The Great Hurricane of 1938 is one of those events that we just can’t get enough of. And by we, I think I’m safe in assuming that I can speak for the great majority of us living on the very ground the storm ravaged 75 years ago today.
We published a package of stories in last week’s Sunday edition in advance of the anniversary that included interviews with three survivors whose memories of the experience clearly remain as vivid as the day after the storm, and a related piece focused on advances since then in meteorology and storm preparation measures.
Those stories led one reader to contact us with her personal story of the hurricane, or more accurately, her father’s story of the storm as related through his handwritten notes recorded the day after the storm. Since this region was so hard hit, we have read many personal stories recounting firsthand experiences of the storm that barreled into southern New England with no warning during the late morning and early afternoon of Sept. 21, 1938.
And now we have a new story, one not shared publicly yet but will be featured in Sunday’s edition, thanks to Briggs Larkin, daughter of Daniel F. Larkin Jr. Daniel F. Larkin Sr. had quite the land holdings in Watch Hill in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They included the stately and massive Larkin House, a sprawling, four-story hotel stretched out over that spine of land that leads from the top of Larkin Road out toward the Watch Hill lighthouse, a home on Fort Road, and a large section of the beach from the Watch Hill Carousel out to the Misquamicut Beach Club, where its large, two-story bathing pavilions provided changing stalls and showers. The pavilions, one was private and the other public, were destroyed in the storm.
Daniel Jr. was 21 in 1938 and worked on the various properties. In his notes, he recounts moving through Watch Hill and checking on the buildings as the storm, which he took for a strong Nor’easter at first, built in intensity. His recollections were noted by the hour and half hour from 1:30 p.m. to 6 p.m. as he watched windows blow out of the house and water rush in, the destruction of the pavilions and the submersion of Bay Street. Though his experiences were written as notes in clipped sentences, he nevertheless takes the reader with him on his journey through what had been for him familiar and cozy streets that had turned into scenes of destruction and danger.
While reading it in preparation for Sunday’s publication, I recalled my parents’ stories of living through the hurricane in New London as their first anniversary approached on Sept. 25. They talked about watching first the heavy rain and then the wind as they worked at their respective jobs downtown. My father and the owner of the shoe repair shop he worked in watched a billboard fly off a neighboring building on Montauk Avenue and decided it was time to close up and head for home. My mother offered housing to her “girlfriends” — including one from Westerly — who worked with her as seamstresses because my parents’ apartment was close by. They recalled how a great deal of New London burned that night, and how large fishing boats were tossed inland from their docks on the Thames River along Bank Street and Shaw’s Cove. The details were riveting when I was a kid and just as riveting when my parents related them to my boys.
“Our” hurricanes — Gloria, two weeks after my outdoor wedding, Bob, Irene and Superstorm Sandy — were tough, but nothing like the ’38 storm. Living through those storms adds perspective that makes the photos and stories from 1938 even more compelling.