Anonymous account of 1938 Hurricane
Horseneck Beach 9/21/1938
The first warning I had of the storm was about 2 P.M. while driving down the Horseneck Road. Half way between Waldo’s place and the Island View Farm, I heard, so I thought, a truck roaring down the hill behind me and I swerved quickly to the right and slowed to allow it to pass.
The truck, cut out wide open and engine racing, thundered nearer. I glanced uneasily in the mirror. Seeing no car, I glanced quickly over my shoulder as I was riding with the top down. There was no car in sight. What I heard was the wind coming up from the Bay and across the field.
It struck the fringe of trees and telephone wires with a blast of fury that set up a snarling hymn of hate.
The storm had arrived. It grew steadily worse, just wind, no rain, and, as yet nothing alarming though very evident, it was to be a worse storm than usual.
My 23 year old daughter, Barbara, and I were staying at the Magee Cottage, “Journey’s End” on the West Beach, about twelve houses beyond Allen’s Pavilion. Barbara was convalescing from a nervous break down.
It soon began to rain and a heavy surf built up rapidly. By 3 P.M. it was a real gale and I decided to go to the Pavilion and watch the surf on the East Side. As I was passing Stanley Allen’s house, he came to the door. “I wouldn’t go to the Point”, he called. “It’s dangerous; signboards flying around, etc. Come in.”
From his living room window we watched the surf pound the road that stretches across to Gooseberry. The wind was increasing. It was more than a gale now. Stanley remarked that if it kept up the road was apt to be torn apart. Mrs. Allen was plainly worried.
Salt spray and rain drenched the windows so heavily it was difficult to see and I suggested to Stanley that we go over to the Point.
From the lee of Ali Aberdeen’s Point Breeze restaurant we watched the surf build up and the wind hurl solid sheets against the little refreshment stand on the Tower Parking Lot. Anyone could tell that the building was doomed. This was no ordinary storm.
When the surf hit the wall the spray, instead of flying into the air, was whipped
short off and came in heavy sheets across the road, and the crest of the waves on striking the wall seemed smothered and curled downward for all the world like something trying to rise, and struggling to get up but being borne down heavily to earth.
It was wild, grey and bleak and menacing. We returned to Allen’s home – 6th house from the Pavilion. I remained a short while and then went to my cottage.
From our living room Barbara and I watched the surf pound ruthlessly up the beach—farther and farther. A sturdy bench, legs set some three feet deep in the sand, stood some 40 or 50 feet above the usual high water mark. A curling comber sped along, licked it out, swallowed it. Two of the heavy wooden shutters on our sun parlor windows blew off and I nailed the others down.
Mrs. Chauncey Mosher and her daughter-in-law came along.
“I’m afraid,” Mrs. Mosher said. “What do you think?”
“If the tide comes much higher, I think I’ll leave,” I told her.
“It won’t be very comfortable here if water gets under the house or up onto the floor.”
“If you go, come for me.”
A few minutes later row boats, a trailer, some of the small buildings from Gooseberry, tumbling crazily end over end in the boiling surf, began to bustle past the house. The water was climbing steadily up the beach, waves increasing in size and the wind blowing harder. Water rushed along the beach with tremendous force and speed. It was awe inspiring, yet fascinating.
A short distance down the shore a flat bottomed sail boat was moored to a spile. A wave picked it up, sent it rushing with unbelievable speed. It brought up short and as the wave receded the skiff whirled round in a short arc only to be hurled aloft and repeart. To me it appeared to shoot fully fifteen feet into the air. That boat did more lunatic whirling in a few minutes than can be imagined.
“Another hour, Barbara,” I said, “and water will be up here. Let’s go.”
We had parked a lot of things into three dress suit cases. We grabbed the cases and some coats and loaded them into the car, backed out onto the road, and I got out to go around and lock the garage.
As I slammed the door I looked toward the beach.
Another hour I had said, it hadn’t been ten minutes.
The garage floor and the road were probably six feet lower than the ridge between them and the beach. Over the ridge I saw three great waves, each following one larger than its fore-runner. They looked mountains high, but probably were not more than ten or fifteen feet but they came over the ridge. Water ankle deep came swirling down around my feet.
