Wellesley caught off guard: The great New England hurricane of 1938

The following article appeared in the Wellesley Townsman on December 10, 2015.

Hurricane damage on Washington Street (looking northeast at the original Wellesley Inn annex building from the current site of Blue Ginger) (Source: 1939 Wellesley College Legenda via archive.org)

Hurricane damage on Washington Street (looking northeast at the original Wellesley Inn annex building from the current site of Blue Ginger)
(Source: 1939 Wellesley College Legenda via archive.org)

September 21st, 1938 started out like any other Wednesday in Wellesley. Husbands left for work. Children walked to school. And wives began the house chores. Little did they know, an extremely fast-moving tropical cyclone of great ferocity was passing by Cape Hatteras, nearly 600 miles away, taking aim at New England.

Only maritime officials knew exactly where the storm was located. But even they believed New Englanders had no reason to worry. After all, every other hurricane had swerved east into the Atlantic Ocean, avoiding landfall entirely.

But weather forecasting was a crude and rudimentary exercise in the 1930s. The meteorologists totally missed the two high pressure centers located to the east and west of New England that would channel the low pressure tropical storm straight into eastern Long Island and Connecticut. Although the eye of the hurricane would stay west of the Boston metro area, this region would experience the strongest gales, the result of a tropical cyclone’s asymmetrical wind field.

The first warnings were sounded by Boston’s Weather Bureau at 2:30pm as the storm approached New York. These alerts, however, came far, far too late. When the wind and rain arrived in Wellesley, the evening commute had only just begun.

The storm would reach its peak at 6:47pm with wind velocities in Wellesley exceeding 90 miles per hour. Yet residents were still out on the roads, many trapped in their cars on roadways blocked by fallen trees and live electrical wires.

Make no mistake. The devastation in Wellesley was no comparison to the damage within coastal communities along the Atlantic Ocean and Long Island Sound. The storm — with its maximum sustained winds topping 150 miles per hour — had made landfall at high tide, the storm surge worsened by persistent September rains that had left rivers and creeks already overflowing their banks. Massive resort buildings and small cottages alike were reduced to rubble. Large swaths of New London and Providence were nearly obliterated. Further inland, cities and towns were no less immune to the effects of the storm. By the time the hurricane entered Canada near Montreal, more than 600 residents of New England and Long Island had died.

Although no lives were lost in Wellesley, the physical destruction of the town was devastating. This included countless broken windows, toppled electric poles, damaged fences, collapsed garages, and demolished chimneys. Even the large metal ornament atop the cupola of the recently completed 1938 High School — a piece of Wellesley history that now adorns the lobby of the 2012 High School — was left bent at a nearly 45 degree angle.

The greatest loss, however, were the town’s magnificent trees. Although the precise number lost to the storm will never be known, Wellesley’s Tree Warden estimated that 380 trees alone were uprooted along the length of Washington Street — primarily elms that had been planted by the Town’s forefathers during the 1860s and 1870s to give the main thoroughfare its picturesque charm. On the Town Hall grounds, 46 trees came down. Also hit extremely hard were both the campus of Wellesley College – which lost roughly 1700 trees, including those planted by the inaugural graduating class of 1879 — as well as the Hunnewell Estate, with its diverse collection of trees rivaling that of any arboretum within the entire United States.

Of course, they say it’s not how hard you fall, but rather how fast you get up. Indeed, Wellesley was cleaning up before the hurricane had even finished causing its destruction. Chairman of the Board of Selectmen John McIntosh had declared a state of emergency, ordering that every Town department join the Highway Department in clearing the roads of debris throughout the night. The following morning, an additional 55 W.P.A. workers — Wellesley men eager to find employment during what was still the Great Depression — were added to the cleanup crew. Within little time, the roads were once again clear.

Additionally, the Electric Light Department went to work replacing the fallen poles and damaged wires that had left most of the town without power. By the following week, nearly 95% of electricity in Wellesley had been restored. (Repairing the other 5% had to wait upwards of one month due to underground light circuits damaged from the uprooting of trees.)

It would take years, however, for the town to fully recover from the storm, specifically in reference to removing and replacing all the lost trees. But then again, one could easily argue that “Wellesley the Beautiful” never recovered completely. Many of the shade trees that came down were irreplaceable and no attempt was made to fill their void. The Town of Wellesley had lost much of its natural beauty that evening, a permanent reminder of the devastation caused by the Great New England Hurricane of 1938.

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