Still shocking to recall destructive force of Hurricane of 1938

Courtesy of John Ruddy Smoke was still rising from the ruins of the Putnam Furniture Co. and the New London Grain Co., left, as people came out on Sept. 21 to see the destruction wrought by the Bank Street fire during the Hurricane of 1938.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Seventy-five years ago today, the Hurricane of 1938, a Category 3 monster, descended on southeastern Connecticut and southern Rhode Island without warning. The first of a two-part series, this is part of its story, drawn from recent interviews, reporting at the time and later accounts, including "A Wind to Shake the World" by Everett S. Allen, "The Hurricane of 1938" by Aram Goudsouzian and "The Search" by Paul Johnson Moore.

Dennis Sullivan awoke early Sept. 21, 1938, and left the inn at Napatree Point in Westerly, where he was honeymooning with his bride of two days.

Just outside stretched the open ocean, and Sullivan, who had been around the sea his whole life, went to have a look. Something in the movement of the water inexplicably filled him with fear. Sullivan went inside and told his wife their plans were changing. They packed and headed inland.

If anyone had known just then what was troubling Sullivan, they might have thought him crazy, for this late summer Wednesday was shaping up as just another day, if a soggy one. It had been raining for four days, and some roads had flooded.

In Preston, Gussie Paster, 16, left her family's dairy farm and headed to school at Norwich Free Academy. There was no reason to think this day would be one she would recollect vividly for the next 75 years.

On Bank Street in New London, the Eaton & Wilson Co. hardware store had placed an ad in the paper extolling Rutland Roof Coating ("Makes leaky roofs good as new"). By the time anyone saw the ad, four roofless walls would be all that comprised the store.

At Napatree, Geoffrey Moore suffered a heart attack just after lunch. A doctor ordered him to rest in bed for three days and to avoid excitement. In no time at all, Moore would find it impossible to obey.

In New York, train No. 14, the Bostonian, eased out of Grand Central Terminal and headed east on its regular run. The train would reach New London around 3 and, barring the unforeseen, would pull into Boston a couple of hours later. But the unforeseen was on the way.

Far to the south, off Cape Hatteras, N.C., a tropical hurricane churned up the ocean as it moved northeast. Meteorologists tracked it calmly as it followed a projected path that would carry it out to sea. Then they watched in shock as it changed course and raced north.

• • •

Gussie Paster was in the kitchen of her Preston home with her mother when they noticed the wind start to pick up. Her father and brothers were out rounding up the cows to get them to safety in the barn.

Suddenly a window imploded, sending shards of glass flying around the room. Then another, and another. Paster and her mother ran from room to room trying to avoid the glass, but it was everywhere.

"We knew we were in trouble, but we didn't know what to do," said Paster, now Gussie Paster Sitkin, 91, of Studio City, Calif. "I think we were a little terrified at that point."

Hearing more windows smashing upstairs, the two took refuge in a foyer by the front door. Their brick house, more than 100 years old, sat atop a hill on the family farm, an inviting target for the wind. Paster and her mother were startled when they saw a large object go sailing down the hill. It was their roof.

Her father came running, yelling for them to get out of the house, which was shaking. With difficulty, they made their way a quarter mile to the barn, the newest and strongest building on the farm.

When her brother Jake came home from school, he had to walk across open ground to get to the barn and could barely move against the wind. Another brother had to go out and carry him in.

Once the family had settled in among the cows for the night, the wind tore their house apart.

• • •

The New London Fire Department already had its hands full with reports of debris blowing off roofs when, at 4:30 p.m., a man fought his way through the wind to the Niagara firehouse at Bank and Sparyard streets. The man said the Humphrey-Cornell Co., a wholesale grocer not far away, was burning.

The water on Sparyard Street was 2 feet deep, and the wind was blowing 110 mph, sending the stream from firefighters' hoses in the opposite direction. Before long, firefighters swam away from their positions to report that the flames had spread to the building next door.

Thus began a 10-hour nightmare that destroyed a quarter-mile stretch of Bank Street and threatened to annihilate all of downtown New London.

Fire Chief Thomas H. Shipman had plenty of manpower at his disposal, but that was his only advantage. Shrieking wind and rising water were the worst problems, but they were far from the only ones.

Alarms and telephones were out, and calls for help had to be delivered by runners. Assistance from other departments was delayed for hours by fallen trees. Debris rained down on firefighters. Sparks blew all over town, starting countless smaller fires. As night fell, the lack of lights left firefighters unable to see where they were. Water mains broke, and the backup source, the Thames River, was inaccessible behind debris that had collected on the waterfront. While everyone was occupied, another fire broke out on Pequot Avenue and destroyed two homes.

Flames leaped from building to building on Bank Street, gutting the Chappell coal company, the Plaut-Cadden furniture store and Eaton & Wilson Co. in quick succession. Soon the whole street was ablaze, from opposite the Shaw Mansion nearly to the Custom House. The heat melted windows across the street.

