By BETTY J. COTTER
Special to the Sun
Seventy-five years ago, on a humid Wednesday afternoon, the world goes about its business. Teachers drone on after lunch. Trains arrive and depart. Workers bend to their looms or desks, trying to concentrate on the matter at hand.
Until something — a bang, perhaps, or an object whizzing by out of the corner of an eye — brings worker, teacher or student to the window. And what they see will remain forever imbedded in their minds.
Frank Crandall Jr.,16, gazes out the second-floor window at Westerly High School. The sky is greenish yellow. The wind is not just ripping, it is upending the nets on the tennis courts.
Jane Hoxie Maxson, 11, sent home early from the West Broad Street School, looks out of her house in Pawcatuck as the roof of a neighbor’s garage lifts off and floats to the ground.
Florence Saunders Madison, 20, stands at the window of her office in downtown Providence watching as a man’s hat is plucked off his head. It sails upward to the top of the Industrial Trust building.
This is no ordinary storm. It is Sept. 21, 1938, and in the future, time will be marked from this day.
“All the old-timers will say, it’s either before or after The Hurricane,” Crandall remembers.
The Hurricane of 1938 claimed more than 600 lives in New England, wiped away entire coastal communities from Long Island to Massachusetts, sparked devastating fires and floods, and caused damage that today would run into the billions of dollars. In an afternoon, Mother Nature swept away the summer colonies in Watch Hill, Misquamicut, Weekapaug and Charlestown. Entire families drowned, as did a group of church women having a late-season beach picnic in Misquamicut.
For those lucky enough to have lived through the gale, the months that followed were a mind-numbing struggle to reshingle roofs, clear away downed trees, and restore power and heat. Despite the damage wreaked by recent storms like Sandy, and the books that have been written about the ’38 storm, the full implications of what happened that Wednesday afternoon perhaps can be understood only by the people who lived through it. What follows are the recollections of three survivors, who in the weeks leading up to the 75th anniversary of the storm shared their stories in interviews at their respective homes:
As the storm picks up that afternoon, thoughts turn to loved ones.
From her office at the R.I. Humane Education Society in Providence, Madison looks at the window to find the streets filling with water. Only the tops of cars can be seen as Narragansett Bay rushes into downtown. But she is much more concerned about her sister, Eloise.
Eloise is in Weekapaug, where she works as a housekeeper for the William Price family. This late in the season, her employers are away, leaving her with the dog, a cocker spaniel named Flush.
As the storm worsens, Eloise realizes with alarm that the water pouring into the first floor and rushing by the house is not rain. It’s the ocean.
“I looked out the window and the water was over the evergreen trees in the drive and the boats were floating off,” Eloise would write in an account published in Watch Hill’s Seaside Topics. “The shingles ripped off and the water came in. I heard a wrenching and tearing and the sun porch went by.”
She cannot stay in this cottage by the sea. She will have to make a run for it.
Florence bides her time at her office, and when the tide retreats, she heads out for her apartment in Providence. Maybe tomorrow she can make her way south.
Jane Hoxie Maxson has relatives on the shoreline, too. Her grandparents, George and Ethel Hoxie, live on Bay Street in Watch Hill, where he operates Hoxie’s Taxi and Express. This time of year her grandfather and father, Porter, are moving the belongings of Watch Hill residents who are returning to their city homes. That day her grandfather is on the front porch, crating up a bed for shipping, and her grandmother is upstairs, answering the phone and tending to the bookkeeping.
Her father heads back from Providence with her cousin, Dave, after a Providence delivery. By the time they reach Cross’ Mills, the wind has picked up, and on Shore Road, a tree blocks the way. Although they are able to veer around it, Porter stops to telephone the highway department from a nearby farm. When he returns, the wind is pushing the truck up the road.
Back at Watch Hill, his mother sends Porter and Dave from house to house, where the owners are calling for awnings to be rolled in or windows boarded up. By now the wind is so strong the awnings are almost impossible to corral; at one point, Dave is thrown against a porch.
Meanwhile, in Pawcatuck, water is pouring through the windows and doors, and Jane follows her mother about, trying to mop it up.
Frank Crandall thinks of his two sisters, Marguerite and Eleanor, who are day students at the University of Rhode Island and the former Rhode Island College of Education in Providence.
Around 2 or 2:30, Westerly High School officials dismiss the students, and Frank climbs aboard Harry Morris’ school bus.