I rushed to the car. “We’ll get Mrs. Mosher,” I yelled.
She lived four or five houses farther up the beach,
From the house next beyond that came Mr. and Mrs. Blackmer, of Worcester, and their daughter-in-law. Water was already half to their knees. We took them into the car. They told us Mrs. Mosher’s daughter-in-law and the baby had left a little earlier for Westport Point, but Mrs. Mosher had gone down toward the Pavilion.
Right then I had to make a quick decision. If we went on we might get out, get to Westport Point and safety. If we turned back—-
I swung the car around and started back. Water was over most of the road, but not deep. Half way to Allen’s house we picked up Mrs. Mosher and her cat.
We hadn’t gone another hundred feet when water came in over the Parking lot ahead, flooded the road and debris began banging against the car.
I knew we were trapped.
We were abreast the Sibbley cottage. Out of the garage came a coupe. Three girls were in it. They headed for the East Beach, but I blocked the road. They honked furiously. I told those in my car to get out and then run back and told the girls to abandon their car.
“We’ve got to get over in the dunes,” I shouted.
Realizing that if we succeeded in getting over to the dunes we might be forced to remain there, I took the three coats and a blanket from the car. As I turned to join the others I saw two great square blocks of shadowy bulk adrift and headed for destruction. It struck me then with terrific force that we were facing something Horseneck had never experienced before, and it gave me a bewildering effect of helplessness.
Stanly Allen and his wife came from their home.
Already the water was rushing across the Parking lot, climbing madly down by the Point Breeze and gorging out a channel between the road and the dunes. We waded in. The water was up to our waists, running furiously, getting deeper and full of debris. Mrs. Allen fell or was knocked over and from the expression on her face the taste was not pleasant.
All except one girl got safely across. It was a case of come ahead or be lost and no time for getting panicky. I yelled for her to come and started after her. She backed off and was nearly swept from her feet. I damned her with a blast of severe words that made her gasp, succeeded in making her more afraid of me than of the water and she came on. Grabbing her by the waist I dragged her through. She became panicky and started to run wildly along the dunes. That started my daughter and they ran crazily along, hair flying and looking like wild spirits from the sea.
Luckily, the wind was toward them and I thundered another volume of harsh orders and they stopped. Fortunately that was the only time anyone was really panicky though fear was undoubtedly deep in the heart of mot of us at several times.
We got around behind the top of a high dune and stopped to rest and consider what to do. The wind was terrific, the sand cut like pin pricks.
Robert Mitchel and his wife and Roger Blackmer came up. Our party consisted of nine women and five men, and we decided to keep to the ridges and make out way toward Westport Point. But Mr. Mitchel was suffering from heart trouble and couldn’t go on. We stopped again.
The three girls from the Sibley cottage and my daughter were dressed in short and were quite thoroughly wet. I took off my rain coat and gave it to one of the girls, gave one spare coat to Barbara and one to one of the other girls. That left one girl without a coat. One of the men had on a sweater and a coat. I thought he might shed the coat but he didn’t. We wrapped the blanket about here.
Houses were beginning to go from the West Beach. Mine was one of the first. It slid back, tipped up on end and then settled down until only a corner of the roof showed. Then that disappeared. The whole West Beach was deep under water. Though we saw, we couldn’t realize it. There was a sense of unreality. It was like a moving picture of the “Hurricane” type—something you might see in a picture, but which couldn’t happen at Horseneck. But it was happening.
Some of the houses sailed along intact, others collapsed. Roofs would fly off and walls flatten out.
“There goes mine!” Allen cried, and there was a world of woe, dismay and tragedy in that wail. “And my mother is back there in her house all alone,” he moaned. “She couldn’t leave”.
As it turned out her home was one of four left on its foundation, the while two mile length of the East and West Beaches. But what a harrowing night that lone woman must have passed!
Allen’s house did not go far. It seemed to rise up then and squashed flat as though some giant had stepped on it.
Great concrete slabs from the sea wall across from the Pavilion, one of them 16×18 feet long and 2×3 feet thick and weighing several tons was tossed across the Parking lot and landed a few yards from the Pavilion.
