Sept. 21 marks the 75th anniversary of the Great New England Hurricane of 1938. Although in many respects the hurricane of 1944 was much worse (it killed more people around the Vineyard than any storm in the 20th century), the 1938 hurricane is the one that stands in the record books. What follows are accounts from the Gazette edition of September 23, 1938, two days after the storm surge completely destroyed Menemsha.
Swept by a hurricane the velocity of which has been estimated at a hundred miles an hour at brief periods, and which surpassed anything of the sort that has ever struck the Island from a southerly point, Martha’s Vineyard presented a scene of disaster on Wednesday night. There was one death. Several persons were injured and the storm caused a loss of property that may easily total half a million dollars.
The total destruction of the Menemsha waterfront was the outstanding property damage of the storm. There was severe damage at Edgartown, including the loss of many boats of all types, and docks, buildings and even land were swept away in the flood which came with the gale. All the electric service on the Island was out of commission, the power station was flooded, and practically all telephone service was paralyzed, one hundred lines being out of order.
All communication with the mainland was cut off, both by telephone and telegraph. At the same time, the lack of electricity put most radios out of commission. All this damage took place during Wednesday afternoon, and the greater part of it within the space of three hours.
Gay Head an Island
Hariph’s Creek bridge, on the Gay Head road, was destroyed, converting Gay Head and Quitsa into an island. Three of the summer homes on Stonewall Beach were washed into Quitsa Pond by the sea, and one is said to have been carried out to sea. The occupants were obliged to swim to safety, so sudden was the rise of the water, which resembled a tidal wave. It was there that the tragedy took place, when the maid in the home of Benedict Thielen, Mrs. Josephine Clarke, perished in the flood.
The best check on the storm was probably kept by the Gay Head Coast Guard, radio messages reaching the station at frequent intervals from other stations. The increase in the wind velocity, which began about one o’clock, accompanied by a low glass that fell to the hurricane level, was duly noted, and such preparations as could be made followed as a matter of course.
The circumstance which caught even the oldest and most experienced fisherman unaware was the direction of the wind, which was southeast, becoming south. Wind from this direction has never been known to reach a high velocity on the Vineyard or to cause serious damage. But the intensity of the gale increased steadily and the tide rose rapidly. Coastguardsmen hurried to secure their surfboat, kept in a boathouse. In the attempt to move the boat out through the rear entrance, George E. Hatch suffered a broken leg, and one of his mates narrowly escaped drowning when a great sea struck the front of the boathouse, staving in the doors and hurling a mass of wreckage the length of the building, pinning both men beneath it. The backwash of the sea carried the boat with it, and the building followed, both going into Vineyard Sound.
Harold E. Kinnecom, commander of the station, took his injured man to the Marine Hospital at Vineyard Haven, and thus was marooned on the mainland of the Island, as Hariph’s Creek bridge went out before he could return. He saw three of the houses washed off the beach to the south, and drift at high speed through the gaping opening where the road had passed but a short hour before.
Final Message from Cuttyhunk
Before he left the station, however, he had received a final wireless from Cuttyhunk, and another from Block Island, stating that the Coast Guard stations in both places had been destroyed and that the wireless operators were obliged to abandon their posts. The Cuttyhunk operator first reported the roof going off the new building, then other damages, before sending his final message. Other serious damage around Cuttyhunk was indicated by his messages.
All the way down the roads from the up-Island towns the trees were blown down or had limbs wrenched off and strewn across the highways. Crops, such as corn, were laid flat, buildings were damaged, and men worked all through the night clearing the roads and attempting to make repairs to telephone and light lines. At least 15 telephone poles were flat, and double that number of light poles were either toppled, broken or canted by the wind’s fury.
In Edgartown the high tide rose rapidly until it flooded summer homes along the harborfront. Piers were underwater, and fences went adrift in the sea along with boathouses, boats, spiles and all manner of wreckage.
