I work for the Connecticut Sea Grant program, and it’s part of my job to make people aware of the risk they face from hurricanes. Sharing stories of the Big One is one way that I accomplish this task. Though I wasn’t alive in 1938, the hurricane is very real to me. The storm was the central figure of many of the stories I grew up with, and my father’s striking photographs brought the stories to life.
My dad was a 29-year old freelance newspaper reporter then, writing mostly for The Day newspaper in New London, Connecticut. He recalled that the morning of September 21 had been a perfect beach day. As the storm approached and its severity became obvious, Dad fought his way to the school to retrieve my older brother, Russ, and brought him home. Russ recalls crouching behind an armchair, covered by our mother’s body. When Dad shouted, “Here it comes!!” Russ remembers hearing an unearthly roaring sound, like a train thundering by at top speed.
Russ was one of the lucky ones. Many children died in the storm, drowned where they huddled in a library, or tossed about by the violent waves that crashed ashore. In Rhode Island, a school bus, including children and driver, was washed out to sea and lost. My grandparents, who had a coastal farm on Barn Island, had gathered refugees in their home. As the group fled 12-foot waves to higher ground, they spotted a naked corpse in the yard.
Fishermen in Stonington, Connecticut, carry a wicker basket containing human remains found at the waterfront. The hurricane totally destroyed about 2,600 fishing vessels and damaged about 3,400 more. Immediately after the storm, only three commercial fishing vessels remained useable in Southeastern Connecticut and Rhode Island. Photo by A. Morgan Stewart, The Day, courtesy of Peg Van Patten.
My dad, who had a considerable vocabulary, was so shocked at the devastation he saw that evening and the following day that he could hardly write. Instead, he relied on his camera, and took many photos to tell the story. Much of the city of New London had burned after sparks from downed power lines caused businesses and a coal company to catch fire. The Day lost power, but sent its reporters and photographers out into what it later called “the Stygian darkness” and through smoke like “the devil’s furnace,” at risk to their lives. The combined effects of the hurricane—winds, floods, and fire—caused $4 million in property damage in New London alone.
The Bostonian train encountered fishing boats and a house that had been deposited on its tracks. Lumber from the wreckage of buildings was everywhere. Photo by A. Morgan Stewart, The Day, courtesy of Peg Van Patten.
Many of my father’s photographs show the Bostonian train, which miraculously escaped entrapment as it went through five feet of water on a swaying trestle bridge between Mystic and Stonington, Connecticut. In Stonington, with all the passengers huddled in one car, the train tipped off the tracks in waist-deep water, and passengers had to leap out into the wind and water and wade to safety.