Clifford Ashley’s account of 1938 hurricane

When the bottom first dropped out of the barometer (and soon after the roof) I suspected a blow, and at noon I removed all loose things from the yard and took down the tennis net. I directed my man Friday of the moment (Many changes in personnel) to keep all shed and barn doors shut, and to nail down any and everything if the wind blew up.

Right after lunch I went to town. The wind did not get boisterous until after three. At about half past three, I drove down Union Street toward the market. I was forced to stop the car hurriedly on account of an impenetrable cloud of flying feathers! Either a barrel of pluckings or a ripped feather bed must have been placed on the curb for collection. When the cloud had passed, I drew up to the curb myself, and spent some time plucking my radiator, otherwise it would undoubtedly have heated. When I got to the market, I told the marketman that a storm was blowing up, and he remarked that he hadn’t noticed it.

I then thought that I would run over to the Fairhaven Studio just to see if all was snug. As I crossed the bridge, a considerable see was building up and some of the boats seemed to be in trouble. The salt mist on the car windows obscured most of the detail. The studio was o.k., and when I recrossed the bridge after a half hour in Fairhaven the waves were breaking against the bridge and some solid water hit the car. The yacht club pier was giving way, a number of boats were against the bridge, and the clubhouse looked none too secure. Several trees were down on my way to a Swain School of Art Trustees meeting at 4:30. I stayed fifteen minutes at the meeting, and then excused myself.

There were so many big elms down on Hawthorn Street, the logical way to start home, that I changed my route and went by the “Head of Apponeganset,” a small stream that empties into Padanaram Harbor. The sale mist was so thick that Padanaram, a mile away, was hardly in sight. The water at the little culvert bridge was already about four inches over the road, and again I got solid water against the car from a wave. When I reached Russell’s Mills, half way home, it occurred to me that the surf at Horse Neck on such a day would be well worth seeing. To go that way and over Westport Point Bridge is only about two miles farther than the shortest way, over Hick’s Bridge, which is up the river to the north of us.

When I got to the Horse Neck Road, about a mile from the beach, and first got out from the protection of the woods and hills, the wind began to grip the car and twice it was so blown that I nearly left the road. It was impossible to drive more than fifteen miles an hour with safety. I was then heading south, the wind was from the south east. When I got to Cousin Bunny Almy’s, one of his barns was down, also several elms in his drive, and an eighth of a mile further along the surf was breaking in his cornfield. I opened the window, left side, and saw that Barney’s Joy Beach and Sand Dunes had washed through into Allen’s Pond and was making a clear sweep a quarter of a mile inland. My windshield was badly fogged, the road was down along the crest of a small rise. Almost right away I saw some form churning in the road ahead of me. I stuck my head out of the window, and saw a red carry-away” boat (one I knew familiary) turning end for end in the surf in the road ahead of me. The boat was forty feet long! The road was blocked. I got out and looked toward Horse Neck beach, which stretched out in a crescent to the westward at right angles to the road I was on. The air was full of salt mist, the houses that were built closely together along the beach were flat purplish grey silhouettes. Nothing else was to be seen, and the houses were all moving! They seem to be walking in open formation, like troops in a rough country. One would hesitate, then move on; they moved slowly, first on ahead, then another. It was hardly credible. When they reached the marsh a few hundred feet from where they started, they collapsed one by one. I counted twelve of them, before I look back down the road again. While the house marched, very suddenly a trailer popped out from among them. It was on its side, and it spun like a pinwheel over the surface of the water-covered marsh, scarcely touching the surface. It must have been visible for about half a mile, and it certainly did not take thirty seconds for it to pass from sight. Then I looked down the road, and was appalled to see the water not more than a few hundred feet from me. I spoke to a fellow in another car (there were now four cars beside myself) *-I knew him – so I said, “Better get out as quick as you can.” And he said, “The water’ll never git up here”. That was the way the whole struck all of us, nothing of the sort had ever occurred to us before; but suddenly it had dawned upon me that I had better get home, that something might be happening there. I found afterwards that the fellow lost his car; I don’t know about the others.

When I got to Hix’s Bridge, three miles from home, it was perhaps six inches under water , between waves, but solid water was breaking over it. I went across, and my engine sputtered and barely recovered. There was a row of cars stopped, and the breadman yelled, “I wouldn’t cross that for money!” “I wouldn’t advise it,” said I brightly, as I urged my coughing car up the hill. We just made it, and in the gradual descent that followed, the engine clear her throat.

When I got home I found Sarah outwardly calm as ever. She was attending to the house, mopping up water that blew in around the windows, calming the children. “Friday” and Sarah’s mother were outside, propping barn and shed doors with planks, ladders, crow bars and other things. I then had a fine time, lashing two upstairs haydoors ten feet high that were adrift. I lashed them to a ladder on the inside standing on the ladder. The ladder did not break, but it bent toward the outside.

One house attic window was open a mere crack, but it was enough to fill the attice with compressed air, and the skylight departed. With that much opening, the whole roof was in danger. With all the luck in the world, the jury skylight cover I made snapped into place the first time, and I lashed it to a couple of planks laid across under the roof beams.

By this time the well sweep was down, the dutch cap (a wall-less roof over the deep well) had gone, and while I was fixing the skylight, Phoebe came up and told me the big elm in the yard had fallen. That was our biggest loss.

The first thing I did on arrival was to rescue my knot manuscript from the studio. The building, sixty by twenty eight feet, is garage below and studio above. Six rolling doors below. It was then or a little later sixteen inches out of plumb at the eaves and was shaking pretty badly when I removed the Ms. There were about sixty pictures up there, but it was useless to attempt to move them, I couldn’t have gotten one to the house in that wind. That was one decision that was made for me. Sarah didn’t say a word, but Phoebe came around later, and said she hoped I wouldn’t go up there. We got the cars out and parked them in the field. Thanks to my friend Stanley, the studio was spared. Three tons of freight from Wilmington was stored on the second floor along the south wall. The wind didn’t have enough hold to lift it, so the building merely leaned and leaned — and then as she seemed about to lift, the wind hauled farther to the westward and slackened a bit.

Next morning by six o’clock I had the carpenters there and hauled the studio erect with multiple chain hoists and strengthened her, and built a new piece of roof right over the skylight hole, before anyone else got started. We lost a thirty foot henhouse, and will have to reshingle three roofs. The boathouse was washed away, and somewhat damaged; but can be fixed. We’ve wired back forty one trees, after pulling back with tackles. It took one man and sometimes two, three weeks to clear up the big elm. Trucks and chain—hoists (the latter enough to straighten the studio) would not move the root, so we finally had to bury it. We lost several mallard ducks, and the one comic thing in the whole business was a blue heron that rose above the wood, thinking he knew something about flying. I felt the same way he looked once when I was washed ashore in the surf at Monomoy. Even some of the stone walls blew down. Thirty eight people were lost at Horse Neck. Many of the houses were in sight of us; one of them now stands in part of the marsh off our shore. Several bodies were found on our marsh. Our shores were covered with wreckage, in places several feet deep. Two hundred houses were completely removed and smashed at Horse Neck.

Hix Bridge carried away seven minutes after I crossed it; possible five, but no more than seven. The steps of the Fairhaven studio were washed away, and the gas furnace took a beating. Altogether the dent in my pocketbook will run into four figures, but I am trying to do all I can with my own man and timber from the wreckage. With two bridges washed away, our driving milage is much increased…The children will probably remember a little about it…