75 years later: The Great New England Hurricane of 1938
Four of the children that died coming home on the school bus were members of his family. Marchand had not been born at the time of the hurricane, but had they survived the storm 75 years ago, he would have known them as Uncle Joey and Aunts Theresa, Eunice and Dorothy.
The seven lost children – and another child and mother who also died when a tidal wave brushed them into the ocean– are the main reasons Jamestown and the 1938 Great New England Hurricane have gone down in history together.
John and Constantine Gianitis, Marion Chellis and the four Matoes youngsters were not the only Jamestowners who died in the storm. Bill Ordner and his mother were also swept away at Mackerel Cove, and other people died, too. But the tale of the doomed children on the school bus has stood out from the rest.
To the handful of residents who remember the storm and still live on the island, the seven children are much more than names in a history account. They were – and remain – friends and loved ones who were lost that day but never been forgotten.
The story has been often told. Marchand’s grandfather was Joseph Matoes, and he was standing on Fort Getty Road when the bus driver took the turn onto the causeway and attempted to plow through the high water. The bus stalled. The driver tried to lead the children across on foot. Matoes saw four of his children drown along with the two Gianitis kids and Chellis. Dorothy’s body was never found.
He never spoke with his grandson about that day, Marchand said. His own mother, Mary, would not talk about it either. The last of that original family, his aunt Lillian, died earlier this year.
On Sunday, they will be remembered at the 8:30 a.m. Mass at St. Mark Church. But no one who knew them or the story has ever forgotten them.
“All I really remember were the children in the bus,” said Barbara Wilcox, a classmate of two of the girls.
The hurricane started blowing hard around 3 in the afternoon, according to Victor Richardson, but it wasn’t even raining at the beginning. After school, he tried to walk down to his father’s garage near the Bay Voyage, but the wind was blowing so hard he couldn’t make it. He went home and remembers looking out the window and seeing lawn chairs “tumbling” in the street.
Wilcox went right home after school, she said. Later that afternoon, she saw a neighbor’s son struggling up the street to his home. He was bent over at a 45-degree angle, and the wind seemed to be holding him upright, she said. That night, when her father came home from work at East Ferry, he told the family the water had surged up all the way to Pitcher’s store, now the site of Grapes & Gourmet.
It was incredible, she said. “We never realized it was a hurricane.”
There had been no warnings, as far as she could recall, except people did expect a storm.
The next day, she went out to see the damage. The buildings on the waterfront were gone.
“It was very difficult to really understand the water had done this,” she said. According to Wilcox, she walked over to see the ferryboat, the Governor Carr, which had landed on the rocks near the yacht club and practically in the Wetherill’s yard. The ferry was caught and was dangling at a 45-degree angle, Richardson added.
“We couldn’t believe the devastation,” Wilcox said.
As far as anybody in Rhode Island knew, hurricanes barreled through the Bahamas, Constance Andrews said. Sometimes, they came up as far as Cape Hatteras, off the Carolinas, but they did not come here.
Andrews spent part of the hurricane on a sailboat in the teeth of a “very violent east wind.” She remembers being frightened. But the” real agony,” she said, was felt in the loss of life.
The children that died had been schoolmates, Wilcox said, and everyone was sad. There were no grief counselors at that time to comfort the children who lost their friends.
“In those days they didn’t have people come in and help you,” she said. “It was very upsetting.”
Wilcox was 12 at the time, and she was in the same class with two of the girls.
They had been together through six grades. The Matoes girls lived out at Fort Getty, so they didn’t go over to their house to play because of the distance, but they were all friends.
“Everybody liked the girls,” she said.
“Everybody knew them,” added Don Richardson. He was in fourth grade at the Carr School when the hurricane struck. Richardson lived on Howland Street across from the Ordner family. Bill Ordner was in seventh grade, classmates with his brother Vic. Bill and his mother also died at Mackerel Cove that day en route to Beavertail to watch the waves.
“They didn’t make it across the town beach,” Don said.
The brothers went out the next day to help look for the bodies. They didn’t find any of the lost children, but they tried to help. Many residents pitched in.
“Everyone was looking for the school kids,” Don said. He remembers searching on the beach in front of Watson Farm where remnants of the bathing pavilion from the Mackerel Cove beach had landed.
“The town was a wreck,” he said. “You couldn’t drive anywhere.”
Don says there were downed trees and electrical wires over all the roads, and the school bus and Ordner’s car still sat up on the cove.
The Ordner’s owned a brand new car. Don remembers people going out the next day to look at the vehicles.
“It was a two-door coupe,” Vic recalled.
The vehicles landed on the grass. The bus at one point had been turned on its side, but inside the Ordner car was bone dry. People were speculating that Bill and his mother might have come through OK if they’d stayed in the car.
Don Richardson can’t remember how he heard the news but thinks his parents probably told him. Up until then, the hurricane had been fun.
“I don’t remember being scared,” he said. There was nothing menacing about the weather for most of the day, Don added.
“It was kind of windy, but the wind just kept getting harder and harder,” he said.
