With hurricanes on our minds these days, I thought it would be fun to take a brief look back at “The Great Hurricane of 1938.” The photos are presented courtesy of the Bolton Historical Society, our town’s wonderful, under-appreciated gem. Please support the Historical Society.
Wednesday, September 21, 1938, began in Bolton like many other days in that unusually wet year. The morning air was tropical. Bursts of rain alternated with periods of filtered sun. School was in session and everyone went about their business. Nothing unusual; just another damp day. By noon the sky was overcast, wind vanes turned to the southeast, and a fitful breeze became steady. There was a tint of sea-green to the southern sky. To those paying attention, these were unsettling hints that something was going on. But without modern forecasting and communications, there was no way to know that the ‘something’ would be the worst storm in recorded New England history. It would make landfall on the Connecticut shoreline at New Haven late that afternoon and then proceed to speed north up the Connecticut River Valley, across Massachusetts, and into Vermont by early evening.
In the space of a few hours, much of southern and central New England was devastated by The Great Hurricane of 1938. Over 600 lives were lost, many along coastal areas. Some 20,000 buildings were destroyed or damaged. For central and eastern inland Massachusetts, the impact was mostly from the wind. The Blue Hills Observatory, 80 miles removed from the eye of the storm at its closest point of passage, recorded a period of sustained wind of 120 mph and a peak gust of 186 mph.
In Bolton, the blow destroyed barns and damaged homes. The windows blew out of the Baptist Meeting House in the village and the roof came off shortly thereafter. The building was lost. Roads were impassable for days. Power was out for weeks.
But it was the trees. Trees were toppled everywhere. Estimates are that between 275 million and 2 billion trees were downed across the Northeast on that afternoon and evening. It was reported that New Hampshire lost half of its white pines, Vermont a third of its sugar maples. The persistent rains of that summer and fall had made the forests lush, the orchards heavy with fruit, and the ground soft. It was a setup for a disaster. In About Bolton, Esther Whitcomb writes: “The woodlots and forests were a shambles. Acres upon acres were flat. When a few trees went down, the rest toppled like a row of dominoes.” The orchards—the pride of Bolton—were hit hard. Not only was that year’s crop of apples and peaches a near total loss, many of the trees themselves were left on the ground.
The storm moved out as quickly as it had moved in. By all accounts, September 22, 1938, was a delightful fall day, crisp and bright, a perfect day for, say, cutting wood. It turned out to be the first day of a massive cleanup operation. By Halloween, roads and yards were mostly cleared, power was restored, and domestic life was returning to normal, but it would be years, decades even, before Bolton’s woods and orchards would recover.
An Associated Press story, filed on September 22nd, said, “The greens and commons of New England will never be the same…The day of the ‘biggest wind’ has just passed and a great part of the most picturesque America, as old as the Pilgrims, has gone beyond recall or replacement…” And so it was in Bolton. The comforting canopy of mature elms and maples along Main Street, seen in so many of the old photographs, was shredded or gone. It was as if the roof had blown off of the village itself.
Today, the Bolton Historical Commission administers a valuable shade tree replacement program available to property owners in the Historic District and elsewhere. Maybe by the time the centennial anniversary of the Hurricane of 1938 comes around, we’ll have a new canopy along Main Street.
There are trees still standing around town that survived the Hurricane of 1938, a few even in the center. See if you can spot one. Give it a hug if you feel like it. No one will mind.
Question: Do you have any stories (or memories!) relating to Bolton and the Hurricane of 1938? Love to hear from you.