Horseneck Beach Hurricane of 1938
Posted on January 20, 2009 by Jenny ONeill
In 1938 all but the western most part of Horseneck was lined with houses, mostly small cottages but including some substantial mansions. West Beach, facing the Atlantic, was backed by sand dunes and woodland where persons fleeing the beachfront could try to find refuge. East Beach, facing the Bay, was a narrow strip of sand between the open bay and the Westport river and marshes and was far more deadly as the only escape routes were at either end of the beach. 190 homes were destroyed or significantly damaged. In the words of one eye witness:
“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.”
The impact of the hurricane extended far inland. The storm surge rushed up the river, sweeping the banks clean and carrying away dwellings. One house lodged against Hix bridge and battered it to pieces.
The steeple of the Point church was blown down.
The hurricane dramtically changed the landscape of Horseneck. On West Beach, the dunes were significantly eroded. One contemporary account describes them as “flattened by the hurricane.” A resident of Forge Road at Westport Factory, who had just started painting his house, discovered that after the hurricane, the paint was “rough as sandpaper. He had it analyzed; it definitely was Horseneck’s sand.” East Beach Road was buried under many feet of stones. Water also reached John Reed Road. Numerous gullies were gouged from the Let to the ocean
22 people perished due to “accidental drowning during the hurricane and a tidal wave.” The youngest was two years old, the oldest 89 years old. About a third of those who died were from Westport, the others were probably summer residents. Newspaper reports record that some of those who died at Horseneck had their boots on. It is thought that they were building sand barricades to protect their property.
Clifford Ashley describes the scene at East Beach during the 1938 hurricane:
“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.”
Ali Aberdeen demonstrates how Mrs. Sullivan saved herself from being swept out to sea. Trapped by the waves, Mrs. Sullivan clung to a telephone pole dodging debris. The water was shoulder deep by this time. Miraculously she found her way to the wall on the north side of the Hall property. Ali Aberdeen and Andrew Hall were then able to drag her inside the house.
The Trafford house (then owned by the Sinclairs) was the most substantial stone building on East Beach. It was a natural place to seek shelter during the storm. An eye witness account records that 6 people sheltered there:
“I had only been there fifteen minutes when there were three huge waves and the third was a tidal wave which crushed the house like a paper bag. All the people drowned. I was the only one left.”
Three houses survived intact, two of which were owned by Dr. Andrew Hall. They were constructed of cement and heavily reinforced. The lifesaving station which by 1938 had been converted into a restaurant also survived intact.