Published by WesterlyLife.com & written by Zachary Garceau
The following is part 11 in Westerly Life’s “Behind the Murals” series discussing the history behind all of the recently created murals throughout downtown Westerly. The mural discussed below, which showcases the local impact of the Hurricane of 1938, can be found between 29 and 37 West Broad Street (next to Mel’s Downtown Creamery) in Pawcatuck.
September 21, 1938, began like any Wednesday in Westerly, with people passing through the streets, running errands, visiting the beach, or shuttling to and from work. By that afternoon, however, it became a day that those old enough to remember would never forget. Shortly before 1 p.m., wind and rain began hitting the town, and by 3:30, what began as powerful, but not extreme, winds became forces of destruction.
At this point, wind speeds were recorded between 125 and 150 miles per hour in 10-minute stretches, with some gusts reaching as high as 200 miles per hour. The strong winds persisted for several hours, causing untold amounts of damage across the southern coast of Rhode Island.
The devastation caused by the storm was intensified by the fact that, as the Westerly Sun reported, “The storm broke so suddenly Wednesday afternoon that many people were caught unawares [sic] in the business district of Westerly and there was a general scurry for shelter.” The storm’s sudden increase in force caused many drivers to narrowly escape falling trees on Granite and West Broad Streets. Wilcox Park was also severely ravaged and was described by the newspaper as “a shamble of trees.”
Causing further harm was the fact that the storm hit its peak at the same time as students were set to be released from school. Many of the children remained at school until the storm subsided, including students from Hope Valley who were not able to return home until a bus could arrive after 9 p.m. that night.
When the storm finally came to an end, only then could the wreckage truly be assessed. 130 lives were lost across southern Rhode Island and Connecticut as a result of the storm, 57 of whom were Westerly residents. The hurricane’s impact on the landscape was tremendous: 1,018 houses and cottages between Mystic and Narragansett were demolished.
Misquamicut was hit harder than any other part of Westerly in terms of both loss of life and property, with 41 deaths and 369 destroyed homes reported. Of the 369 homes demolished, 282 of those were located on Atlantic Avenue. Weekapaug was largely spared, as its rocky shoreline protected many homes from significant damage. Only one death and 23 destroyed homes were reported in the area.
The extent of the damage led to the National Guard being called in to aid the local police. More than 700 National Guardsmen quickly arrived on the scene, and they searched for missing persons with searchlights that could be seen as far as 14 miles away.
The annihilation of virtually all means of communication as a result of damaged electrical systems and telephone lines also caused significant problems for the town. Narragansett Electric reported losses of more than $1 million and the sheer number of supplies needed to restore service was gigantic. These supplies included:
- 1,250,000 feet of copper wire
- 2,000 poles
- 432,000 yards of friction tape
- 25,000 separate pieces of hardware
- 10,000 flashlight batteries
This was not the first storm to hit Westerly with great force. A hurricane also struck the town in 1815 and brought destruction upon residents. The earlier storm, however, did not cause as much damage, as Misquamicut and Watch Hill were not nearly as built up in 1815 as they were by the time of the 1938 Hurricane.
The Hurricane and its impact on the town led to numerous stories which are fascinating, heartbreaking, and uplifting. Many of these stories, while reported on locally in the Westerly Sun and other sources, still deserve to be passed down through the decades and remain in the public memory. For this reason, we’d like to share some of the more intriguing stories that surfaced in the days and months after the storm.
On the afternoon of the storm, a group of women from the Christ Episcopal Church were attending a picnic party at the Lowry Cottage in Misquamicut. Unfortunately, as with nearly everyone in town, they were caught unprepared and unaware of the hurricane’s approach. Once the wind and rain began to gain speed and intensity, the women moved to a cottage owned by William D. Wells, where they sheltered for safety. In a tragic turn of events, this cottage was swept away in the storm, and all ten occupants perished as the cottage was carried out to sea.
While the women’s church group met an unfortunate fate on that terrible day, a miracle story of survival also appeared in the pages of the Westerly Sun. During the storm’s epoch, two babies, both about one-year-old, narrowly escaped fatal danger. The babies were carried to safety by their parents, who placed them on floating debris and carried the infants across Brightman’s Pond.
While one of the babies escaped without any physical harm, the other, the child of Mr. and Mrs. Ralph Bliven, was rushed to the hospital after having swallowed a dangerous amount of water. The child was given little chance of survival, but miraculously, the child was able to make a full recovery and was said to be in ‘fine condition,’ shortly thereafter.
In their continued coverage of the storm and its effects on the town, the Sun named a group of local boys “heroes of the storm.” These boys: Gerald Mason, George Marshall, John Marshall, and Edward Dolan, operated the short-wave radio station on Granite Street, which “gave Westerly its only contact with the outside world for 24 hours after the hurricane.”
The boys pooled their equipment together to make a set which could be used after the power went out during the storm. Their calls for help were picked up “as far away as Baltimore, Md., and Washington, D.C.” Much of the information that appeared in newspapers around the country was provided by the short-wave radio operators.
The damage Westerly incurred from the hurricane’s wrath was enormous, and the lives lost in September 1938 should always be remembered. As with many tragedies, the aftermath the town faced brought citizens together and saw many step up to help one another.