankees. The rumblings of the approaching world war and Adolf Hitler were scaring the hell out of many of us. Top songs that year included A-Tisket, A-Tasket by Ella Fitzgerald and Bei Mir Bist du Schoen by the Andrew Sisters. Gene Krupa led a new band featuring the crooning of Buddy Stewart – of Derry, New Hampshire. The big movie of 1938 was Frank Capra’s You Can’t Take It with You.
Damage from the 2010 Wind Storm in Londonderry, seen here, did not come close to the damage of the hurricane in 1938.
The summer of 1938 had been cold and wet. Starting on September 18, it rained for four straight days in the Merrimack Valley. The streams and rivers were running at nearly flood level. One weatherman said that if this had been snow rather than rain, the area would have been “buried to a depth of 10 feet.”
In 1938 there were no weather satellites or radar to give us warning of an approaching storm. The National Weather Service did, however, take notice of a severe tropical depression that was forming off the coast of Africa. By September 16, when the storm reached the Cape Verde Islands, it had strengthened into a full-fledged hurricane. By September 19 it had been classified as a category-five storm – the highest level of danger. Hurricanes with that degree of intensity have sustained winds over 155 miles per hour and storm surges of more than eighteen feet. The path of the storm appeared to be aiming straight for New England!
The experts at the government weather center, however, were sure there was no danger to mainland America. There was a large area of low pressure just off the eastern coast that they “knew” would divert the storm to the northeast. In meteorological history, this is what always happened. There hadn’t been a single hurricane to hit New England since 1869. Only one government forecaster in September 1938 had developed a model that predicted this storm would track north and not northeast. His superiors overruled him. The official forecast was for “cloudy skies and gusty winds.”
The experts were horribly wrong. The storm did not curve out to sea; the hurricane instead headed due north. To make matters worse, the swirling hurricane was moving at an unprecedented forward speed of seventy miles per hour. There was almost no time to warn the population! At 3:30 on the afternoon of September 21, the storm slammed into Long Island. The hurricane was huge. It measured five hundred miles across with a fifty-mile-wide eye. The wind gusts were over 180 miles per hour with sustained winds of up to 150 miles per hour. One group of storm survivors in Rhode Island remembered seeing a “40-foot fog bank rolling toward the beach” and at the last possible moment they realized it wasn’t fog – it was a wall of water.
While the Hurricane of 1938 did much more damage, the Ice Storm of 2008 left trees and powerlines down.
The destruction in southern New England was catastrophic. Whole summer communities were swept away without leaving a trace. In Napatree Point, in Rhode Island, forty-two summer homes, the yacht club, and seventeen residents were swept away by a storm surge and “never seen again.” At Misquamicut Beach five hundred homes were washed into the Atlantic Ocean. There were at least one hundred killed in the town of Westerly, Rhode Island, alone. Many families who managed to survive did so only by clinging to floating roofs and trees. On an island in Narraganset Bay, a school was swept away killing seven of the ten grade-school children. Many of the bodies were recovered wearing only their shoes and socks – the fierce winds had stripped them of their other clothing.
Because the hurricane struck at the time of the highest possible tides, the entire coastal region experienced flooding. Much of the city of Providence was under fourteen feet of water. In Connecticut, some homes two miles inland were flooded. The Connecticut River was swollen so much that it was neck deep more than a mile from its normal banks.
As the hurricane moved north, it still retained much of its power. At the Blue Hill Observatory, near Boston, there were wind gusts of 186 miles per hour. On Mount Washington, the winds measured 163 miles per hour. It is estimated that the total rainfall for September 21 was between ten and seventeen inches in much of southern and central New England.
Shortly after four in the afternoon, the storm hit our state, with it’s center passing near the New Hampshire-Vermont border. Locally, its fury was first felt in Salem. The gale-force winds caused considerable panic at the Rockingham Racetrack when the massive cupola blew off the grandstand. This was followed by the race announcer’s stand being “bowled over.” During the sixth race, spectators witnessed the entire roof of a stable being lifted from its base. A groom and exerciser were sent to the hospital for treatment.
The Hurricane of 1938 caused damage much worse than that of the Wind Storm of 2010.
About five o’clock, Derry began to feel the full might of the winds. The Derry News reported that “trees a century old, fell right and left before the might of the wind, carrying down power, light and telephone lines and causing untold damage to roofs, chimneys, windows and other property.” The streets were deserted, as most of the citizens remained in their homes or businesses, afraid to venture out because of the danger of flying debris. Some were in near panic because of the sudden fury. All were praying for the winds to calm and the rains to stop. There were likely very few atheists in the path of the storm. For hours and hours, all that could be heard were the high-pitched howl of the wind and the sounds of destruction.
