The Historical Perspective: Remembering the 1938 Hurricane

The Historical Perspective: Remembering the 1938 Hurricane

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The water rose halfway to the eaves of the Edgartown Yacht Club.

Martha’s Vineyard’s history is a rich narrative of people and events. In a regular series, The Times has invited the Martha’s Vineyard Museum to draw on its unique cache of contemporary photos and first-person accounts to describe interesting but often unfamiliar moments in Island history called to mind sometimes, but not always, by present dates.

Nowadays we hear of potential great storms and hurricanes for days in advance. Radar and 24-hour news and weather channels offer imprecise predictions that seem designed to whip the maximum number of people into a frenzy of preparation. When a storm does not meet expectations, there is disdain for all the hype. Try to imagine, then, a hurricane arriving on the shores of Martha’s Vineyard with almost no warning. A hurricane that found no one prepared. Seventy-five years ago on the afternoon of September 21, that is exactly what happened.

The 1938 hurricane has attained legendary status, and deservedly so. It was the storm of the century. It devastated the coast from Long Island to Cape Cod, destroying property and killing 564 people in southern New England. Here on Martha’s Vineyard, Josephine Clark, Jamaican cook for the Thielens, a summer family in Chilmark, was swept away when she fled with the couple as their house was surrounded by water. She was the Island’s sole fatality.

Others were thankful to survive, but their property loss was enormous. Menemsha was gone in two hours, fishing shacks lifted up and smashed by the power of the storm, boats ripped from their moorings and stranded on shore.

In his 1976 book, “A Wind to Shake the World,” Everett S. Allen recounts the story of the 1938 hurricane’s course of destruction from New Jersey to Massachusetts. Allen had lived on Martha’s Vineyard from the age of eight, except for the time he was at college. He had begun his first day as a reporter for the New Bedford Standard-Times just the day before the storm.

Describing the Vineyard, he wrote, “Water rose halfway to the eaves of the Edgartown Yacht Club; within, the piano was afloat…. In Vineyard Haven, water was knee-deep over the steamboat wharf. The lower streets of the town were flooded to depths of two or three feet and the harbor-front lawns were strewn with boats and wreckage.” At Menemsha, Carl Reed “saw three huge waves sweep across the creek, carrying everything before them.”

The Martha’s Vineyard Museum has collections that preserve the memory of this catastrophe. Photographers, both known and unknown, recorded the devastation, especially at Menemsha, but also in Edgartown and elsewhere on the Island. Interviews collected decades after the storm by the museum’s Oral History curator, Linsey Lee, prove that the events of that day in 1938 remained with Vineyarders for the rest of their lives.

One of these oral histories was given by Jimmy Morgan in 2000. He was 14 in 1938 and describes riding the school bus home to Menemsha from high school in Vineyard Haven. Though the storm had not reached its height yet, there were already trees in the road. When he arrived in Menemsha, he decided to have a look. “I walked around the shore and down along the harbor, and then everything started floating away and I went home.” His father had been in a dory with Everett and Donald Poole, trying to save some of the things that were floating out of the buildings.

When Morgan looked back on the storm, he reflected on the damage, “I guess they’d had hurricanes there before. They never called them hurricanes, always an ‘August gale.’ But they never had anything like that. They didn’t know how bad it was going to be…. After the hurricane, everything was all washed out, the docks and fish shacks were gone.”

Another oral history, this one from 2001 with Betty Honey of Vineyard Haven, has her reading a letter that her mother wrote just after the storm. “Wednesday it blew from two p.m. to late at night. I was in the woodhouse by the back door, ready to run out if the big elm trees crashed down.” She describes 17-year-old Betty getting home from school and going to work, and then tells about fruit being blown from trees, Adirondack chairs being tossed about, “and all the time those great trees were swaying and the tops shrieking with the wind.” The letter continues, “Elaine Merrill and Edith Marshall and dog were returning in Elaine’s car from Oak Bluffs. The water rose and covered their running board and they had to proceed and when they got to the electric light plant the water was in her car, which was rocking like a boat. They got out into the water above their waists, Miss Marshall’s coat floating and the dog swimming behind her on the leash.”

The letter, which was to Betty’s mother’s sister in Vermont, also alludes to the isolation the Vineyard experienced in the days following the storm. It starts with the information that “the boats are coming and going, but I hear the train service and so on are poor. So I’ve sent this air mail,” and concludes, “Two big airplanes came yesterday to get reports on conditions here. All communications between here and Boston was lost. Write soon.”

There have been hurricanes that hit the Vineyard since 1938. Big storms in 1944, 1954, and 1991 did major damage and live on in the memories of Islanders who were here to experience them. But the storm of 1938 remains the one that they are all compared to. After 75 years, it’s still the big one.

Bonnie Stacy is the Chief Curator of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum. Visit www.mvmuseum.org for more information about upcoming programming and exhibits. The Museum is open year round. Summer hours are Monday-Saturday 10am to 5pm, and Sunday 12-5pm. Admission is free to Members; admission for non-Members is $7 for adults, $6 for seniors, $4 for children 6 to 15 and free for children under the age of 6.