Marion Jennings Waring account of 1938 hurricane

The following account combines two letters that Mrs. Marion Jennings Waring of Fall River, a Westport Harbor summer resident, wrote to her brother, Oliver Jennings in Pittsburgh, PA in early October 1938.

“It is awfully hard to write about the horrible experience that we went through. You can’t imagine it – you can’t believe it.

“Westport Harbor is wiped out. The land from the Point of Rocks to the Charlton’s (the E.P. Charlton mansion) is just a flat beach.

“I only thought it was another September gale, perhaps a little worse.

“We were going to leave, but rolled up all the rugs and put the sofa pillows up in the loft – moved everything that the water might damage, thinking the house would get wet. I never dreamed but what it would stand.

“I told Mr. Barshara (an acquaintance who kept a lobster boat nearby in the harbor), who stayed to help us, that the water had been over the road before.

“(The storm) gained in ferocity and force so quickly that in 20 minutes our backyard was flooded and the water was knee-deep to the garage. This was about 4:30 p.m. We went over to the McNab’s (next door). I wanted to go to the Mitchell’s (two-story brick house beyond McNab’s), but the McNabs came up and said to come in – that their house was up higher and was safe.

“I can’t go into details and reasons, but will give you an outline.

“There were Mr. Barshara and Ace (his son) – they had come down to see about their boat and stayed to help us – Helen (her maid), and Dwightie (her son) and myself, Mrs. (Edith) McNab, Helen McNab, and here husband (Howard Willand).

“I went into their bedroom to look at our house and saw the lattice go, the porch go, the roof go, and as I turned to tell the McNabs that we must leave, I heard a tremendous crash and the McNab’s porch washed away like a lot of kindling wood.

“The Barsharas were hollering like crazy people. We went out on the steps and looked over to the Mitchell’s. The waters were raging through between McNab’s and Mitchell’s so we went toward the road, making for Charlton’s.

“The water swept us along, until we got (to) the rail fence that ran along the lane by the Charlton’s tennis court (along the river shore).

“Dwightie told us to take off all heavy clothing. He was mighty plucky and said to me, ‘Now take it easy Mom.’

“My tweed coat caught around a post of the fence and the wind sucked me right down, so I had to let go of the fence and slip my coat off, and in so doing lost hold of the fence and my box of jewelry and pocketbook. The waves rolled me over and under. Dwightie said I went down twice. I never, never will forget looking at them hanging on to the fence and wondering what the end would be. I never expected to see them again.

“Well it suddenly occurred to me: ‘Why don’t I swim? I’m not going to drown!’

and I did.

“I was down to about Perry Charlton’s fishing boat when a part of a rail fence came by. I grabbed it and it held me up. I wanted to get out of that awful water and waves, and managed to climb up and straddle the rail…This I hung on to and crossed my ankles underneath and hung on.

“I won’t tell you of my trip down the river. It was over three miles before I reached shore. It was horrible – savage and cruel. The waves in the river were 10 feet high. They slapped me in the back. The wind picked up all kinds of debris – planks, chairs, straw boards – and hurled them at me. A great log came by, I thought it was going to crush me; and a platform, raft-like. I thought of getting on it, but decided there was nothing to hang on to – that the waves would wash me off – so I gave a push and stayed on the fence. I didn’t seem to go ashore, but stayed right in the middle of the river.

“I finally came in below Brayton Morton’s farm (about halfway between Central Village and Westport Point on the eastern shore of the West Branch of the river). My legs had knotted with cramps several times and I was about exhausted.

“I climbed over a lot of debris and reached land. It was thick underbrush and brambles. I found I wasn’t getting anywhere, so I came back to shore, looking for a driveway or open field that might lead to the road…My legs gave away twice and it was getting dark. I left the McNab’s house at 5:05 p.m. and reached the farmhouse about

7 p.m.

“I saw (what) looked like a hayfield and followed that. I came into brush and woods again. I went through an opening in a stone wall and crouched down behind it. It seemed to me I couldn’t stand that howling, screeching wind anymore. I realized I might pass out—that I must keep going until I found a house – so I dashed back to the meadow and looked more closely.

