The Long Blue Line blog series has been publishing Coast Guard history essays for over 15 years. To access hundreds of these service stories, visit the Coast Guard Historian’s Office’s Long Blue Line online archives, located here: THE LONG BLUE LINE (uscg.mil)
“I know what you’re thinking. The three of us will probably die trying to save one guy who will die also. Get in the boat—we have a job to do!” - Warrant Boatswain Alston Wilson, Great New England Hurricane
Hitting the New England coast 85 years ago, the Great New England Hurricane was one of the most destructive storms to strike anywhere in the United States up to that time. Also known as the “Yankee Clipper” and “Long Island Express,” the 1938 hurricane caused over $41 billion in property damage and the death of approximately 700 men, women, and children.
During the storm response, the Coast Guard assisted over 500 vessels and rescued over 1,000 persons. Meanwhile, the storm damaged or destroyed 30 Coast Guard boat stations, several of them never re-built. It damaged four U.S. Lighthouse Service depots and 25 lighthouses, completely destroying one of them. Moreover, the service lost three Coast Guardsmen who were washed overboard from a cutter and another seven Lighthouse Service persons who perished in the storm.
In September 1938, a year before World War II started in Europe, a tropical depression emerged off the coast of Saharan Africa. By mid-September, the weather pattern had developed into a full-blown hurricane. Floridians feared the worst having endured violent hurricanes twice in the 1920s and just a few years earlier in 1935. However, by September 20th, the hurricane had skipped Florida and swirled north. It blew North Carolina’s Diamond Shoals Lightship off station and grew in strength to a dangerous Category 5 storm. Rolling past New Jersey at over 50 miles per hour, the hurricane heavily damaged the Coast Guard station at Sandy Hook.
By September 21st, the storm barreled north toward the heart of New England. Long Island absorbed the initial impact of the hurricane, hence the storm’s nickname of “Long Island Express.” The hurricane came ashore with winds well over 100 mph and a storm surge of over 10-feet. Between Long Island’s Fire Island Inlet and Southampton, the barrier islands submerged under heavy seas. The deadly combination of gale force winds, storm surge and breaking waves obliterated shorefront property, coastal towns and the numerous Coast Guard boat stations dotting the Long Island shoreline. Of the 30 Coast Guard stations damaged or destroyed by the hurricane, 22 of them were laid waste in New York. A number of them never re-opened.
Hurricane force winds of 120 mph drove the storm surge into the Rhode Island coast before the hurricane struck. The state suffered the worst damage with over half the hurricane’s fatalities. Coves, bays, and inlets that cut into the state’s coastline served as funnels multiplying the 15-foot storm surge already riding a spring tide a foot higher than the normal high tide. Smaller oceanside towns were wiped out and flooding of downtown Providence reached depths between 10 and 20 feet. Coast Guard boat stations in Rhode Island felt the full brunt of the storm with stations at Brenton Point, Point Judith, Quonochontaug and Watch Hill heavily damaged. It took years to re-build these bases and one had to be re-located to a safer location.
In Rhode Island, the Lighthouse Service suffered its greatest loss of lighthouses and service members. In Narragansett Bay, rogue waves struck the Prudence Island Light, Beavertail Light, Bullock’s Point Light, and Whale Rock Light. Beavertail was severely damaged while the keeper’s wife and son drowning at Prudence Island. Tidal waves stripped the sides off Bullock’s Point Light, which had to be decommissioned and replaced with a skeleton tower lighthouse. Whale Rock Lighthouse was destroyed by a rogue wave, the body of its assistant keeper never found, and the lighthouse never re-built.
In Connecticut, the storm cost hundreds of lives and tremendous property damage. The State’s western shoreline sustained storm surge levels of up to 20-feet. At New London’s large Coast Guard station, numerous boats were lost or damaged beyond repair. The Coast Guard Academy also lost some of its watercraft. Even more amazing was the sight of the 200-foot lighthouse tender Tulip washed-up on the railroad tracks in New London. The tender had burst its moorings and the surge carried it up on shore. Surprisingly, Tulip was later removed and refloated, and remained in commission until 1945 having served in both World Wars.
As the eye of the storm traveled north into the heart of New England, the right side of it hit the coast of Massachusetts from the Rhode Island border to the tip of Cape Cod and up to Boston. Storm surges in the area measured between 18 to 25-feet and the hurricane’s greatest wave height of 50-feet was recorded at Gloucester. The storm devastated Massachusetts’ Coast Guard stations and lighthouses along the coast, including boat stations at Gay Head, Martha’s Vineyard, and Cuttyhunk. Massachusetts’s lighthouses also suffered heavy damage. In New Bedford, the keeper’s wife at the flooded Palmer Island Lighthouse drowned in the storm and, except for the original stone tower, lighthouse structures on Bird Island were swept away. Fortunately, the light was not staffed at the time.
As the hurricane made its way northwest toward Canada, it cut a swath of destruction. The storm toppled two billion trees and destroyed approximately 20,000 homes, buildings, and structures. On eastern Lake Ontario, at the Galloo Island Boat Station, New York, the crew readied their motor lifeboat (MLB) to rescue the one-man crew of a foundering dredge. Aboard the MLB, Surfman Gerrett Gregory had trouble breathing as rain poured down from above and the winds swept water into the air from the lake. Before motoring into the maelstrom, officer-in-charge Warrant Boatswain Alston Wilson told his crew, “I know what you’re thinking. The three of us will probably die trying to save one guy who will die also. Get in the boat, we have a job to do!” Fighting 100 mph and heavy seas breaking over the MLB’s stern, Boatswain Wilson maneuvered the boat beside the dredge and saved the man aboard. The dredge later washed up on the rocks, but the rescue mission had been completed without loss of life.
The Great New England Hurricane of 1938 was the most destructive storms ever to hit New England, devastating the Coast Guard’s boat stations and Lighthouse Service’s lighthouses. In New England, the two services barely survived this battle with one of the worst storms in American history. As one survivor remarked, “I sometimes feel that we have had a preview of the end of the world.” In less than a year, the U.S. Lighthouse Service would merge with the Coast Guard to fight the most formidable human enemy the service would face.
Today, the Service excels in its storm response mission. In this mission, the men and women of the United States Coast Guard go in harm’s way to complete rescue and humanitarian duties as members of the long blue line.