The Great Hurricane of 1938

Exactly 75 years ago this week, the Great Hurricane of 1938 caused extensive damage to the Glessners’ New Hampshire summer estate, The Rocks.  It remains the deadliest and most powerful hurricane to ever hit New England.  Property losses were estimated at $306 million ($4.7 billion in current dollars), ranking it second only to Hurricane Sandy in 2012 in terms of property damage.  An interesting statistic indicates that if New England possessed the same population and infrastructure in 1938 as it does today, the 1938 hurricane would have caused $39.2 billion in damage.  The death toll was close to 800.

The storm formed off the coast of Africa and was first observed on September 9.  By the time it approached the Bahamas on September 20, it had increased to a Category 5 hurricane.  An unusual set of circumstances prevented it from making landfall to the west or turning back out to sea to the east, forcing it directly north at a forward speed of 70 miles per hour, the highest forward velocity ever recorded for a hurricane.   By early afternoon on Wednesday September 21, the western edge of the hurricane hit the New Jersey coastline and New York City, and the eye made landfall at Bayport near the center of Long Island shortly after 3:00pm.  Within an hour the eye made a second landfall just east of New Haven, Connecticut.  The storm was a Category 3 intensity hurricane at both landfalls with sustained winds of 120-125 miles per hour.  It continued into western Massachusetts and by 6:00pm had reached the southern portion of Vermont and New Hampshire.  It continued north, crossing into Quebec at approximately 10:00pm

The storm had a devastating impact on the forests affecting more than one-third of the total forested area of New England.  Nearly two-thirds of the felled trees, representing 1.6 billion board feet of lumber, were eventually salvaged through the Northeastern Timber Salvage Administration (NETSA) specifically created in response to the hurricane. 

Throughout New Hampshire, the high sustained winds devastated forests and downed numerous power lines.  The town of Peterborough in the southern part of the state sustained extensive damage including the destruction of ten bridges.  Much of the downtown district was destroyed by fire when floodwaters prevented firefighters from getting to the blaze.  Mount Washington, located near the Glessner estate, recorded wind gusts of 163 miles per hour which destroyed part of a trestle on the Cog Railway.

The Littleton Courier, in an article dated September 22 entitled “Hurricane Lashes North Country” gave a clear picture of the devastation:
North Country people arose this morning to survey untold damage, and tired workmen continued their all-night labors to clear highways and establish communication with the outside world, following the worst hurricane to hit this section in the memory of the oldest residents.  Much more serious damage was indicated in the few reports that filtered in from other sections of New England.  The windstorm, that swept unabated for several hours, starting in the early evening, was a terrifying climax to a three-day rain that deposited over five inches in the area . . . Highways that were blocked because of washouts and landslides, became even more impassible because of fallen trees.  Electric and telephone lines that had survived the rain were rendered useless by the wind.  Thousands of trees were blown down.
Littleton Cut Off
The town of Littleton, like many other communities in this area, was cut off from the world as far as communication was concerned.  This morning there was no way of telephoning even nearby towns, and the telegraph service had been out of order since yesterday afternoon.  The local electric power was shut off at 7:14 p.m. yesterday, and all forms of existence depending upon that source of power stopped immediately.  There had been no trains since about 9 o’clock Wednesday morning. 
Schools Shut Down
Steady rain since Sunday made torrents of tiny brooks, tore out culverts, inundated and undermined roads.  By yesterday, there was three feet of water in Lisbon’s Main street, roads were being closed, and the Littleton and Bethlehem schools were shut down.  Travelers were stranded, while highway workers rushed to the various danger spots in an attempt to open the way for traffic.  Crawford notch, closed yesterday because of a landslide and damaged culverts, was made even more impassable by fallen trees which effectually choked the pass this morning.  Thrown together across the highway like jackstraws, this remnant of the high wind presents a barrier that will take some time to clear away.”

At The Rocks, records indicate that approximately 505 acres of forested land were blown down or severely damaged resulting in a net loss to the estate of at least $25,000.  Over the next year many of the downed trees were salvaged and sold to NETSA comprised mostly of white pine, fir, spruce, and balsam.  Nearly three dozen shade trees, including poplars, birches, maples and others were also lost on the property immediately around Frances Lee’s home and gardens.  There was some damage to barns and other structures on the estate, but those losses were minimal compared to the impact on the surrounding forests. 

In addition to the financial losses, the greatest impact was felt by those who enjoyed the beauty of the estate.  State Senator John B. Eames wrote to Frances Glessner Lee on October 1, 1938, stating in part:
“I personally, and I know many others, have felt that the great damage in the so-called Glessner Woods was a loss not only to you but to our entire community.  Many times I have traveled with visitors to this section and always they have remarked that it was one of the beauty spots from Boston to Littleton. . . I have noticed you and Mr. Sullivan are beginning to bring order out of chaos and I know that in time all the wounds of this disastrous storm will be healed and we can once again point with pride to your achievement.”

Frances Glessner responded on October 11:
“I was greatly touched and pleased by your letter of October 1.  We have, indeed, all of us sustained severe losses.  The damage in the Franconia Woods affected me no more than it did all of my neighbors for that was a beauty spot to which all of us gravitated.  Just what the outcome will be it is too soon to say, but at least we shall do what we can to bring back in our lifetime as much of the beauty as possible.  Your expression of sympathy means much to me at this time.  Thank you for writing me.”


Eventually, the effects of the devastating hurricane began to disappear and by the time Frances Glessner Lee died 23 years later, The Rocks estate ranked once again as one of the great beauty spots in the North Country of New Hampshire.