In 1954 we were a young family living in West Tisbury in what used to be the parsonage of the West Tisbury Congregational Church. It was across the road from Johnson Whiting’s house, whose front yard still showed evidence of the 1938 hurricane: three elm trees toppled by the high winds still lay crisscrossed in the front yard.

The evening of August 31, 1954, was rainy and windy, but not alarmingly so. We made sure the windows were closed and went to bed hoping it would be a beach day on Wednesday. In those days we had no television and we never listened to the radio for anything but entertainment. If there were any radio warnings of the impending storm, we were in dreamland and didn’t hear them.

The next morning, we didn’t need to be told. The storm was howling around us, rattling the windows and tearing down the wires that brought electricity into our home. My husband Johnny went out to the car to listen to the radio and discovered we were in the middle of a hurricane. There was nothing to do but ride it out. We didn’t live near the water, we had no big trees near our house and we weren’t really frightened. But that summer Johnny was working as skipper of the Aphrodite, a private yacht tied up in Menemsha, and he worried about the boat as the owner, Nelson Blount, had left the Island for a few days.

The storm seemed to let up after breakfast, and we went outside to survey the damage. Wires were down, hanging from the trees and the corner of our house, and we didn’t know if they were live, so we went back inside and tried to call Mike Athearn on Music street, who at that time worked for the electric company. Then the wind and rain returned in a fury, and we learned later that we had gone out into the eye of the storm.

Menemsha Harbor was especially hard hit. — Shirley Mayhew

Hurricane Carol finally blew itself out and early in the afternoon we got into the car and headed up to Menemsha. Sticks and branches littered the roadway as we drove slowly up Middle Road, but fallen trees had already been cleared away. We turned onto Tabor House Road, which hadn’t yet been paved, and continued on North Road down the hill into the village of Menemsha. At that time Menemsha was a real fishing port — no fish markets, no restaurants, no grocery store — and especially, few tourists.

We found a small crowd of people gathered at the entrance to Basin Road, but the police had cordoned it off and were allowing people to pass only if they had connections to boats or buildings. When we got permission from the police, we left our car and walked to the harbor. As we came around the last curve, we were greeted by a scene of absolute devastation.

There was hardly a boat left where it had been just the day before. Masts and bowsprits stuck up out of the water to mark the graves of once beautiful vessels. Whole boats lay smashed on Dutcher Dock, and one or two small buildings floated in the middle of the harbor. Two of the three large yachts which had been tied up at the far dock, side by side near what is now the gas station, had survived, but the Aphrodite, on the inside slot, had disappeared and was resting on the bottom of the harbor. Only the tip of her swordfishing stand was above water, to show where she had come to rest. Herb Slater of the Aloysius and Frank Cyganowski, captain of the Seer, had been awakened by the Coast Guard as soon as they got the hurricane warning, early in the morning before dawn, and they took steps to save their boats.

The docks were strewn with wreckage, and a small building floated in the still choppy water in the harbor. Small boats had been tossed up onto the parking lot, which now looked like an extension of the beach — sand everywhere. Masts stuck up out of the water as the hulls of sailboats rested on the bottom beside the dock where they had been tied up. Or in more than one case the boat had gone down bow first and left only the stern showing the name of what had once been a prized possession. One mast still had on it the “For Sale” sign, put there only days before by the owner who now had no boat to sell. The Seer and the Aloysius floated in a solid mass of bits and pieces of wood and what had been furnishings of boats that had been destroyed. The huge tide had lifted up the Aphrodite and set it down on one or two pilings, which sealed its fate.

The dock was so cluttered with debris, it was impossible to walk on it, so we started down the middle of the road. What few people were there seemed stunned by the wreckage of what had once been a small fishing village, picturesque to the small number of visitors back in the fifties. Some of the Chilmark fishermen had sold their catch from their boats after each day of fishing, and now it seemed they had lost their livelihood.

While Johnny went in search of Herb Slater and Frank Cyganowski, I took advantage of being one of the few people being allowed in the basin. I began taking pictures of the damage, both in the water and out. One other person was there with a camera, and a few fishermen were about trying to find their boats, but mostly the area was deserted. I snapped three or four rolls of black and white film, and then we started home.

I realized when we returned home that I couldn’t get my film developed; the entire Island was without electricity, and who knew when we would get it back. On an impulse, I wrapped them all together and prepared to mail them off the next day to Life Magazine, still a weekly publication back then. My cover letter explained who I was and how I happened to take the enclosed photographs.

The editors developed my films, made contact sheets of them all, and even enlarged several of them. They wrote me a thank you note and enclosed $10, and returned it all to me. The next week, when Life came out, it was clear to me why I hadn’t made my first sale to a national magazine. The other person on the dock taking pictures of the wreckage had been Alfred Eisenstadt, on the staff of Life Magazine, and on his annual, end-of-the-summer vacation at the Menemsha Inn.

Shirley Mayhew lives in West Tisbury.