Infamous Storm Hit This Day In '38

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By Susan Morse

Hampton Union, Sunday, September 21, 2003

HAMPTON - Hurricane Isabel "roared ashore" into North Carolina and Virginia on Thursday. That’s how reporters on CNN described what was happening as they stood outside, in front of surf or homes that had been recently evacuated.

As powerful as the storm was, it did not pack the intensity of a Hurricane Andrew or Hugo, a blessing to anyone in its path. Just a few days ago, Hurricane Isabel, said one hurricane watcher within the state Office of Emergency Management, was comparable in strength to the infamous hurricane of 1938 that slammed into New England. Just a 15-degree change in its path would propel Isabel up the Connecticut River Valley, as was the case in 1938.

That was Sept. 21, 1938, now 65 years ago, and people who remember that storm talk about it as the "Great New England Hurricane of 1938," much, as I imagine, those who are still here will be saying about the winter storm of 1978, 40 years from now.

Other hurricanes, such as Carol in 1954, caused great damage in New England, but the ’38 hurricane is still the benchmark whenever hurricane chasers start marking their weather maps for the next big storm.

On that Wednesday in 1938, few people knew that a powerful storm was about to hit. One reason was its speed: 60 mph as it headed up the coast, according to some reports, compared to 7 mph for Isabel.

"The Hurricane of ’38," said state hurricane specialist Gregory Champlin, "in 12 hours went from Cape Hatteras and was exiting New Hampshire."

It struck Long Island and Providence, R.I., as a Category 3 hurricane.

In New Hampshire, a section of the Cog Railway blew down, as did some of the mill buildings in Manchester, according to Champlin. An estimated 13 people lost their lives, including four women who were standing on a bridge in Weare who were washed away.

My father, who was 14 and living in Manchester, talked about watching large elm trees being uprooted and blown up the street. His grandfather’s barn in Dunbarten blew down.

The Seacoast was spared compared to the rest of the state. The huge storm surge that struck Narragansett Bay did not come ashore here.

Seacoast residents who remember the storm say they didn’t know a hurricane was upon them.

"We didn’t realize it was a hurricane at the time," says Eleanor Young of Winnacunnet Road. "The wind blew very hard, it was raining hard."

Suddenly, the storm subsided, she says, and her father decided to take a ride to the beach to the see the surf. The family piled into the car. On the way from their home on Lafayette Road to the beach, the wind picked up. Young saw trees uprooted. There was flooding. That ended the car trip. Young now knows the wind must have died down while the eye of the hurricane passed over.

At home, the family was without power and had no way to get information on what was happening. A couple of trees around the house came down, but caused no damage.

"We just thought it was a windy day," she says.

"It went through this area, tore down a lot of trees," says Carl Bragg. He thought about it then as "just another storm. ... "It did a lot of damage."

Marcia Macintosh, of Ocean Boulevard, was in high school in Bradford, Mass., in 1938. She remembers a tree going down in front of the house.

Even after the storm, information on the hurricane seemed lax compared to today’s standards. A Hampton Union article of Thursday, Sept. 22, 1938, isn’t even accompanied by a photo. Only one photo from the hurricane of 1938 was found in Hampton Historical Society archives. It shows beach erosion caused by the storm.

In the Seacoast, the Hurricane of ’38 had sustained winds of 88 mph with gusts of 100 mph, according to The Hampton Union story that came out the day after the storm.

No one locally was injured, it said, but parts of town were without lights for three days.

At the home of Police Officer Percy Annis of Exeter Road, "two huge trees, from 40 to 50 feet high, fell on the barn and garage, completely twisting it off its foundation.

"The Park Avenue section beginning with a beautiful large tree at the Tuck Memorial House, to Stephen Hobbs’ were uprooted.

"At Shady Lawn, the rear of the barn was blown in and at the Dumas Hotel at North Beach, the sides of the annex were caved in by the terrific force of the storm."

Other damage reported: A large plate-glass window at the First National Store in Hampton Beach was smashed; the flagpole near the bandstand snapped off; chimneys were blown down.

At Hampton Academy and High School, a section of honey with bees attached was found in a tree out front, which had been uprooted and blown there.

At the beach, the Coast Guard went out at 6 p.m. in a dory to help the fishermen with their boats, not returning until 1 a.m.

"The 18-foot racing boat belonging to Kenneth Langley of Hampton Beach, which early broke from its moorings, was found just north of the Hampton Harbor Yacht Club almost completely smashed between the rocks, and the 40-foot fishing boat owned by Fred Thompson which, dragging its anchor, had broken from its moorings and pounded into the racing yacht."

"I remember him telling me about that," says Polly Langley, who married Kenneth Langley in 1940. "He was a sailor."

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