The ’38 Hurricane was a near tragedy for my family. At that time I was in the third grade at the Washington Street School in downtown Fairhaven, and we lived at 14 Green Street, not far from Fort Phoenix.
The school was built as a wooden church in the 1800’s until Rogers built the Unitarian Memorial Church around 1903 or so. It then became a school, and in the mid-1940’s it was the Boys’ Club and is now home to the Northeast Maritime Institute.
My classroom was on the second floor, west side. In the early afternoon on the day of the storm, the sky darkened, the wind picked up out of the Southwest, and torrents of rain came down, – sideways it seemed. The wind was blowing rain in around the windows, so my teacher, Miss Smith, moved us all to the east side of the room, away from the windows. Then the Principal came in and ordered us all to the rear exit on the northeast side in the lee of the wind.
Many parents were there to take their children home – some walked and others came by car. The teachers escorted other small groups in various directions, depending on where the teachers and children lived.
Soon the parents stopped coming as the storm worsened. The Principal finally told the remaining children to run home if they lived only a few blocks away. Many did so.
Among the first to leave was Ruth Porter, a third-grader like myself. She took off running down the middle of Washington Street through the wind and rain, lunch pail in hand, heading for her home on Summer Street six blocks away. She got home safely. (Seventeen years later we would get married). Her parents were not home. Her Dad had volunteered to help the Fairhaven Fire Department rescue people from rooftops and debris in the area between Harbor View and the beginning of Sconticut Neck. He got home later that day.
But before he left, he was successful in getting a neighbor to come in and babysit Ruth until her Mom or Dad got home. Her Mom ran the office at Rounseville Sawmill in Rochester and could not get home until the next day.
There were now eleven children and the Principal left at the school. They all lived in the south part of Fairhaven. The situation now must have looked bleak to the Principal.
Then we saw the headlights of a car approaching. It was my Mom in her ’36 Ford two-door coupe! It had bucket seats in the front with a big floor shift in between. The backbench seat could accommodate two more people.
Last to leave
The Principal ran to the car to ask Mom which way she was heading. When she said south, he then asked her if she could take anyone else left besides me. Mom agreed. The Principal then stuffed all eleven children into the car, and away we went. We were all frightened by the severity of the storm. The girls were crying. The boys less so, because we were fascinated by the storm raging outside.
The children soon figured out which way Mom should go in order to make the trip as short as possible. She had to make one detour to avoid a fallen tree and later had to drive down a sidewalk and over a lawn to get through. Each time she approached some child’s home, Mom leaned on the horn, and some anxious Mom or Dad would come running out to retrieve their child. Eventually, all of us got to our homes safely.
Later in the afternoon the wind suddenly dropped off to 20 or 30 mph, and the sun came out. Mom let my younger sister and I go outside. The sky was yellowish and smelled of sulfur.
A few minutes later, Mom called us into the house again when the wind suddenly resumed at hurricane strength. The eye of the storm had passed through the area and was now gone.
As the winds increased, the noise of the wind streaming around the trees and houses became a steady roar – like a high-speed train approaching. When the wind reached a maximum velocity later that evening, the roar became a high-pitched steady scream. It was frightening.
My Dad worked at Humphrey & Covill Insurance Agency with his partner, Ernie Humphrey, in downtown New Bedford. By early afternoon, they closed the office and sent the staff home while the trolleys were still running.
Dad phoned Mom to tell her he was on his way. When he reached the middle of Pope’s Island on Rte. 6, the motor stalled due to the deepening water. He saw another stranded driver. It was Charlie Dvorak, a friend of Dad’s. Together they went arm in arm along the bridge towards home.
They then heard someone yelling for help from amid the floating debris in the river. They managed to rescue him and the three of them then went hand over hand along the rail to Middle Street at the Skipper Restaurant.
Here they went their separate ways.
Dad had planned to make his way south on Middle Street, but it was underwater. He then tried the next street – Main Street, but that, too, was underwater. He then continued up Huttleston Avenue to Green Street and started south. He got to Bridge Street, one block away, and then could see that up ahead Green Street and Cushman Park were both underwaters.
He then went up Bridge Street to Adams Street and started south past St. Joseph’s Church to Center Street. Here he went right to Pleasant Street and then south past the Rogers School. At South Street next to the Atlas Tack Co., the railroad tracks crossed and were under 2 or 3 feet of fast-moving water. Dad waded through and went to Cottage Street and then south on Green Street. Meanwhile, Mom was very worried but tried not to show it. She sat in a chair by the living room window, watching for any sign of Dad.
Finally, she saw a figure staggering south through the rain and wind. It was Dad! She raced out and helped him into the house. He was completely exhausted and drenched. His hat was gone and his face was cut. He was so tired and out of breath, he could not talk at all. It would be the next afternoon before he could tell us his story.
Dad suffered from asthma ever since he was a little boy. If he exerted himself, he had to stop and rest to catch his breath. In his trek through Fairhaven, he could go only 50 or 100 feet before stopping to sit on the curbing, a fallen tree branch, or someone’s front steps. Then after a few minutes, he would continue on again.
It normally took Dad ten to twelve minutes to drive home from work, but on this day it took him three and a half hours to get home!
As you can imagine, we were all overjoyed, thankful, and crying to see him get home safely.
The next day the Fairhaven shoreline and the entire east side of the harbor looked like a tornado had come through. The river was clogged with pieces of buildings, boats, and junk. The streets from the High School south were littered with fallen elm trees, wires and poles.
In the 1800’s, Rogers had planted hundreds of elm trees along streets in the south part of town. By 1938, they ranged from four to six stories tall. About half of them came down, tearing up streets and sidewalks, with many trees landing on houses. Elm trees had no tap roots like a holly tree has. Their roots are shallow and spread out horizontally.
About half of what was left came down in the ’44 Hurricane, and half of what then remained came down in Hurricane Carol in 1954. By the 1960’s, not many were left. Dutch elm disease got most of the survivors.
It would be many weeks until the streets were all open and electric and phone service restored. Over 500 people died from the Connecticut and Rhode Island shores to Southeastern Massachusetts. The highest wind was recorded on top of Blue Hill in Milton, MA at 186 mph.
The Town of Fairhaven saw peak winds from 115 to 130 mph as I recall reading about. Our family felt very lucky that we got through the storm with no serious injuries or deaths.
My grandparents had a cottage at Crescent Beach in Mattapoisett.
A month or so after the storm they went there to see if the cottage survived intact. It was gone. Even the land was gone.
Sand covered the area. Most of the houses there were destroyed and the wreckage littered the tree line behind the road through Crescent Beach. The next year they had the lot surveyed to restore the boundary marks and then sold it. Enough was enough.
Ruth’s grandparents lost their summer home at Swift’s Beach in Wareham. The only thing they found was a swan-shaped bowl.
People call this a 100 year hurricane. The worst one I know of is one that struck the area in the mid-1600’s. It cut Cape Cod in half temporarily and cut the two main Elizabeth Islands into four. I call this one a 1,000-year hurricane. Very little is known about it because few white settlers lived in the area. Most of the residents were the Wampanoag Indians.
But no hurricane is a good one. I hope our current 30-year respite continues indefinitely.
Article by: Ray Covill
(Ruth & Ray Covill live in Mattapoisett.)
Photo credits: Photographer: Archival Photography by Steve Nicklas, NOS, NGS