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Observatory hosts exhibit on Great Hurricane of '38

By Tom Eastman

CONWAY — It was known as the Yankee Clipper, the Long Island Express, or simply as the Great Hurricane of 1938. It made landfall at Long Island on Sept. 21, 1938 as a Category 3 hurricane, and is estimated to have killed between 682 and 800 people and caused massive destruction.

On Sept. 20, the Mount Washington Observatory will host the opening celebration of “The Great Blowdown,” a panel exhibition by the Museum of the White Mountains inspired by curator Dr. Lourdes Aviles’ new book, “Taken By Storm, 1938, A Social and Meteorological History of the Great New England Hurricane.”
Sponsored by the Museum of the White Mountains at Plymouth State University, the celebration will feature a presentation about the storm and a release and signing of Dr. Aviles’ new book. The free event will be held from 5 to 7 p.m. at the Mount Washington Observatory Weather Discovery Center in North Conway.

Great devastation

New England the past two falls has seen great storms, namely Tropical Storm Irene in late August 2011, and Sandy in fall 2012. The wrath of the Hurricane of 1938 is remembered for its fury.

Long before the advent of radar, satellite imagery, or other advanced meteorological technology, the Great New England Hurricane of 1938 stands out in the annals of New England weather lore. By the time the U.S. Weather Bureau learned that the Category 3 storm was on a collision course with Long Island, it was too late for a warning. The infamous storm caused widespread destruction from New Jersey to Quebec, claiming an estimated 682 to 800 lives. It remains the most powerful and deadliest hurricane in New England’s history.

 As Wikipedia notes, “Even as late as 1951, damaged trees and buildings were still seen in the affected areas. It remains the most powerful and deadliest hurricane in recent New England history, eclipsed in landfall intensity perhaps only by the Great Colonial Hurricane of 1635. In 2012 Hurricane Sandy did far more property damage in terms of dollars (despite its lower intensity at landfall); however, the 1938 storm still stands as the second costliest storm to strike New England.”

The exhibit portrays that devastation.

“The drama of the storm enlivens the story of the meteorological events that created it,” notes Catherine Amidon, director of the Museum of the White Mountains. “We are glad to be working with Mount Washington Observatory, an organization that shares our interest in science education, to bring the story of this remarkable weather event to visitors and locals of the northern White Mountains region.”

September 20 marks the eve of the 75th anniversary of the storm. Dr. Aviles, an associate meteorology professor at Plymouth State, will commemorate the occasion through compelling narratives of its devastating impact on the White Mountains and beyond.
“The Great Blowdown” will be on display at the Weather Discovery Center through the end of the year. The Weather Discovery Center is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and admission is free. For directions and more information, visit mountwashington.org/education.
To learn more about “The Great Blowdown” and other Museum of the White Mountains exhibits, visit plymouth.edu/museum-of-the-white-mountains.

Lucys extracted timber

According to Ruth Horne and Janet Hounsell's book, “Conway, New Hampshire: 1765-1997,” the U.S. Forest Service was so overwhelmed with the volume of blowdown timber on its hands following the Hurricane of '38 that the government “broke precedent by advertising that it would accept bids on logging operations.”

Finding a market first in Diamond National of Dover, Arthur O. Lucy of Conway Supply (now Lucy Hardware, which recently celebrated its 80th birthday) bid on a timber extraction job on the side of Bemis Mountian, Nancy Brook location in Crawford Notch, Hart's Location in late 1939. He got $1.50 per thousand board feet, wrote Horne and Hounsell.

 “Three years later,” they wrote, “the project wound down, thanks to Fred Lucy, who was to remark, years later, when asked how he got the spruce logs out, 'Oh, well, we used sluiceways, bobsledded some, twitched 'em, got 'em out any way we could. But it was all an uphill job.”

They added that in the wake of the '38 hurricane, over three million feet of timber was stored in Pequawket Pond. “It required eight months' labor to harvest and salvage this in the town of Conway and surrounding area through the U.S. Forest Service. In all, 4,046,007 board feet of umber was delivered as dry species and sawn,” they wrote.

The Reporter recounts impact

Microfilm copies of the now defunct weekly North Conway newspaper, The Reporter, are contained at the Henney History Room of the Conway Public Library. The North Conway Library has a set of old issues in its basement archives.

The paper carried seven front-page photographs of downed trees and stories about the Sept. 21 storm in its Sept. 29, 1938 edition. Next to stories about “Admiral Byrd To Dedicate Memorial Tablet To Dogs” in Wonalancet and “Work Progresses On Cranmore Project” (the Lower Skimobile), its front page Conway column bore the headline, “Sixty Shade Trees Leveled By Wind Storm.” Next to that story, its Sandwich column headline was “Storm Causes Property And Timber Loss.” For Fryeburg, also on the front page, it read, “Heavy Loss In Timber Created By Wind Storm.”

“The disastrous wind storm,” the Fryeburg columnist noted, “struck about 5 o'clock Wednesday evening and raged for three hours in total darkness. Almost at once telephone, telegraph and electric service were destroyed as line after line was leveled by the wind and falling trees. In Fryeburg Village, many of the street elms were destroyed, either uprooted or broken. At Lovell Center, both on the Lovell road and the road toward North Fryeburg, immense trees blocked the highway for more than a mile.”

Its Conway columnist wrote, “The people of Conway now have an idea what the hurricane and tornadoes of the west are like although realizing that the fury and destructive efficiency must be multiplied many times to make the effects of other sections where no mountains check the force of the elements. Fortunately, no one was hurt by falling trees, no buildings were demolished and inconvenience was the greatest affliction of most of the citizens. This joined with regret over the loss of about 60 of the shade trees which have been a feature of beauty in the village will make this event a memorable date in the history of the community.”

Further on in the Conway story, The Reporter noted, “Business places suffered most from the loss of power. The Heel Mill was obliged to shut down, the stores lost their refrigeration and were selling meats at cost and most of the gasoline stations were unable to serve customers as the hand pumps had been discarded in most of the stations. Thursday the village was like a lumber yard with saws going everywhere as big trees were being sawed into short lengths, and by night much had been carried away.”

About Mount Washington Observatory
Mount Washington Observatory is a private, nonprofit, member-supported institution with a mission to advance understanding of the natural systems that create the Earth's weather and climate. Since 1932, the observatory has been monitoring the elements from its weather station on the summit of Mount Washington, using this unique site for scientific research and educational outreach. For more information, call (800) 706-0432 or visit MountWashington.org.

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