By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Looking back at the Hurricane of 1938

My grandfather Elmer Shaw in Onset. Click on image for more photos.

In late September 1938, an enormously destructive storm hit most of the northeastern United States. The Hurricane of 1938 resulted in 564 deaths and more than 1,700 injuries.

The hurricane has also been a matter of family legend. The Shaws, my mother’s side of the family, owned a cottage on the water — “Shawnee” — along East Boulevard in Onset, part of Wareham. I spent many happy summer days there in the 1960s and early ’70s. And I was always told that my grandfather Elmer Shaw had done such a good job of building the cottage that it was the only one along East Boulevard to survive the hurricane.

Here’s how the Boston Globe of Sept. 22 described the impact of the hurricane on Wareham:

Without lights and almost completely inundated in many sections, the town remained on the verge of isolation. No trains arrived and it was utterly impossible to enter the town through the main street.

All stores in the business district were completely under water. The warehouse of the Tremont Nail Company was 10 feet under water.

I seem to recall family members saying that the hurricane came with no warning. If that’s the case, then perhaps they weren’t paying attention. Though the cable-news saturation of 2011 was unimaginable back then, the Globe ran several stories as the storm drew closer, among them “Hurricane Moving Toward the Bahamas” (Sept. 19) and “Hurricane May Spare Florida” (Sept. 20).

Still, if the Globe’s online archives are complete, then the next time the word “hurricane” popped up was on Sept. 22, after the storm had swept through. But people did listen to the radio in the 1930s, and it’s hard to imagine that storm updates weren’t part of news reports.

Recently my cousin Sue discovered a trove of family pictures, including some of Onset and of the Hurricane of 1938. I thought you might enjoy having a look.

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  1. Mary Dechillo

    I was just thinking about the Hurricane of 1938. I remember my father, who as age 16, describing the flooding in Saco-Biddeford, Maine, where he and I both grew up. It was from that experience that he always took seriously bad weather of any kind.

  2. Thanks for the stories. As with many folks of the era, the Hurricane of 1938 was a defining moment of my father’s life, much as we would regard Nov. 22 or Sept. 11.
    One note, based on my reading of the histories – the storm was far enough off the coast that the buoys and weather stations in New Jersey didn’t pick up on the full strength of the storm. It was strong, but very fast, so the wave action on the west side wasn’t so powerful. The storm surge that killed so many in Providence was on the east side, far from shore.
    So, there weren’t radio reports of an imminent hurricane until it hit the Long Island shore. By that time, in that era, it was too late.

  3. Bill Hanna

    My great-grandfather also weathered the storm in Onset–not far from East Boulevard–and that remains part of our family’s lore long after he and all who remembered him have gone.

  4. Bill Hanna

    One more note about the Hurricane of ’38: A wonderful book on the subject was written by Everett S. Allen called “A Wind to Shake the World: The Story of the Hurricane of 1938.” The storm struck on Allen’s first day as a reporter for the New Bedford Standard Times. The book was published in 1976 by Little, Brown and Company and should be available in any local library. Well worth the read.

  5. Aaron Read

    This website also has an interesting analysis on why the ’38 hurricane was so deadly. A major conclusion is that people just didn’t think hurricanes really could hit them. And Irene, in a way, just reinforced that belief…much like Gloria and Bob did. Both were “hurricanes” that did cause some major damage in specific areas for specific reasons (my heart goes out to Vermonters!) but they weren’t the all-encompassing destruction of Andrew or Ike because the latter two were real hurricanes packing a tremendous wallop…whereas the others were all hurricanes that lost power and became tropical storms right before hitting the northeast.

    One wonders if this had some connection to why so many people were “suckered” by Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds” broadcast that happened barely five weeks later. Perhaps the hurricane caused people to pay attention to the news on the radio a little too well?

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