Where before there had been buildings all was now a raging sea relentlessly devouring everything in its path and leaping greedily along in search of further havoc. A wilder and or desolate scene would be hard to imagine.
We got Mr. Mitchel in the lee of one of the highest dunes. I told him, “You’ll be safe here if anywhere. If you are not, none of us are. We’ll go on. If we get out we’ll send help, but make up your mind it will be a long wait.”
He nodded. His wife elected to remain with him. That took courage and I knew it must have been a mighty disturbing thing to see the rest of us walk off and leave them. But I figured there were eight other women and three men besides myself, and bringing those eight women out seemed to me the first consideration, and all determined by the fact that the Mitchels, though lonely, were as safe as we would be.
It was when we reached the top of the next dune that I began to haave serious doubts of any of us ever getting out alive. Once more we had stopped to rest. I looked toward the beach. Roy Hawes’ house, a large two story building, was coming toward us. It came on, and on and on for all the world like a majestic steamer coming up a river—upright, on an even keel, never a lurch or stop. Onward and ever onward. It must have traveled a thousand feet, came to rest just at our feet.
One thought flashed through my mind—If there is enough water to float that great house over the low dunes and way up here, and the tide keeps rising another half hour, we are doomed. There will be no dunes, just a seething waste of water. And it looked as if that was what was going to happen.
I’ve heard and read a great deal of how, when a man is drowning a whole life time will flash across his mind in a few seconds. It wasn’t quite like that. A good deal of the past flashed. Good life, enjoyed most of it, if my time has come, and I guess it has, I can only go out fighting.
I wasn’t consciously afraid, certainly not heroic just calmly resigned to whatever might happen and determined to do the utmost to win free.
“Come on,” I said, “we’ll keep going.”
It was tough going. Under foot was sand, wet and loose and clogging our progress. Wind whipped it into our noses, ears, eyes, and mouths. Sand and pelting rain and spray, briars and brush and scrub trees, dogwood or poison ivy, one or the other, and for days afterwards my daughter was frightfully covered with loathsome sores.
We went up hill and down, keeping to the ridges. Darkness settled over us. Several times I thought I heard the foghorn from Hews and Cluckens Lightship. What a night her crew must have experienced! We came to a gully that was jammed with wreckage—it was a discouraging obstacle.
Crawling across and back on hands and knees was a ticklish job; a slip or a dislodgement might have meant a brokem let or worse, but we began helping the women over. Mrs. Mosher couldn’t crawl and carry the cat. She insisted the cat be killed. It seemed unnecessary as we believed the cat would follow along and make easier work of it than we. She insisted the cat be killed. I went on but Allen and young Blackmer decided to kill the cat. What they did I don’t know, but we saw no more of the cat that night. A week later Mrs. Mosher found it alive at the wrecked cottage.
We got across safely and sat down in the lee of a dune. The whirling sand was almost unbearable. We shifted about but could find no shelter from it.
Crawling to the top of the dune I looked seaward. The sea was a turbulent chaos of sickly grey against the black sky; but the water appeared to me to be lower and I decided the tide must have turned. I went over the dune to try and find the road. Toward the sea, to my left, all was a dirty grey crashing and running riot, but like a destructive army in retreat withdrawing its forces though still growling a fearful threat.
To my right was just blank blackness, at my feet grey sand. I went ahead cautiously and stepped off into the water up to my neck.
Foam piled high along the dunes where the tides had been, looked exactly like\ sand. I had stepped into it and off into a pond.
Climbing out I found a stick and used it to feel ahead. In spite of it I stepped twice more into deep water, but it was quiet water, not a running stream.
I came at last to the road. The only way I knew it was the road was by a gaunt telephone pole. The road was buried beneath stones and sand. Knowing that the poles were on the beach side of the road, I faced about and went on. I fell in twice more; once flat on my stomach, but regained the road and walked into a tangle maze of hanging wires.
I knew the Midway must be close at hand, but not a vestige of any buildings loomed against the grey smudge of sea. I came to a place where the road had been ripped away leaving a gap probably thirty feet wide.
