The Long Blue Line: The Great New England Hurricane—the services’ last battle before the war

This week’s Long Blue Line article reminds us how powerful and destructive hurricanes can be. In 1938, the Great New England Hurricane blew in from North Carolina and made its way to Massachusetts. This was the most destructive storm to hit New England.

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This blog is part of a series honoring the long blue line of Coast Guard men and women who served before us. Stay tuned as we highlight the customs, traditions, history and heritage of the Coast Guard.

  • Boat Station Moriches as it looked before the 1938 hurricane struck. (U.S. Lifesaving Service Heritage Association)
  • The remains of Station Moriches after the storm--just a foundation and sand. (U.S. Lifesaving Service Heritage Association)
  • Photo showing crew vehicles at Moriches after the 1938 storm. (U.S. Lifesaving Service Heritage Association)

Written by William H. Thiesen
U.S. Coast Guard Atlantic Area Historian

Hitting the East Coast over 80 years ago, the Great New England Hurricane was one of the most destructive storms to strike anywhere in the United States up to that time. Also known as the “Yankee Clipper” and “Long Island Express,” the 1938 hurricane caused over $41 billion in property damage and the death of approximately 700 men, women and children.

During the storm response, the Coast Guard assisted over 500 vessels and rescued over 1,000 persons. However, the storm damaged or destroyed 30 Coast Guard boat stations, several of them never re-built. It damaged four U.S. Lighthouse Service depots and 25 lighthouses, completely destroying one of them. Moreover, the service lost three Coast Guardsmen washed overboard from a cutter and another seven Lighthouse Service persons perished in the storm.

1.	Global map showing track of the 1938 Great New England Hurricane from the Atlantic up to Canada. (Image courtesy of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.)
Global map showing track of the 1938 Great New England Hurricane from the Atlantic up to Canada. (Image courtesy of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.)

In September 1938, a year before World War II started in Europe, a tropical depression emerged off the coast of Saharan Africa. By mid-September, the weather pattern had developed into a full-blown hurricane. Floridians feared the worst having endured violent hurricanes twice in the 1920s and just a few years earlier in 1935. However, by September 20, the hurricane had skipped Florida and swirled north. It blew North Carolina’s Diamond Shoals Lightship off station and grew in strength to a dangerous Category 5 storm. Rolling past New Jersey at over 50 miles per hour, the hurricane heavily damaged the Coast Guard station at Sandy Hook.

On September 21, the storm barreled north toward the heart of New England. Long Island absorbed the initial impact of the hurricane, hence the storm’s nickname of “Long Island Express.” The hurricane came ashore with winds well over 100 miles per hour and a storm surge over 10 feet. Between Long Island’s Fire Island Inlet and Southampton, the barrier islands submerged under heavy seas. The deadly combination of gale force winds, storm surge and breaking waves obliterated shorefront property, coastal towns and the numerous Coast Guard boat stations dotting the Long Island shoreline. Of the 30 Coast Guard stations damaged or destroyed by the hurricane, 22 of them were laid waste in New York—a number of them never re-opened.

With gale force winds of 120 miles per hour driving the storm surge, the hurricane battered Rhode Island. The state suffered the worst damage with over half the hurricane’s fatalities. Coves, bays and inlets that cut into the state’s coastline served as funnels multiplying the 15-foot storm surge already riding a spring tide a foot higher than the normal high tide. Smaller oceanside towns were wiped out and flooding of downtown Providence reached depths between 10 and 20 feet. Coast Guard boat stations in Rhode Island felt the full brunt of the storm with stations at Brenton Point, Point Judith, Quonochontaug and Watch Hill heavily damaged. It took years to re-build these bases and one had to be re-located to a safer location.

Storm damage to Boat Station Brenton Point due to the Great New England Hurricane. (U.S. Lifesaving Service Heritage Association)

In Rhode Island, the U.S. Lighthouse Service also suffered its greatest loss of lighthouses and service members. In Narragansett Bay, tidal waves struck the Prudence Island Light, Beavertail Light, Bullock’s Point Light and Whale Rock Light. Beavertail was severely damaged while the keeper’s wife and son drowned at Prudence Island. Tidal waves stripped the sides off of Bullock’s Point Light, which was later decommissioned and replaced with a skeleton tower lighthouse. Whale Rock Lighthouse was destroyed by a tidal wave, the body of its assistant keeper never found and the lighthouse never re-built.

In Connecticut, the storm cost hundreds of lives and tremendous property damage. The western shoreline of the state sustained storm surges of up to 20 feet. At New London’s large Coast Guard station, numerous boats were lost or damaged beyond repair. The Coast Guard Academy also lost some of its watercraft. Even more amazing was the sight of the 200-foot lighthouse tender Tulip washed-up on the railroad tracks in New London. The tender had burst its moorings and the surge carried it up on shore. Surprisingly, Tulip was later removed and re-floated, and remained in commission until 1945 having served in both world wars.

