Posted by: coastlinesproject | September 22, 2015

The 1938 Hurricane.

“The Long Island Express”

September 8, 2015



After Labor Day, I was asked to give a talk in Woods Hole Massachusetts so I decided to use the trip to investigate what had happened to the area during the most deadly storm to ever strike New England.


A Brazilian freighter first reported the storm off Florida on September 15 1938. It was a late season Cape Verdean hurricane that had developed unnoticed off the coast of Africa and then been nourished by the unusually warm waters of the Atlantic.


By the time the U.S. Weather Bureau heard about it, all they could do was issue a hurried warning for Miami. But during the night the hurricane had unexpectedly veered north missing the Southeast mainland altogether.


It was swerving around a Bermuda High so the weather Service figured it would continue to blow safely out to sea. But the Bermuda high had itself moved north nudging the storm over the steamy waters of the Gulf Stream. There, it sucked up more energy and picked up speed becoming what became known as “The Long Island Express, the fastest moving hurricane in history,


By the afternoon of September 21st, the sky had grown dark and telephone poles were snapping like matchsticks all along Long Island, but people continued to stand on the beach mesmerized by a low-lying fogbank hanging just offshore. Of course it wasn’t a fogbank, it was the gray waters of the storm’s 30-foot high storm surge that swept hundreds of people to their deaths and the winds rose to over 120 miles per hour, on the top of the Empire State Building.


Bob Thielen, a writer for the New Yorker, was vacationing in his summer camp on Martha’s Vineyard, with his wife Virginia and their maid Lucy from Jamaica. By lunchtime the sky turned an ominous yellow and as Lucy laid out the plates she kept muttering, “This is hurricane weather. We’ve got to get out of here.”


“Nonsense Lucy,” Virginia reassured her. “We never get hurricanes this far north.”


But, of course this was the hurricane of 1938 and an hour later the wind was making a continuous booming sound that Virginia remembered sounding like, “giant kettle drums beating out wild crescendos.” Fearing that the camp would be swept into the sea, the three quickly donned foul-weather gear and raced outside.


They were running along the beach toward a sand dune on the edge of Stonewall Pond when the spray-flecked waters of the storm surge swirled over the barrier beach lifting the camp off its foundations. Knowing that Lucy couldn’t swim, Bob held her hand as they struggled through knee-deep waters against the hundred mile-an-hour winds.


Nearby, their friend, the artist Thomas Hart Benton, was collecting mussels off some rocks as he did every morning for his cash-strapped family. As he and his son T.P. approached Stonewall Pond they saw a twenty foot high wave of blue green water topped with another ten feet of pure white spume come hurtling toward the offshore bar. The wave towered over the tiny running figures for one brief moment before crashing down upon them. For another brief moment they could see the Thielens struggling in neck deep water, then being swept over their heads into the choppy waters of Stonewall pond.


Bob was still holding Lucy’s hand, but his waterlogged pants and boots were pulling them both down, so he took a deep breath and let go of her hand just long enough to dive underwater to strip off the offending clothes. But when he returned to the surface Lucy was nowhere to be found. He dove several more times but to no avail.


Equally worried about Virginia, Bob swam to her side and together they struggled against the strong currents and were able to grab a thorn-covered tangle of wild roses and bayberry bushes and pull themselves exhausted onto the shore. As they lay there panting they looked back through the mist and saw their camp floating lopsided ready to keel over and sink.


The salt spray stung the couple’s eyes as they stumbled through a field and past some cows lying huddled together against the storm. That was when they heard Benton’s voice over the wind, “You two – you’re damn lucky. Come up and to our house, Rita has the fire going. We thought you were gone for sure.”


Benton and T.P. helped the shell-shocked couple climb the stairs into their house, where Rita met them with tears streaming down her face. She gave them dry clothes and sat them down in front of the roaring fire. For a while all the two could do was stare silently into the flames while eating Rita’s warming casserole.


Bob was still shaking so hard he could barely hold his glass, “Lucy just went down. She just went down. Nowhere to be seen. I should have gone back.” Tom and Rita assured him that it would have only been futile and dangerous.


Eventually the hot rum and warm fire did their work and Bob started to relax, “I never did like cows up until today.” Tom looked at his friend in utter astonishment.


“Now why in hell do you like cows today?”


“I don’t know. It’s hard to explain. Seeing them there on the hillside looking so warm and safe,” he said quietly before staring back into the fire.


A few days later, Bob wrote about his travails for the New Yorker and Thomas Hart Benton painted, “The Flight of the Thielens,” which won him widespread attention.


The masterpiece launched Benton’s career as a nationally known artist who travelled, sketchbook in hand, across the country chronicling rural America just as it was disappearing. He went to illustrate John Steinbeck’s classic novel “The Grapes of Wrath,” and worked with some of Hollywood’s best writers and directors on sets and movie posters. You can still see Benton’s work hanging in leading museums and on tour throughout the country.


But you don’t see any houses on Stonewall Pond Beach. It has been made into a privately protected wildlife area.




On the mainland, Buzzards Bay, Narragansett Bay and Little Narragansett Bay acted like funnels to squeeze the hurricane’s storm surge even higher as it tumbled cars, houses, and debris under 30 feet of muddy water in downtown Providence. The beautiful old Cape Cod cottage that used to house the National Marine Fisheries Laboratory in Woods Hole was washed away and replaced by what could be mistaken for a municipal swimming pool of the Fifties era.


Across the bay, New Bedford was also inundated. It took 30 years but the Army Corps of Engineers was finally brought in to build a multi-million dollar barrier designed to withstand another storm the size the 1938 Hurricane. The gate was closed and protected the city during Hurricane Bob and Sandy but everyone knew they didn’t even come close to packing the power of the ’38 storm.


But perhaps the most poignant place destroyed by the Hurricane of 1938 was Westerly Rhode Island. There, Fort Road stretched out from Watch Hill to become a several mile long barrier beach with low sand dunes, and magnificent summer homes. The homes along with their occupants were swept away without a trace during the horrific storm.


It was noteworthy, however, that local officials decided that it was just too dangerous to rebuild houses on the barrier beach so they turned it into the Napatree Point Wildlife Refuge. You can hike out to the end of the beach today and see an island sitting in the middle of Little Narragansett Bay. It is all that remains of the northern end of the island that was severed off during the storm and migrated to its present configuration and location and during the intervening years. It is now another public barrier beach that helps to protect the mainland.


Not far down the road, the pop star Taylor Swift has upset old timers by building a stone seawall to protect her cliff-side home. They grumble that as a new comer she has not had the time to pick up the wisdom and humility that comes from living on a stormy coast. These two strategies, moving or armoring the coast, continue to be two divergent solutions   that communities adopt in the wake such storms.

I expected to see variations on those strategies as we cruised south in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.


But what happed to the remnants of the 1938 hurricane? It pushed on up through the Connecticut River Valley leaving a path of destruction from Rhode Island to Montreal. She even toppled the trestle bridge on the top of Mount Washington and left 690 dead bodies in her wake. They died primarily because they had no warning of the storm’s approach and didn’t know they should evacuate.




William Sargent is the author of 20 books on science and the environment. His newest book, Energy Wars; A Report from the Front is available in local bookstores and through and at







  1. This account, has a full and different name for the Jamaican maid who was lost in the swirling waters. It can be found near the end of the story.


    C.W. Rice

    Sent from my iPad


    • Thanks Whiting. Interesting disparity. My source was Polly Burroughs’ book about Thomas Hart Benton on Martha’s Vineyard. Not sure which is correct!

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