Through that gap water was racing back to the sea. I hesitated then. It was far from inviting. But over in the dunes were eight women and three men. No knowing how long the storm might last. If it continued until the next high tide, what with the barriers already broken down and washed away, the sea might easily suck and batter away the remaining dunes and we would have not chance at all.
I went into that tumbling stream hoping it wasn’t as bad as it looked yet fearing it was. I stuck my left foot in and I began to have doubts. “Hell,” I thought, “if my time has come, it’s come, that’s all, but I don’t believe it has.”
I stepped in with my right foot. Something struck me below the knee and I went flat. Scrambling furiously I got my feet on bottom and went ahead, up and out. I laughed then, reaction, I guess. The place which had looked and sounded the most terrifying had been crossed with only a ducking.
I went on, bumped against more wires, stopped to look about. I’ve been up and down the West Beach Road a thousand times, been in the dunes and along the beach. I was certain I must be near the Mid-way, but there was nothing but a waste of seething water and sand. Continuing a little farther I made out a dark dim shape against the ghostly grey. It was a signboard erected on two posts. “Slow down to 15 miles and hour”. On top was a up-stretched open hand made of wood. Numberless times I had seen it and thought how crude and ugly it was. Man! AI could have hugged those posts that night.
I went back and got the party underway. They came to that break in the road with its running stream. They stopped. They didn’t want to enter. You couldn’t blame them. Someone said, “we’d better go back, get up in the dunes.”
“Nonesense,” I yelled, “I’ve been through it twice; there’s no danger. Come on.” And I went in again.
To my surprise it was only to my knees. So fast had the water run back to the retreating sea. But still they hesitated. I shall never forget those eleven dim shapes standing there uncertainly on the edge of the broken road. It is etched in my memory forever. Somehow it caught and held the whole pathos and tragedy of the night. There was something unreal, weird and ephemeral about it.
Well, they came on, and we struck off to the right and at last found the cross road.
We were back to the grey of the sea now and it was dark. How dark? We came to the top and I bumped solidly against an invisible object. I had walked squarely into a truck parked there.
It was a town truck. Manny Cabral, another man and, I think, a woman were in the driver’s compartment. The men got out and we jammed in some of the women. There was a sedan just ahead. Two women, a child and man or two were in that. We got the men out and packed in more women. A coupe was ahead of that. A woman, a baby, a little child and Jim Aldrich were in that. Jim got out and we got the last of the women under cover.
Those of us who had come over the dunes were wet. We were cold and hungry. We huddled together behind the cars and shivered.
But the tide was steadily if slowly going down. When at long last it was only knee deep on the John Reed Road, I decided it was time to go on. We men were able to walk ahead of the cars to test the road for holes or breaks. We would have the headlights at our backs, and how cheerful those headlights were.
We had gone about fifty yards when a half dozen or more flash lights loomed ahead. A search party had come through from Westport Point. They were as excited as school boys. Some said we could make, others doubted. I got one young man aside.
“Where did you come from?” I asked.
“Over the bridge and along the road.”
“Can these women make it?”
“I think so but it will be tough going.”
We loaded the women into the body of the truck. If it fell into a hole or turned over they would at least be able to get free and not be trapped in closed cars.
We got underway, had gone but a short distance when we meet Mr. Hopkenson, one of the Westport policemen.
“You can make it,’ he declared. “There are plenty of holes but we will go ahead and show you were they are.”
Even he was somewhat excited, but he certainly was encouraging.
When we were across the bridge the girls from Sibley’s cottage found shelter in the care of a friend. I went over to apologize for having talked so rough and driven them so hard. Imagine my surprise when the one I fairly cussed into the water at the start said, “You were fine!”
The Mitchels got out next morning.
I was back at the Beach early that morning. The East Beach was utter desolation. Not a building the whole mile length of it. The West Beach was a drunken man’s nightmare—houses toppled about in all stages of wreckage.
We from the West Beach thought we had a harrowing night. But we had the safety of the dunes. For those on the East Beach there had been no retreat. The Let engulfed them—men, women and children.