As the eye of the storm traveled north into the heart of New England, the right side of it hit the coast of Massachusetts from the Rhode Island border to the tip of Cape Cod and up to Boston. Storm surges in the area measured between 18 and 25 feet and the hurricane’s greatest wave height of 50 feet was recorded at Gloucester. The storm devastated Massachusetts’ Coast Guard stations and lighthouses along the coast, including boat stations at Gay Head, Martha’s Vineyard, and Cuttyhunk. Massachusetts’s lighthouses also suffered heavy damage. In New Bedford, the keeper’s wife at the flooded Palmer Island Lighthouse drowned in the storm and, except for the original stone tower, lighthouse structures on Bird Island were swept away. Fortunately, the light was not manned at the time.

As the hurricane made its way northwest toward Canada, it cut a swath of destruction. The storm toppled two billion trees and destroyed approximately 20,000 homes, buildings and structures. On eastern Lake Ontario, at the Galloo Island Boat Station, New York, the crew readied their motor lifeboat (MLB) to rescue the one-man crew of a foundering dredge. On board the MLB, Surfman #8 Gerrett Gregory had trouble breathing the water-infused air as rain poured down and the wind swept water into the air from Lake Ontario. Before motoring into the maelstrom, officer-in-charge Warrant Boatswain Alston Wilson told his crew “I know what you’re thinking. The three of us will probably die trying to save one guy who will die also. Get in the boat—we have a job to do.”

Fighting 100 mile per hour winds and heavy seas breaking over the MLB’s stern, Wilson maneuvered the MLB beside the dredge and saved the man on board. The dredge later washed up on the rocks, but the MLB rescue mission had been accomplished without loss of life.

The Great New England Hurricane of 1938 was the most destructive storm to hit New England devastating the Coast Guard’s boat stations and Lighthouse Service’s lighthouses. In New England, the two services barely survived this battle with one of the worst storms in American history. As one survivor remarked, “I sometimes feel that we have had a preview of the end of the world.”

U.S. Lighthouse Service tender Tulip washed up on shore in New London, Conn. The tender blocked local train traffic in the aftermath of the hurricane. (Photo courtesy of Groton-ct.gov)

In less than a year, the U.S. Lighthouse Service would merge with the Coast Guard to fight the most formidable human enemy the service would face in its history.

Today, the service excels at storm response missions. In these missions, the men and women of the United States Coast Guard go in harm’s way every day to complete rescue and humanitarian duties as members of the long blue line.

2 comments on “The Long Blue Line: The Great New England Hurricane—the services’ last battle before the war”

  1. I realize that there is a desire to use colorful language to spice up an article of this sort but there are also reasons to use words with specific, technical meanings very carefully. Unfortunately, this article is sloppy in its use of two specific phrases.

    “With gale force winds of 120 miles per hour driving the storm surge…” is the first. The term “gale force winds” meant, in the Beaufort Scale as it existed at the time of the 1938 hurricane, winds ranging from 32 to 63 MPH (28-55 Kts). Winds of 120 MPH were not “gale force” – they were very much stronger than merely “gale force.”

    Similarly, the term “tidal wave” is used very incorrectly in this article. But then it is very frequently used incorrectly in a lot of published work. Strictly speaking, the definition of “tidal wave” is “a regularly reoccurring shallow water wave caused by effects of the gravitational interactions between the Sun, Moon, and Earth on the ocean.” In other words, the sun and moon’s gravities combine to create bulges and troughs in the globe-circling oceans of the Earth and, as the Earth rotates, these bulges and troughs (there are two of each) circle the planet and cause our high and low tides.

    The term “tidal wave” is often used to describe “giant waves caused by earthquakes or volcanic eruptions under the sea” but this is wrong as the tides have nothing to do with the destructive waves caused by earthquakes or volcanos. The accepted term for destructive waves caused by earthquakes and volcanos is “tsunami” which comes from the Japanese.

    Destructive high water from storms such as the 1938 hurricane comes in two forms. The first is the storm surge whose height is determined by the state of the lunar/solar tide, by the strength, fetch and duration of the storm winds, by the speed of advance of the actual hurricane center and by the coastal topography. The second is the wind-driven waves which run across the surface of the water and add to any storm surge. The height of these wind-driven waves is also determined by the speed, fetch and duration of the storm’s wind, as well as the storm center’s path. Because water is so much heavier than air, the relatively slow-moving wind-driven waves have far more destructive power than does the wind alone. In a storm such as this, the combined destructive power of wind, storm surge and wave can bring down even the most solid structure.

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