The 1938 Hurricane

No one knew it was coming.

While the great New England hurricane of 1938 rocketed up the Atlantic seaboard at sixty miles an hour, packing winds of up to a hundred and fifty miles an hour, the inhabitants of the exclusive beachfront enclaves along Long Island, southeastern Connecticut, and Rhode Island pottered unsuspecting about their shingled cottages, packing up for the end of summer, bringing in the flowerpots.

As morning slid into afternoon, the winds starting picking up, the sky turned yellow, and a blur of fog appeared on the horizon. It was already too late to flee. That blur wasn’t fog at all, but a storm surge up to twenty feet high, which hit the coast like a tsunami to flood downtown Providence, wash the mighty Bostonian off its tracks on the Stonington causeway, and wipe all forty-four summer cottages along Napatree Point in Watch Hill into the sea without trace, never to be rebuilt.

I was lucky enough to sit down with Robert Utter, owner of the wonderful Other Tiger Bookstore in Westerly, Rhode Island, whose family owned the local newspaper for many years. He shared with me his archive of photographs, news clippings, books, and rare film footage of the Westerly-Watch Hill area before and after the 1938 hurricane, and was kind enough to let me pick through and reproduce a few of them here.