“I noticed a narrow brown streak the color of the meadow. I tried to run along that. I suddenly saw a tall shed or barn, but it looked deserted. When I reached it, I made

few places to have electricity because they had their own motor-generator. The occupants were totally unaware of the severity of the storm or of the terrible tidal wave havoc.)

“I pounded on the screen and they came to the door and just looked at me. It seemed ages to me before they took me in. I learned last week that my face was as black as ink and I had turned (black) as far down as my shoulders. I was shaking violently and asked for whisky. They said they couldn’t feel any pulse.

“The caretaker was a registered nurse, and the housekeeper was a woman from Central Village, a motherly soul. They did everything for me.

“The Barsharas came ashore about the same place. I was worried sick over Dwightie and my maid (Helen Almy, then a recent high school graduate from Tiverton, R.I.). It was about 9 or 10 when I heard Dwightie was all right and at Wheeler’s (a farm nearer the harbor on the opposite river bank). He caught hold of a raft and laid on it. He crawled from the shore to Wheeler’s.

“The McNabs, Helen and her husband, came ashore below where I did a little later, and stayed at another farmhouse. Mrs. McNab (Helen’s mother) was drowned. (They had remained in their house until it broke up. They floated off on a piece of the floor. The raft overturned three times; twice they rescued Mrs. McNab, but the third time they lost her.)

“My maid Helen, was drowned. (She could not swim and was last seen by Dwight sitting upright on a raft only 15 feet from shore, screaming in terror.) I feel so sorry for her family. She was a lovely girl.

“Dwight (her husband) and Ted (her youngest son, whose 14th birthday it happened to be) didn’t dare leave Fall River until 7 p.m. They found Dwight about 10. They were sure I was gone. Didn’t hear until the following midnight at Nat Durfee’s (friends in Fall River) that I was safe.

“We lost everything, everything. All our things went down the river and whatever came ashore was looted before we could hunt for it. The only thing salvaged was Dwightie’s outboard motor.

“There are no papers or description that can make you realize the disaster. Horseneck and Westport (Harbor) and Seakonnet are wiped right out. I don’t know as we even have a lot. It is just flat beach from the ocean to the river, and from Point of Rocks to Charlton’s.

“Israel Brayton’s house, Dr. Barnes’ and Charlie Chase’s are still standing. The beach comes right up to their stone wall.

“Well, we are lucky to be alive. I lost both pairs of glasses, so I couldn’t write or use my eyes. I just got my new ones Saturday night: I have written this letter in spells.

“Hope you can read this – it looks kind of messy, but I still seem to be a bit shaky.”

A few days later, Marion wrote to her brother again. Some excerpts follow:

“I don’t sleep very well yet. I took a pill last night, but I don’t want to get into that habit. But it seems as though I wake with a start, tense, and my mind is rehearsing some part of the experience.

“Dr. Dennet’s house, across from Madison Welch’s and next to Harold Barker’s: the second floor landed on the Wilbur lot near the river, and when they went in and opened a bedroom door they found the dog asleep on a bed!

“Silvia Davol found her silver, which was in buffet drawers, under her house wrapped up in a window shade. Her house was washed over to the corner back of the Rogers’ and all cracked up to nothing. Where the Crawford house stood is just piles of stones; it went into Charlton’s barn. And Charlie Hawes’ house was cut in two – half landed in Helen Borden’s and half in Charlton’s.

“The water that came through between Mitchell’s house and McNab’s was a raging torrent, like Niagara Falls. The Mitchell’s house stood. It was quite badly undermined and the furniture washed out from the first floor. The three maids were there alone and stayed in the second floor through it. Well, I don’t know how we are alive. The whole lower road from Adamsville was under water.

“Fall River had plenty of trouble, too. No lights for the rest of the week. It was under martial law. It is a wonder more people were not hurt by falling trees – they were everywhere.

“Dick Hawes has written his observations of the hurricane and had it printed, and it is most interesting. Around five o’clock he was at Israel Brayton’s (on high land across from beach club) and lay flat on the ground and watched the pavilion and houses crack up and float away. He was an enormous mound of water come in. It looked like a black band, and he figured it was eight feet higher than Elephant Rock.”