PORTSMOUTH — The morning of Sept. 21, 1938 started out like any other day, with no warning signs that danger was lurking right around the corner.
“The day started as a very pleasant one, with no indication of what was about to strike,” Town Historian Jim Garman told a capacity audience at Town Hall Tuesday night.
But the storm that hit the Ocean State shortly before 4 p.m. turned out to be the most devastating the area had ever seen, killing about 400 in Rhode Island, causing $4.7 billion (in today’s dollars) of damage and wrecking 20,000 buildings.
(This Saturday, Sept. 21, marks the 75th anniversary of the 1938 Hurricane.)
The biggest problem with the ’38 Hurricane, Mr. Garman said, was that it was such a surprise.
“We are spoiled today, with up-to-the-minute weather analyses on TV and on our cell phones. The Weather Bureau was in existence then, but in a rather primitive state compared to today,” he said.
The storm formed Sept. 9 off the coast of Africa, and by Sept. 20 it had grown into a Category 5 (winds of 157 mph or more) hurricane off the coast of Florida before coming up the East Coast.
“Usually hurricanes slow down over the land. The 1938 Hurricane did not,” said Mr. Garman.
Even more striking than the strength of the storm was the speed at which it moved. “It traveled at 70 mph across the water. That’s really fast,” he said — the fastest ever tracked, in fact.
But then the storm lost steam when it turned to the Northeast and was downgraded to a Category 3. A weather advisory, as late as 2 p.m., said it wouldn’t even hit land.
Just 30 minutes later, however, it struck Long Island. Less than 90 minutes after that it hit the South County area of Rhode Island, and the timing couldn’t have been worse.
“There was a full moon high tide — the worst combination you can have,” said Mr. Garman.
Island Park hit hard
Portsmouth was particularly vulnerable, especially the Island Park area with its amusement park and waterfront summer cottages. “The Sakonnet River is wide open,” said Mr. Garman. “Stand at the beach at Island Park and you can see the ocean.”
A 12-foot wall of water came up the Sakonnet River and plowed into Island Park, which had no protection. “Nineteen people died there and houses floated across Park Avenue, with some ending up in Hathaway’s Peach Orchard across Anthony Road,” he said.
Some families managed to save what little they could. Mr. Garman heard a story from Tom Cashman, whose father owned the amusement park at the time. Before the storm hit, the family put all the furniture in the upstairs of their nearby home.
“He came down the street the next day and found their house in the middle of Park Avenue. They went upstairs and all the furniture they had moved up there was intact and dry,” Mr. Garman said.
Heartbreak in Jamestown
A special guest Tuesday night was Richard Chellis, whose father Carl Chellis was the lighthouse keeper on duty at Beavertail in Jamestown on Sept. 21, 1938. At the time Mr. Chellis’ brother Clayton was 11, and his sister, Marion, was 7.
“They were on a school bus with five other children at Mackerel Cove,” said Mr. Chellis.
The bus, driven by Norman Caswell, was dropping kids home from school when a car — driven by a woman taking her 14-year-old son out to watch the waves — blocked a causeway, he said.
“The tidal surge came through and they all drowned except my brother Clayton and the bus driver,” said Mr. Chellis. Four of the children were from the same Matoes family.
Nine years later and serving in World War II, Clayton himself drowned while swimming in the Pacific Ocean. “The undertow got him,” said Mr. Chellis. “He was 20 years old.”
As for his oldest brother Bill, he was attending Rogers High School in Newport when the 1938 Hurricane hit. When he got off the ferry from Jamestown to wait for the bus, a friend came along and offered him a ride so they could both go see the waves.
“He did, and lived to be 86,” said Mr. Chellis.
The ’38 storm left as quickly as it had arrived, said Mr. Garman. “By evening, it was all quiet. The next day the sun came out and it was a really nice day — except for all the destruction left behind,” he said.
Carol wreaked havoc, too
Although nothing compares to the devastation caused by the 1938 Hurricane in these parts, Hurricane Carol of 1954 wasn’t far behind.
In fact, Mr. Garman said, “Expense-wise, it was the worst we’ve ever experienced,” adding that the storm caused about $10 to $12 billion of damage in today’s dollars. About 65 people died and around 12,000 homes were damaged, with many of them destroyed.
Some 30 houses were swept away in Island Park. “In many cases, houses were floated across Park Avenue,” with some found several hundred yards from their foundations, he said.
Perhaps the most fortunate residents were some members of the Boudreau family, who in 1954 owned a summer cottage in Common Fence Point. Mrs. Boudreau and her two children were forced out of their cottage as it drifted on the floodwaters into Narragansett Bay. They held onto a section of the roof and were swept in the direction of Ocean Grove before the wind turned and sent them southward on the bay.
“They actually went under the Mt. Hope Bridge,” said Mr. Garman, before adding the good news. “They were spotted by a Navy destroyer riding out the storm and were rescued.”
Mr. Garman’s talk Tuesday night on “The Hurricanes of 1938 and 1954” was his eighth in a series of 11 lectures he’s given as part of the Portsmouth 375th Celebration. Since it drew a capacity crowd, he has scheduled a second lecture at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 19, at Portsmouth Free Public Library, 2658 East Main Road.
To see more images of the 1938 Hurricane from around the East Bay area, check out the book below. It was printed years ago by the Warren Printing and Publishing Company, which was later bought by East Bay Newspapers.