Two people were trapped by collapsed walls in the Nassetta Brothers woodworking shop and faced certain death. They watched the advancing flames helplessly until two firefighters threw them a rope and hauled them through a window to safety.

Only a shift in the wind allowed the blaze to finally be contained, deep in the night. If it hadn't been, firefighters were close to planting dynamite to blow up the buildings in the fire's path.

When it was over, 25 buildings had been destroyed, including the firehouse where the fire first was reported. Another 21 were heavily damaged, and 43 more suffered lesser damage.

• • •

Geoffrey Moore, who hadn't had a pulse a few minutes earlier, was in bed when waves started hurling themselves against his Napatree cottage. His four young children began crying in terror.

An 18-year-old neighbor appeared at the door in his underwear. Asked where his family was, he said, "Gone."

Moore gathered the 11 people in the house, including his wife, a relative and three family employees, and they stood under a sturdy door frame, waiting and praying.

When the floor started to collapse under them, they ran to the stairs and up to the third floor. As they did, the second floor disappeared beneath them, and they could see chunks of the foundation heaving in the ocean at the bottom of the stairs.

Now just the roof was above them, and the windows would give any minute, flooding the top floor. The family had nowhere left to go. The children began to recite the Act of Contrition.

Then the roof blew off the maid's room and presented itself as a raft. Everyone climbed on and crowded together as waves cascaded over them. Part of the house floated alongside them, furniture spilling out.

Eventually the raft came ashore on Barn Island in Stonington. The family, miraculously alive and well, took refuge in the haystack of a wrecked barn. From there they watched an orange glow in the sky from the Bank Street fire, miles away.

"I sometimes feel that we have had a preview of the end of the world," Moore's wife later wrote.

• • •

Passengers on the Bostonian watched the waters of New London Harbor writhing as their train crossed the Shaw's Cove bridge around 3 p.m. They saw the Marsala, a five-masted training ship, dragging 18 tons of anchors as the wind muscled it southward.

The train pressed onward into the height of the storm and halted just west of Stonington as water crested a gravel trestle. When the train engineer and fireman stepped off to assess the situation, they found themselves waist deep as the water closed in. The three rear cars began to list as the trestle weakened, and the brakes locked.

As the crew started moving passengers to the forward cars, windows smashed and waves began to pound the train. A 30-foot sailboat slammed into one car. Some panicked and jumped from windows and doors into the water. An elderly woman and a member of the crew drowned.

All those still aboard, about 160, crowded into the first car, with women and children in the engine. Racing against time, a brakeman fought the undertow to uncouple everything else. The engineer opened the throttle, and the now one-car train groaned as it started to inch along the submerged track.

The locomotive caught fallen wires and uprooted utility poles, dragging them along until the wires snapped. A cabin cruiser and a house on the tracks were both slowly pushed aside as the train moved steadily toward higher ground. It eventually reached Stonington station, where everyone disembarked safely.

Fifteen minutes later, waves pushed the left-behind cars off the track.

• • •

Four doors down from the Moores on Napatree, another family named Moore, but not related, prepared for what promised to be a big storm with a tingle of excitement.

Mrs. Jessie Moore, 70, and her stepdaughter Havila, 40, who could barely walk because of a bone deformity, were the only ones left at their cottage after a family reunion the previous weekend. Mrs. Moore told a neighbor she would have to come over and sit in the glassed-in porch to watch the big waves roll in.

At 3:45 p.m., she cheerily gave the mailman a letter she had written to her husband in New York. "Some beautiful ocean raging," it read.

Not long after, one of the waves Mrs. Moore had looked forward to seeing roared into the cottage. The three-story wooden building skidded back 75 feet, crumbled and disappeared. Mrs. Moore's body was identified the next day.

The fate of Havila Moore would remain a mystery for much longer.

j.ruddy@theday.com

The Eaton & Wilson Co., left, and the Plaut-Cadden furniture store were two of the many businesses gutted by the Bank Street fire, which destroyed or damaged 89 buildings during the Hurricane of 1938.
Courtesy John Ruddy The Eaton & Wilson Co., left, and the Plaut-Cadden furniture store were two of the many businesses gutted by the Bank Street fire, which destroyed or damaged 89 buildings during the Hurricane of 1938.
Most of the cars of the Bostonian, a train that was halted by the storm surge from the Hurricane of 1938 in Stonington, sit amid the wreckage after they were washed off the tracks. The crew of the train decoupled everything except one car from the locomotive. The shortened train reached safety with 160 people aboard.
Day file photo Most of the cars of the Bostonian, a train that was halted by the storm surge from the Hurricane of 1938 in Stonington, sit amid the wreckage after they were washed off the tracks. The crew of the train decoupled everything except one car from the locomotive. The shortened train reached safety with 160 people aboard.
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