True Tales from Canton’s Past: The Great New England Hurricane of 1938By George T. Comeau
For more than a week the warnings had been coming, forecasting the hurricane that just passed us this weekend. For many of our generation, we shrug at the warnings — perhaps buy extra water or batteries, but do we really take the forecasters seriously? The weathermen sometimes seem giddy as they describe the cyclonic activity, high and low pressure troughs, and the Saffir-Simpson scale.
Weather is one of the New England phenomena that make us, well, New Englanders — hardy, ready to face the storm, and ready to reach out in the aftermath and support our neighbors. It is, however, history that points to our reaction of both panic and passivity.
It was one of the greatest natural disasters on record in North America. Years before we began naming storms, hurricanes were simply referenced by the year and area they devastated. In 1938, the hurricane became known as the Great New England Hurricane.
The storm was unprecedented. The closest record we have is that in 1869 a category 3 storm walloped New England, and at least one death was reported. But the 1938 storm was particularly ferocious due to its size and unpredictable nature.
The stage was set for devastation and ruin in the weeks preceding the storm. The storm came when the local rivers and streams were swollen, and the autumnal equinox brought extremely high tides. The wind, rain, and storm surge would devastate the seven states in the path of the Great Hurricane.
Just prior to the storm, in the week leading up to September 21, it had been raining on and off for several days. The path was set for low pressure to feed the route of the storm into New England. Making landfall around 2:30 p.m. in Bayport, Long Island, the wind was blazing a wall of water such that the impact of the storm surge registered on seismographs as far away as Alaska.
It was the speed of the storm and the inability to recognize the extent of the potential power that caught New Englanders by surprise. In New York City the eye of the storm was more than 50 miles wide with winds measuring 100 mph and gusts of 120 mph measured at the top of the Empire State Building. With very little warning, Massachusetts stood in the path of the storm.
High atop Blue Hill the meteorologists busied themselves to record the storm. Observations at Blue Hill Observatory began in 1885, and from the beginning the most advanced instruments were used to measure daily observations of all things related to climate and atmosphere. This storm would earn the Blue Hill Observatory a place in meteorological history.
The storm hit Canton as families were sitting down for supper. The trains stopped running, lights began to flicker, and venturing outside soon became impossible. The hardest hit section of Canton was Washington Street from High Street through Randolph Street.
More than 400 trees were downed as a result of the wind damage. Sustained winds of more than 100 miles per hour uprooted enormous elms and chestnut trees. The ancient trees could not stand a chance; their canopies crushed against each other, and tangles of branches dropped on cars, roofs and streets below. Trees fell on the Historical Society, the Gridley School, and across dozens of roadways.
Storefronts along Washington Street were blown in, and several factories were severely damaged. The roof of the hangar at the Canton Airport was blown off and planes were destroyed within the structure. The Neponset Woolen Mills factory on Washington Street had an entire building ripped open and severely damaged. At Wampatuck Country Club, pine trees stood no chance in the face of the wind and rain. The same was true at St. Mary’s and the Canton Corner Cemetery, with gravestones damaged under the weight of branches and limbs.
Dozens of houses were damaged, and the entire communications system throughout the town was destroyed. It would take more than six miles of new alarm lines to reconstruct the fire alarm system. The entire Edison system was destroyed, and more than 1,000 poles and thousands of spans along the 15,000-mile distribution system were downed. It would take weeks to recover these services. More than 60 percent of Canton’s phones went dead in the early hours of the storm.
Of great concern was the fact that once power and phone lines went down, the Fire Department was at a severe disability to answer calls. By mid afternoon, all fire circuits and alarm boxes were non-existent. C.K. Endicott (King Endicott), the fire chief, called in the entire force of firemen. Half the men were dispatched through the storm to keep the roads clear as best as possible, and the other half stayed at the stations. In Ponkapoag, two men stayed in 24-hour shifts to ensure that there would be coverage in this state of disaster. And in the basement of the firehouse, a compressor was attached to pump air into the fire whistle to ensure that an alarm could be raised if fires began to touch off from the live wires strewed throughout the town.
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