Friday, November 2, 2012

The 1938 Hurricane in Londonderry and Derry

As we brought in the bird feeders, stocked up on batteries, and prepared for Hurricane Sandy, we remembered past hurricanes and storms.  I’ll never forget my former brother-in-law riding out the “Perfect Storm” of 1991  on board his lobster boat in Menemsha, Massachusetts.  (He survived!) My mother will never forget Hurricane Daisy in 1958 that arrived just before her wedding. My father worked for Traveler’s Insurance, and went to New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Betsy as a claims adjuster in 1965.  His letters to my mother describe the devastation. According to Wikipedia it was “the first tropical cyclone in the Atlantic Basin to cause $1 billion (1965 USD) in damage.” These stories live on in our family history.

One of my favorite books about
New England after the 1938 storm

The hurricane of 1938 was expected to turn out to sea, but instead it headed directly north into New England.  The storm surge ahead of the storm caused south facing bays such as Buzzard’s Bay in Massachusetts and Providence, Rhode Island to experience unprecedented flooding and loss of life.  Here, further north, the damage was caused by wind that caused entire forests to be flattened as far north as Maine and Nova Scotia.  The wind on top of Mount Washington was measured at 163 mph.  Gusts were measured above 180 mph in Rhode Island.

New Hampshire had been hit by a huge flood in 1936, and then the hurricane in 1938.  In the middle of the Great Depression, this was an unbearable hardship for many New Englanders.  Whole neighborhoods along the coast were washed away forever.  The inland landscape was forever changed when centuries old trees were uprooted, and historic homes, churches and other buildings were destroyed.

The eye of the storm passed up the New Hampshire and Vermont border, along the Connecticut River.  The storm hit Londonderry and Derry at about five in the afternoon, and continued its fury all night.  The next morning townspeople woke to see the devastation.  In Derry the conservative estimate was 450 trees down.  There wasn’t electricity to the area for days, and Broadway in Derry was black for 48 hours.  There was not a single death in Derry or Londonderry.   A woman from Derry, Edna Clark, was vacationing in North Weare, New Hampshire and was swept to her death when a dam gave way.

In his history of Derry Nutfield Rambles, Derry’s former town historian, Richard Holmes, reported that Adams Pond was filled with thousands of logs from the windblown trees, and were turned into boards at the local sawmill.  Two billion feet of usable timber were felled by the hurricane.  60, 000 people in New Hampshire were made homeless, and thirteen lost their lives.  There was about $12 million in storm damage to New Hampshire (1938 dollars).

It is hard to imagine the tree damage, until you learn an entire project that built on the fallen trees from the Hurricane of 1938.  That was the woman’s sawmill at Turkey Pond in Concord, New Hampshire.  In 1942 the US Forest Service built a sawmill on Turkey Pond and hired women (while the men served in WWII) to cut the fallen trees into boards for the war effort.  This is New Hampshire’s version of “Rosy the Riveter”, and was written up into the book They Sawed Up a Storm, by Sarah Shea Smith.

These stories are passed along in our families.  Make sure you record all oral histories, and any other events that affect your family.  Someday your children or grandchildren will ask “Where were you during Hurricane Sandy of 2012?”

For more information:

Nutfield Rambles, by Richard Holmes, Peter Randall Publisher, 2007

They Sawed up a Storm, by Sarah Shea Smith, Peter Randall Publisher, 2011 .  Place an order at

“Hurricane of 1938: Memories of the Last Big One”, Eagle Tribune, Lawrence, Mass., 30 July 2006

Copyright 2012, Heather Wilkinson Rojo

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