His school was dismissed at the regular time. (The building is gone today, but it stood where Mc- Quade’s Market is now.) He and a friend jumped on their bicycles and rode down to his father’s garage at East Ferry. Vic and Don’s father had a “filling station” on the waterfront across from the Bay Voyage.
“We could hardly pump against the wind,” Don said. “We kind of thought it was fun.” They flew back up Narragansett Avenue and they didn’t have to pedal at all.
Don walked back down to his father’s garage, but by that time, the water was coming up.
“The water was up to my knees,” he said.
His father had a man drive Don home. Back on Howland Avenue, he found his mother and brother “fighting with the garage door to get it closed,” he said. “Of course, it was a wild night.”
Manny Neronha was also in fourth grade at the Carr School the day of the hurricane.
“It was a beautiful day,” he said. “Sunshine and everything.”
According to Neronha, the first sign of trouble came around 2:30 in the afternoon.
“All of a sudden, two of the transom windows blew open,” he said.
The teacher handed two of the youngsters a pole with a hook and sent them outside to close the windows. The boys did, but a few minutes later, the wind slammed the transom windows open again.
“They kept coming open,” he said, “and they kept closing them.”
Neronha remembers the teacher saying she would have to speak to the janitor about the windows.
“Shortly after, we were dismissed,” he said.
Back at home, his mother allowed him and his brother Jack to go out to play. Jack went to play with one of his buddies, and Neronha went over to his friend Albert Latham’s house on Maple Avenue.
“We were playing. All of a sudden, we heard a big crash. A tree came down across Maple Avenue.”
The maple tree was between 30 and 40 feet tall, Neronha says, and he estimates it measured 35 inches or so around the truck.
“We didn’t notice the wind being exceptionally strong, but the wind was blowing. I got scared,” he said.
According to Neronha, Albert’s mother told him, “Junior, you run home.” He made it back, just before a huge sycamore fell down in front of his house. The tree completely blocked Narragansett Avenue.
“And then it started to rain a little bit,” he said. “It was a little rain and a lot of wind. Our house started shaking. And then we were sort of scared.”
Neronha has read accounts that claimed the wind blew feathers off chickens. Around 5 p.m., he was looking out the dining-room window. Something came flying at him, hit the window and cracked the glass at the top.
“We didn’t know it was a hurricane until late the next day,” he said. They knew it was a big storm, though, and they called around to find Jack, his brother. Neronha said he was staying over at Tony Frank’s house. He stayed there through the entire hurricane.
Constance Andrews spent that night in a farmhouse on Prudence Island listening to the Coast Guard radio operators try to assess the damage. The reports came back as “havoc” or no response at all, she said. Andrews had just graduated from the Lincoln School on Providence’s East Side and was on a cruise to Nantucket when the crew was forced to take shelter. At 17, she was the youngest aboard the sailboat, the Reynard.
The trip was against the better judgment of skipper James Currier, who was the chief ordinance engineer at the torpedo station. However, he had promised to take the young people for a cruise and they were determined to go.
“It rained all that week,” she said, so they had kept putting the trip off. “The morning of the hurricane, it lightened around the horizon.”
The young people were adamant on taking the cruise. “We’re all provisioned,” they said. “Let’s go.”
However, they did take one extra precaution.
“We double-reefed the boat,” she said, meaning they shortened the amount of sail being used. Then they set off from Newport Harbor. But as they passed the Naval Training Station, Currier wanted to turn back.
“I just don’t like the look of this,” he said. But it was already too late.
They tried to bring the boat “up into the wind,” Andrews said, but when they pulled in the sail, it split.
“We couldn’t come about and go back to Newport,” she said. The east wind shoved them past Melville. They waved and tried to draw the attention of people on shore.
“They waved back,” she said.
The people didn’t seem to realize the Reynard was in trouble. Currier told her and a friend, Emily Fenn, to sit on the triangular piece of sail and try to keep the dinghy, which was in tow, off the boat. Then he decided to make for Potters Cove where he hoped they could find shelter on a spit of land. In the meantime, they had lost a jug of kerosene in the bilge water and they couldn’t go below.
At one point, Currier looked over and asked if she were scared.
“No,” she told him. Andrews was trying to hold back her fear. The skipper’s son, James Jr., and a friend, Bill Lawson, tried to keep the mood light. They sang and kept up a brave front, but all the while, Andrews thought they might not survive.
At the Neronha household, things began to get worse.
“It got real windy and our cellar door blew off, banged against the house and just missed the window,” he said. Along with his mother, they saw the door blow across the street, but it was too gusty to go out and retrieve it. Then they heard a big crash down cellar. A shelf of his mother’s preserves – 30 or 40 jars – had toppled. All the peaches and pears spilled on the floor.
There was a cellar entrance from the kitchen, but when they tried to open the kitchen door, it almost blew off. They put a table against it to secure it. Then they heard explosions coming from the cellar.
“Pop, pop, pop,” he said. His mother figured out the reason. His father’s homemade root beer was falling off the shelves.