Almost immediately after the winds began, the town went dark. Electric power was cut as the storm sheared off hundreds of poles. Kerosene lamps were dusted off and forgotten stashes of candles were found tucked away in drawers. Telephones went dead and radios went silent. The men, women, and children of Derry felt completely alone and isolated; there was no way of knowing the fate of the outside world. All they could know with any certainty was what they could see from their windows. As the darkness of night fell, all they could hear were the breaking of trees and the whining of the wind.
Throughout the hurricane, emergency workers were the only ones to venture onto the streets. Derry’s firemen and police were rushing from one emergency to the next. Volunteer electricians were sent to secure downed power lines. Members of the American Legion and the Boy Scouts spent the long night trying to remove debris from the streets and directing traffic. One area of special concern was Broadway. This main artery was closed a number of times because of barriers caused by pieces of wood and shingles ripped from area buildings. Firemen in the middle of the storm had to climb on the roof of Ganem’s Market to secure its signs so they wouldn’t be blown into the street. The emergency room of the Alexander-Eastman Hospital was filled with victims of the storm.
The winds finally slowed around midnight. The next morning, at early light, the weary Derry residents slowly began to leave their homes to survey the damage. The streets were littered with lawn furniture, trees, signs, bricks from chimneys, and parts of roofs. Trees were uprooted, blocking roads and driveways.
A young boy stands in front of the Hood Farm after the Hurricane of 1938.
The initial count was 450 trees downed by the storm. This estimate would prove very conservative. The thickly forested Hood’s Grove, between Lenox Road and Mount Pleasant Street, was nearly flattened. (This would later become the site of Hood School.) Although every section of town suffered damage, particularly hard hit was the area of West Broadway, Nortonville, and High Street. Most of the boats on Beaver Lake had been ripped off their moorings and were dashed against the western shore of the lake.
Without electric power, many businesses could not function. Ice cream melted in the drugstore soda fountains; gasoline couldn’t be sold at filling stations that used modern automatic pumps. A couple of gas stations that still used the old-fashioned hand pumps did a land-office business. The presses of the Derry News were also without power, so the editor had to make arrangements to have the paper printed in Manchester. Predictably, the next edition had advertisements for home-repair loans from the First National Bank, and the Bartlett & Shephard Insurance Company was offering to sell windstorm insurance for the next blow.
All over town there were reports of barns and sheds being flattened; and many houses experienced considerable structural damage. Through Herculean efforts by the linemen of the Public Service Company, the power was restored to Broadway after only forty-eight hours of darkness. At 5:40 on Friday afternoon, the lights of Broadway came back on. The movie theater had a sell-out crowd that night. Much of the rest of town, however, would continue without power for nearly a week. It would also take a long time before the familiar songbirds returned to Derry.
Derry was very fortunate to escape the storm without incurring a single death. The greatest material loss was to the Anna Rogers home, near the site of today’s Hidden Valley Golf Course. The massive house connected right onto the barn and may have had the longest ridgepole in the state. A fire broke out in the middle of the storm and gutted the building.
The Ice Storm of 2008 did not cause nearly the same amount of damage than the Hurrican of 1938.
Edna Clark was vacationing in North Weare, New Hampshire, when the hurricane struck. She and three other women were standing on a bridge watching the surging water when a nearby dam gave way. A wall of water rushed downstream and overturned the bridge. The four women were thrown into the Piscataqua River and swept away to their deaths. Miss Clark had grown up in what is now the Pinkerton Tavern Restaurant.
The hurricane of 1938 will stand as one of the greatest natural disaster to ever hit our country. In New England and Long Island there were nearly six hundred people killed, thirty-five hundred injured, and seventy-five thousand buildings damaged or destroyed. In New Hampshire, an estimated sixty thousand people were made homeless after the storm and thirteen died. The hurricane did about $12 million in damage to our state. This estimate is, of course, in 1938 dollars; today it would be calculated into a loss measuring in the billions. It took an estimated million man-days of labor just to clean up the debris.
For years afterward, the damage done to Derry’s trees and forest was quite noticeable. Adams Pond was filled with thousands of logs that were waiting their turn in the sawmill under the federal government’s plan to purchase wind-fallen trees. In our state it was estimated that two billion feet of usable timber was felled by the storm.
This excerpt is from “Nutfield Rambles,” Richard Holmes’ fifth published piece on local history. Richard was born, raised and attended school throughout New Hampshire. He received his Bachelor’s Degree in Education from Keene State College and his Master’s Degree in History from Rivier College. In 2003 he founded the Derry Museum of History. In 2007 Richard Holmes received an Award of Merit from the American Association for State and Local History. This is the most prestigious recognition one can receive for the preservation and interpretation of state and local history. Richard is also a regular columnist for the Derry News and a frequent contributor to the Nutfield News, the Lawrence Eagle Tribune and the Manchester Union Leader.
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