Capt. Fred Vidler, keeper of the Edgartown Light, said that at least 20 and probably more boats of varying size went out past the lighthouse in the tide. Up to 9 o’clock yesterday morning only three of these had been saved and brought back in to the harbor. A number had sunk, their masts being visible a distance away, and others, it was thought, might have gone ashore on Cape Pogue.
Battered Against Bridge
Captain Vidler said that seven or eight boats were battered against the lighthouse bridge and broken to bits in less time than it takes to tell. One of these was the Chappaquiddick ferry, which lay yesterday in pieces under the bridge.
The water rose half way to the eaves of the Edgartown Yacht Club, there was a foot of water outside Miss Grater’s shop on Main street, and there were whitecaps in Wilson G. Crosby’s backyard. The Purvis marsh was a raging sea, and the level of the water was above the window sills of the Purvis boathouse. Mrs. Spear’s antique shop was flooded to the tops of tables, a great deal of damage being done, and Miss Stella Dillon’s house and shop on the Chappaquiddick shore suffered irrevocable damage, the sea rising to the ceiling of the first story.
Another impressive aspect of the storm was the terrific force of the current which stormed through from Katama Bay and out past the Harbor Light.
The opening through the South Beach was blamed for this by many onlookers, but others said that if there had been no opening, the storm would have made one, sweeping through as mightily.
Camps at the South Beach were destroyed or washed to new locations. Zeno Waterman’s camp went adrift and crossed the arm of the bay to wind up on Bluefish Point.
In general the South Beach was completely made over by the assault of the sea, and the beach hills were leveled off so that the scene would not be recognized. The tide rose in Vineyard Haven until it covered every pier, and men waded knee deep in water on top of the steamboat wharf. The lower streets of the town were flooded to a depth of two or three feet, and the shore estates along the harborfront had boats and wreckage strewn along their lawns. The havoc wrought among small boats was great and several larger craft suffered damage. The men from the Martha’s Vineyard Shipbuilding company did splendid work with the yard launch in saving several of the larger boats from destruction by fouling, as they did in some cases, but there was little that could be done to help until the wind began to drop.
Houses Became Islands
Howard avenue residents were driven off the lower floors of their houses and each house became an island. The Dukes County Garage and other buildings suffered similarly. The huge sign of the H.N. Hinckley Co. was wrenched from the ground and hurled clear across the street, and one of the open lumber sheds of the Tilton Lumber Co. was turned over, the roof torn off and dropped in the coal pockets of the Cromwell Coal Co. where much damage was also done. The Seaman’s Bethel was rendered almost uninhabitable, and no one could enter or leave it without wading in deep water, while across the street several cars, left on the town parking lot, were half submerged and badly damaged. The rising water flooded the power station of the Cape & Vineyard Electric Co., doing much damage, and also flooded the shops and yards of the Martha’s Vineyard Shipbuilding Co., where the loss will be considerable, tools and new lumber being soaked with salt water.
Great trees crashed in the village streets and a flagpole at the corner of Main and Union toppled and broke into several pieces, narrowly missing William H. Andrews, who was passing at the time. A falling tree struck the car of William E. Dugan, contractor, as he drove into the village, but without doing serious damage.
The properties along the Beach Road, Eastville shore and East Chop suffered both from wind and water, the sea rising until the waves broke against the houses, washing away sea walls and porches, and flooding the lower floors. Shingles and paper were ripped from roofs, and no estimate can yet be made of the damage done.
In Oak Bluffs the harbor scene paralleled that of Vineyard Haven, with much damage done to boats. Not even those hauled up for winter storage escaped, for the rising water floated at least two, battered them together and damaged them considerably, while others were swept into the bulkheads and stove or sunk or otherwise damaged.
Water rose over New York avenue between Lake Anthony and Sunset Lake to a depth of several feet, with heavy breakers rolling in from the sea, foaming and breaking over the street. The sea broke over Ocean avenue, and at Farm Pond the sea made a clean breach across the road, tearing up the surface and blocking traffic for a time. Porches were torn off houses, and other damage was done to buildings.