“Then all of a sudden, the wind stopped,” Neronha said. The sun came out, and they thought the storm was over. Neronha went outside and found a dead chicken in the hedge. The house was covered with fallen sycamores. People were looking at the damage and talking. They didn’t know they were in the eye of the hurricane, and the storm was about to start up again.
That night, Neronha also remembers being scared. The second floor of his house shook so hard he was afraid it was going to tip over. The family lived in a white clapboard house at the corner of Lawn and Narragansett avenues. The house is still standing today, and that section of Lawn Avenue looks much as it did 75 years ago. But that night, there was a sycamore down on the sidewalk, and he was as “petrified” as any 10-year-old could be. Neronha said he was unable to sleep as he listened to the leaves and twigs pelt the house windows like rocks.
Along with his mother, the two stayed downstairs in the pantry all night. They decided not to go upstairs. She was afraid the roof might cave in. His brother weathered the storm at the friend’s house and his father didn’t get home until the next day. Ironically, they weren’t worried about dad. He was at West Ferry aboard the Hammonton. They thought he was safe.
His father, a ferryboat fireman, told him afterwards all he had witnessed. According to Neronha, “He saw everything.”
Neronha’s father witnessed the beach pavilion blow across Sheffield Cove.
“One big piece was the roof, and the rest was in pieces,” he said. He saw his own car, a 1935 Chevy, pushed off the ferry with two other cars. “He saw the tidal wave.”
At that point, the ferry was 10 or 15 feet above the dock and started going up on the piling, his father told him. They thought they were looking at a fog bank rolling in, he said. It was 30 or 32 feet high, but it was not fog.
The wave lifted the ferry about 10 feet in the air, and all the people aboard fell down. Fortunately, nobody on the ferry was hurt.
“He saw the school bus go over,” Neronha said. “My dad until late in the day thought the children had been saved.” His father saw the children exit the bus.
According to Marchand, the children did leave the bus, but then a second wave came and swept them away.
“That’s the way I got it from somebody,” he said. Marchand’s own mother never would mention it, but his grandfather was standing on the shore on the Beavertail side of Mackerel Cove when the bus came up the causeway. He saw the whole thing happen. The bus stalled, and the children stepped off the bus and tried to walk through the high water holding hands.
Joey, who would have been Marchand’s uncle, grabbed three of the girls and tried to save them. But when the second wave came, they were washed away. One of the children, Clayton Chellis, survived. So did the bus driver, Norman Marchand.
The tidal wave pummeled up Narragansett Bay.
When Neronha talks about the hurricane at the Jamestown schools, he says as little as possible about the children on the school bus. He doesn’t want to scare the youngsters, he said. He tells them if a hurricane happened today, there would be advance warning on the weather report. Schools would close, and there wouldn’t be any buses on the road. Moreover, the police would close the causeway at Mackerel Cove.
If it happened again today, it would all be different, he says.
The Reynard did make it to Prudence Island, Andrews said, but then what? She remembers white caps on the waves and a “sharp, stinging rain” that came at them sideways.
“We sat huddled there, and it got wilder and wilder,” she said. Then the big surge of water came.
“It lifted us on three anchors, took us in broadside, and we realized that was the only place to get off the boat.”
They had lost the dinghy.
“I was the first one to leave the boat,” Andrews said. She stepped from the cabin top to the boom and then to the gaffe and grabbed for a treetop. She fell into the bushes and was unable to move.
Emily Fenn fell between the boat and the shore. The boys screamed when she went overboard. She managed to reach the bushes where she fainted, Andrews said. Bill Lawson and James Jr. helped Currier, who had polio.
“We all just collapsed in the bushes,” she said.
The eye may have been passing over Prudence Island when Andrews and the others noticed the farmhouse. They managed to walk up and hail the farmers, who were hiding in a vegetable pit. The man and his wife decided they all should stay in the house, and they spent the night listening to the ominous radio communications. Andrews and the other young people were worrying how to let their parents know they had survived. All communications were out, except for the radio, she said.
Manny Neronha couldn’t say how long the schools stayed closed. It may have been a couple of weeks, but it was hard for the children when they returned.
For weeks after the hurricane, Jamestown was isolated, Vic Richardson said. Both ferries were out of service, and of course, there were no bridges then.
Their father’s business was destroyed and he never really recovered financially. “He had the wrong insurance,” Vic said. He had wind coverage, but the damage was due to water.
Don Richardson recalls finding bills his father was going to send out. They were strewn on the ground at Shoreby Hill. The boys picked them up the day after.
Jamestowners had to take a series of three tetanus shots and boil the drinking water because some dead animals had been found in the reservoir. Neronha was afraid of shots, and he tried to run away, but to no avail.
The Reynard was mired in sand, but Andrew’s father, Dr. John Young, came to the rescue. He went down to the waterfront that night in the hope they hadn’t sailed. “His heart sank,” she said when he realized they did go out. He guessed rightly that Currier would have recognized the danger and gone up the channel. Young set out for Bristol, and they were all reunited, Andrews said.
“It was a magical moment,” she said.