Letter describes the hurricane of 1938




Albert T. Stearns lived on Mathewson Road in 1938, and was at work in his Providence camera and paint store the day the ill-famed hurricane of 1938 rolled ashore in Rhode Island.

Mr. Stearns wrote this letter to his daughter, Mary (Stearns) Chaffee, describing what happened in Providence during the storm and the cleanup effort that followed after.

Mr. Stearns’ grandsons, Steven and Rick Chaffee, live in Barrington — Steven on Rumstick Road and Rick on Lantern Lane. They recently came across this letter and shared it with the Barrington Times:

It was quite a storm on Sunday before the Hurricane, and I left some instructions about extra mooring lines on the boats. About 10:30 on the morning of the 21st of September 1938 it all cleared up and the sun was shining.

At 3:00 P.M. the wind began blowing from the southeast so hard that the awnings on Westminster Street started to give way and some of the bigger windows in Childs threatened to break. A policeman was stationed there to keep people moving.

The wind rapidly increased so that at 4:00 o’clock one could not go onto Westminster Street because of so much glass flying through the air. A newspaper boy came up the street and I looked for a weather report and read about the possibility of a hurricane in small type about half way down the page. I knew we were in for something, so we started moving expensive cameras out of the basement and shutting off the sewers.

One man came in the store and said the water was coming up Dorrance Street and he was soaking wet. I sent him across the street after all the milk and grub that he could get. He came back through six inches of water, with a dozen pints of milk and two bags of buns.

I think, sent some twenty customers who had sought protection in the store, upstairs to the Chamber of Commerce rooms.

The water came up the street in a wall about six inches deep and flowed rapidly past, rising all the time, and pass cameras up onto the mazzanine balcony. The water was now above the lower part of the windows and one could look out as if looking into an aquarium, and then we heard a terrible crashing and splintering of glass. The front door and the side door had sprung open, splitting the doors right in two. A wall of water about three feet deep swept into the store from two directions, tipping over the counters and shelves like mowing grass. The furniture and fixtures made dams in front of the basement stairs.

We retreated to the upper floors and it was soon absolutely dark. With flashlights we watched various rescues made with ropes and ladders, of people stranded in the street. We ate our buns and drank our milk and changed into some overalls that we found upstairs and sat down to rest. There was nothing else to do in the dark. The noise made by the bank alarms and shorted automobile horns was terribly upsetting.

It did not seem long before somebody yelled that the water was going down — that they could see the tops of the automobiles. We went downstairs and pulled out some of the furniture resting on the stairs and pried open the back door. We stood just out of the water and with flashlights fished out papers and a Graflex camera going out of the door with the water.

We boarded up the broken windows and doors and finding that our cars had also been flooded and would not run, we started to walk home at 12:00 o’clock, ten miles. We were lucky in getting a bus and later a taxicab, to within a block of my house. We went through fields and in peoples’ backyards and across lawns, following other tracks. The family and house were all right. The water had been about an inch deep in the living room floor.

The next morning we found the store in a terrible jumble. Perhaps you can imagine having to pick up something before you can put your foot down. That’s all right, but where are you going to put what you had just picked up? Its proper place is about thirty feet away and you can’t get over there anyway.

Well, we all patched in and moved most of our stock away on the trucks. What little we had left, we moved onto the sidewalk. A week after the flood we had to put down a new floor and finish it the “Wilco Way.”

It was nearly a week before we could get a pump into our basement because they took care of the restaurants and banks first. We were next in line because our basement had leaked into the bank next door. I brought in the generator and lights off the boat and a crew of us started downstairs. This job was a little worse than upstairs, because so much wallpaper was mixed in with everything.

The W.P.A. took away the debris and we just shoveled everything of no salvage value into the street.

The police and militia protection was not so good. The looters broke into the store three nights during the first week, but there was not much to steal.

After a month we are fairly well straightened out, but we still find ourselves very busy because we can’t find some few odd things that a customer may ask for.

The last workman left yesterday, after completing the re-wiring of electric wires, leaving us in complete possession of our quarters for the first time. It was a month before we had light, heat or telephone at Barrington.

We have tried to give you some of my impressions of the two hours that Nature held full sway around here and of the 40 days that we have spent since that time, mostly of just good hard work.


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