Great Hurricane of ’38 Gives a Coat of Many Colors
By Barbara Neville Wilson
On September 21, 1938, when Jane McLaughlin Walsh was 16 years old, she stood with her brothers and sisters in their backyard and watched, unbelieving, as the strongest wind she had ever felt tumbled full-grown trees to the ground.
She didn’t know what she was watching that afternoon—no one did. After days of rain, the morning had dawned clear and breezy, yet suddenly there they were, unsheltered, in the midst of what has come to be known as the Great Hurricane of 1938.
Two days after the storm, Wolfeboro’s Granite State News reported, “A hurricane, which for duration of intensity, with the amount of damage done, has hit New England and New Hampshire, that exceeds anything known during more than four hundred years of history of the sections since the Colonists first landed.”
Though the reporters’ words seem breathless and tangled to our modern ears, there is no doubt that this hurricane was the strongest anyone alive had ever experienced in the Lakes Region, and its ramifications would be felt for years…even now, 80 years later.
Hurricanes are rare. In fact, this storm was the first to reach New England in at least a generation, and the very first Category 2 to ever make land. With a gust that measured a monstrous 186 mph, its sustained winds took full advantage of 400 years of Colonial economic activity.
In decades since, much has been made of the fact that the storm came upon the New Hampshire region with no warning, and, in fact, some foreknowledge may have avoided the injury and death of humans and animals, and perhaps some property damage could have been avoided. However, the bulk of the horrific damage was caused by trees broken and uprooted which downed powerlines, and crashed through buildings, vehicles and public works.
Ninety-year-old Charles Hatch, now living in California, reports he felt glee as he watched the wind work in Wolfeboro. Nine years old at the time, he was fascinated to see the carnage from the window of his family’s house on the corner of School Street. “I watched three trees being blown down on Union Street outside our house. It was a little boy’s dream.”
Nearly 2.7 billion board feet of lumber, the equivalent of 1,000 square miles of forest were downed throughout New England by the gales of the hurricane. Fearful that drying in place would cause rot of a valuable resource and unquenchable forest fires, the federal government called in members of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the Civilian Conservation Corps to help local workers process downed trees.
The Granite State News reported, “The federal government will buy all of this timber to place in lakes and ponds, where not used generally, and gradually work this timber into the market in the next few years without disarranging the market.”
In his History of Wolfeboro, NH, 1770 - 1994, Q. David Bowers reports, “The WPA set up log-buying depots, first filling Back Bay, then Johnson Cove (then called Wolfeboro Cove) in Winter Harbor, and finally, much of Crescent Lake. It was found that by immersing logs in water they could be preserved to await later sawing into lumber…”
Charles Hatch says, “The hurricane aftermath was as interesting as the storm. For years after…the Wolfeboro Back Bay was completely filled with logs…you could walk from one side of the Bay to the other on these logs.”
At the time, Wolfeboro had its own power plant, and since everything was tied together, “When these logs were milled and when the blade hit a tough knot, the town electricity would dip.” He laughs across the years, “You would be watching a musical in the movie theater and when the blade hit a knot, it would slow the movie projector down and the music would change key, or the actor’s voice would suddenly become a bass.”
Bowers reports, “In April 1941 all of the ‘hurricane timber’ stored in Wolfeboro waters was purchased by the New England Box Company, and operators of two portable sawmills were hired to process the logs. The last log went through the mill at 2:15 p.m. on October 24,” more than three years after the Hurricane of 1938 had struck.
Interestingly, so much timber falling during the Hurricane of 1938 is said to have been a direct effect of the early industrial age and the westward migration of the mid-19th century 80 years earlier. Farmland cleared meticulously by first European settlers was often left to seed when its owners left the farm for the factory and the gold field, and what is a first species to grow? The quick-growing, shallow-rooted white pine—easy fodder for hungry hurricane force winds.
Perhaps more interesting still? You are reading this as we come upon near-peak foliage in the Lakes Region, a time of high economic activity when tourists flock to glimpse our jewel-tone leaves. Stephen Long tells us we can thank the Hurricane of 1938 for that: “New England’s largest hurricane was followed by its largest logging job, and this one-two punch brought about the forest that we see today. When the towering canopy of white pine blew down, what was left were the seedlings and saplings of deciduous hardwood trees. If they hadn’t been blown down in 1938, those pines might still be there, holding the ground until they died from wind, disease, or logging. Instead, the mix of maple, birch, and oak that relished the new sunlight (having been released from the shade of the pines) grew vigorously. This new forest closely approximates the species mix of the original forest that had greeted the settlers, and its vibrant display of turning leaves attracts leaf peepers from around the globe.”
(Smithsonian Magazine published Steven Long’s “The 1938 Hurricane That Revived New England’s Fall Colors” in its October 2017 issue. Additional information for this story was gleaned from the archives of the Wolfeboro Historical Society with special assistance from Gene Denu and Mark Lush.)