They will not get far.
On Franklin Street, about where the Happy Holliday restaurant used to be, the road is blocked. Morris backs up, and a tree comes crashing down on the back of the bus.
No one is hurt, and the teenagers scramble out. They head back in the direction of the school and seek refuge in a stone garage near the intersection of Tower and Granite streets. Before long a woman comes in, frantic that her windows are being blown out. Frank and his friends set out to help her.
“It was difficult to stand up. The most that we noticed was the wind was a steady roar,” he recalls. Frank and his friends make it to her house, where they block the windows with a piano.
“We walked back to the stone garage. The wind eased off. Of course, we didn’t know that was the eye.”
Although the farm is miles away, in District No. 6, Frank decides he will walk home. If this were a novel, what happens next would be dismissed as unlikely coincidence. But along comes a car, driven by Bill Morris of Weekapaug, with Frank’s sister, Marguerite, as a passenger. She has made her way from Kingston to the high school looking for him.
About then, at 4 o’clock, their sister Eleanor boards the last train out of Providence.
In Watch Hill, water pours across Bay Street and floods the lower levels of the Hoxie home and business.
George Hoxie, 64, his wife, Ethel Porter Hoxie, 61, and their housekeeper, Edna V. Main, realize they cannot stay. Boats in Little Narragansett Bay are fighting the tide, which is creeping into the house. They make their way to the Narragansett Inn, perched on higher ground, where Barney’s Grocery occupies the first floor. There they find many of their neighbors taking shelter.
With her ever-present camera, Mrs. Main ventures out and begins shooting. Her blurry, 7½-by-4½-inch photos capture the storm at its height. Waves break across Bay Street. Boathouses collapse into the water. Trees, already shorn of leaves, bend like willows in a delicate Japanese painting.
Porter Hoxie is still on Ocean View Road, boarding up windows. At one point he resorts to using a dining room table. Finally, around 5:30, he tries to drive home to Pawcatuck, with Dave and a maid who works at the house. Every way is blocked. Finally he wends his way back to Bay Street, where he is stunned at what he finds.
“When we got back to the Narragansett House we just stood horrified, our mouths open, our minds simply unable to grasp the sight that met our gaze,” he would write later. “The water was still lapping the lawn of the Narragansett House and was about six feet high on Bay Street … The Yacht Club was entirely gone and as far as we could see, not a stick was standing on the Fort Road.”
Sept. 22, 1938, dawns a beautiful day. Blue sky. Fresh air. “The following day everything smelled so good,” said Florence Madison. “You know how dry leaves smell?”
That morning, Madison is determined to make it home to Westerly, to check on her sister Eloise. She drives slowly through the clogged streets of Providence and heads south. At Route 1A, the National Guard is posted.
Weekapaug and Misquamicut, an officer tells her, are gone.
Florence imagines Eloise, down there in the Price cottage alone, with only the dog for company, while the storm raged.
“That was a rough ride, from that intersection,” she recalled.
But as she approaches South Woody Hill Road, there they are, standing by the mailbox: Eloise, the little dog Flash in her arms.
It was one of the most incredible moments in her life, she said, “to find my sister alive after thinking she was dead.”
Jane Hoxie Maxson vividly remembers her first drive to visit Watch Hill after the hurricane. As the car crests the hill on Winnapaug Road, “all the trees were down, of course, and you looked out across the expanse of Misquamicut Beach, and there was nothing there.”
Her grandparents and Mrs. Main survived the storm, and they are back at Hoxie’s Taxi and Express, where the first floor completely flooded. “The yacht club, this nice big building, it’s gone, and it’s just a dock with a hole,” Maxson recalled. “Fort Road, with all those great big houses …”
Frank Crandall and his sister, Marguerite, made it home that night, dodging downed trees and power lines. The next day, Eleanor was found safe, in town. Her train ride was harrowing — five and a half hours — but she made it to the Westerly station, and walked in the pitch black to her grandmother’s house.
The Crandalls’ chimney collapsed and they lost a barn, shed and garage. Their fishing cottage in Weekapaug was washed away, along with a power boat.
Their well, full of chimney bricks, was unpotable for weeks afterward.
But Frank Crandall, Florence Madison and Jane Maxson count themselves lucky. They, and their loved ones, survived the hurricane of ’38.