The Great Hurricane of 1938
Seventy years ago this Sunday, on Sept. 21, 1938, a storm of unimaginable fury roared across New England. The Great Hurricane of 1938 slammed into Jamestown early that afternoon and forever changed the lives of those who lived through it. It remains one of the worst disasters in North American history. In a matter of hours, lives were lost, thousands of people were injured, and property damage reached catastrophic levels. Ferocious winds carried away steeples and rooftops. Entire buildings were demolished, swept away by the wind and the waves. Ferryboats ran aground and small vessels either sank or were smashed to pieces. The unthinkable occurred when bus driver Norman Caswell attempted to bring a busload of children home through flooded Mackerel Cove. Halfway through the cove, the bus stalled. Believing it would be safer to evacuate the bus, the children were shepherded out into the rising water where they attempted to maintain a human chain and reach safety. Overcome by the fierce surf, seven children lost their lives, four of them from one family alone.
Dee Christman was 10- years-old and a student at Carr School on that fateful afternoon. "We didn't know a thing about it. There was no talk of a hurricane," Christman said. "I remember the transom windows kept banging open in our classroom and the teacher had to keep closing them." As the wind grew stronger, the principal finally called to say the school would be closing, Christman said. "I lived right across the street from the school and went right home. Our house didn't suffer any damage, just some trees down. It wasn't until the next morning that we realized just how bad it was." The next day, Christman said, she went down to Mackerel Cove with her father and her two aunts. "They were looking for the bodies. It was just devastating."
Victor Richardson was 14- years-old and his brother, Donald, was 10-years-old when the storm hit Jamestown. Both were in school and were told to go straight home. Neither of them did. "My friend and I decided to ride our bikes down to my father's filling station across from the barbershop," Donald said. "The wind was blowing hard. We ended up at his grandmother's luncheonette. By that time, the water was about up to my knees. My father had to send someone to take me back home."
Victor had also headed out into the storm instead of going home. "We didn't have any idea that there was a hurricane coming," Victor said. "They told us to go straight home, but, of course, we didn't. We went down to the East Ferry instead. The wind was coming in from the south and blowing so hard we couldn't even stand up in it. Eventually, we made our way back home."
The Richardsons' father's garage didn't survive the storm. "My father's garage was wiped right off the map," Donald said. "I found the cash register way up on the beach long after the hurricane," Victor said. The day after the hurricane Donald and a friend also went over to Mackerel Cove to help look for the bodies of the children. "We didn't find anyone that day. We heard a tidal wave just swept the bus out to sea," Donald said.
Alcina Blair, also a 10-yearold student at Carr School on the day the hurricane hit Jamestown, remembers being completely unaware of the danger of the storm. "I went from school to my friend Dorothy's house to play dolls," Blair said. "We didn't think anything of it and had no idea there was a bad storm coming. About 5:30 that night, my dad came to tell me I'd have to stay at Dorothy's, but we still had no idea how bad it was." It wasn't until the next morning when Blair discovered the terrible impact of the storm. "My father didn't tell me anything. The next morning he went down to bail out his boat. It was one of the few boats left that hadn't either sunk or been destroyed. It was then that my mother told me about the children. Our family was close friends with the family who lost four of their children when the bus was swept out to sea. It was an absolutely awful time," Blair said.
Jane Bentley, a former Jamestown schoolteacher, past historical society board member and current library board member, spearheaded a project to capture and preserve the memories of that dreadful day through the recollections of the survivors. She began the project two years ago and, working in conjunction with both the historical society and the library, interviewed local residents who lived through the disaster. With equipment, borrowed from the local schools Bentley produced a video of survivors recounting their memories of the events. The project was not showcased previously due to a series of events. "With the anniversary of the storm approaching it seemed a perfect time to finally present the material we've gathered," Bentley said.
The Jamestown library is currently hosting an exhibit on the 1938 hurricane that includes photographs, first person accounts in the form of original handwritten letters, newspaper accounts and other documents related to the storm. A formal presentation was held last night at the library and included a short introduction, presentation of the video and a question and answer period with the survivors. Project participants included: Alcina Blair, Dee Christman, Roselyn Fraley, Victor Richardson, Donald Richardson, Maxine Clark, Mary Jawor, Fred Clark and Marge Moran.
While working on the video project Bentley was struck by how vividly the survivors recalled the events of that day. "Listening to the survivors, it is as if the hurricane occurred only yesterday. Especially when they are talking about the terrible tragedies and loss they experienced. The impression it made on people was immense," Bentley said.