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A storm for the ages, 80 years ago

SHELTER ISLAND HISTORICAL SOCIETY PHOTO This Gulf station stood at Case’s Corner on Route 114 and was surrounded by fallen trees when the ‘Long Island Express’ came through Shelter Island.
This Gulf station stood at Case’s Corner on Route 114 and was surrounded by fallen trees when the ‘Long Island Express’ came through Shelter Island.

It was named the “Long Island Express.”

But that was only after it passed, leaving Shelter Island battered but unbroken as it trekked north deep into New England along its murderous path.

On September 21, 1938, when the massive storm made landfall, there were no named storms, but even more significantly, there were no National Weather Service advisories to help people prepare for what was coming.

Preparation or not, it has gone down in history as one of the most powerful and costliest storms to strike the region.

Slamming into the Northeast as a Category 3 hurricane, it produced wind speeds gusting more than 120 miles per hour, according to National Weather Service estimates. A wall of water estimated at 17 feet high crashed over Long Island, damaging more than 24,000 homes.

As many as 700 people were killed over several states. The Island lost one. (See story below.)

“Homes were washed away, roads were washed away, Long Island Rail Road tracks were washed out … the apple crop was destroyed, a lot of livestock and farming was destroyed,” National Weather Service meteorologist David Stark told the Reporter.

That long-ago tempest was vividly remembered by just a handful of Islanders who spoke to the Reporter on the 75th anniversary of the storm. They were school children witnessing the hurricane’s winds shrieking across Shelter Island that late September day, 80 Septembers ago.

Jackie and Maurice “Tut” Tuttle were 5 and 6, respectively, at the time of the storm. She was living in Southold while Maurice, a Harelegger, was in school that historic day.

Mr. Tuttle remembered being taken with other children to the McGayheys’ summer house on St. Mary’s Road to ride out the storm. They slept overnight there until it was safe to return home the following day. He remembered the streets being strewn with fallen trees.

He wasn’t sure if he understood the seriousness of the situation then, saying, “I just knew it was a rough situation. That was a wicked storm.”

Wicked, indeed, his wife agreed. Ms. Tuttle recalled being picked up in advance of the storm by her mother for a shopping trip to Greenport. They entered Katz’s Department Store and were told that a major storm was about to happen. But they didn’t have to be told something extraordinary was happening, watching water quickly massing at the back of the store as the tide rose.

They took refuge at a friend’s house on Atlantic Avenue in Greenport. An unshakable memory for Ms. Tuttle was watching the storm lift the roof off Eastern Long Island Hospital.

“It rolled up like an ice cream cone and blew down the creek,” she said.

Finally able to start for home, she and her mother began walking down Sound Avenue where the Soundview Inn is today — it was Stanley Case’s fishing store in 1938. “Trees were down everywhere,” she said.

Ahead, she and her mother saw her father coming toward them, axe in hand, cutting his way through debris strewn in the road.

What Ben Jones, who passed away in 2016, remembered in a Reporter interview a few years ago was the stunning aftermath of the storm. His mother owned a rental property in Shelter Island Heights, just the third house up from North Ferry. The Jones family lived in Maplewood, New Jersey, and young Ben would come out to help his mother maintain the house. “I didn’t like Shelter Island,” he confessed. “To me Shelter Island was nothing but work.”

Mr. Jones’ mother had been “frantic” during the storm, imagining her Island meal ticket destroyed, but she got a call from a neighbor after the winds and rain had subsided, telling her that the house was undamaged.
Mr. Jones remembered the long, treacherous ride from New Jersey to check out the property first hand.

“Driving here was a huge challenge,” he said. “There were constant detours.” But they finally made it across on the ferry to discover the house was in good condition, due to neighbors boarding it up just before the storm hit.

Mr. Jones remembered his mother’s reaction: “She was overjoyed.”

Dorothy Dickerson Clark was a high school junior in 1938. She was among those who spent the night sheltering at the school and remembered watching the storm’s fury through the windows as trees toppled. She recalled arriving home the next day to find that the winds had knocked down a large oak tree in her front yard.

Mr. Jones brought up another memory of seeing a neighbor’s roof that had been blown away. He recalled that communication was difficult because many lines were down and, in those days, most people had party line telephones so what service there was in the wake of the storm was shared and difficult to access. On the other hand, the electricity blackout on the Island was less troublesome since people depended on coal to heat their houses and used ice boxes, not refrigerators.

As the Island began its recovery, the Jones family learned it was going to lose a prized oak that stood between their house and the Coopers’ house. At the peak of the storm, the tree was seen bent over the Coopers’ roof. But then, a miracle — a blast of wind righted it to its original place standing straight up. On further inspection, it was far from a miracle. The core root had snapped and the tree eventually had to come down. Mr. Jones remembers his mother’s deep sorrow at the loss of the tree.

“If you’ve seen one hurricane, you’ve seen them all,” he said. “They’re all about the same.”

Some circles are completed in a lifetime. Years after the storm, Mr. Jones, by then married to his wife Betty, moved into that family-owned house in the Heights. For 30 years he was the heart, soul and brain of the volunteer ambulance corps. Prepared for every call, a first responder who was an even-tempered pro under every circumstance, Mr. Jones saved lives and helped bring them into the world, delivering 11 babies.

He was among those who helped a woman in critical condition get to Southampton Hospital aboard South Ferry during Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

‘38 storm claimed one Shelter Islander

No Shelter Islanders on land lost their lives during the Hurricane of 1938, but one seaman met his fate 80 years ago from “The Long Island Express.”

Captain Roy Griffing died aboard the seine boat in which the crew of the fishing steamer, Ocean View, had taken refuge. The steamer overturned in East End waters forcing the crew into the smaller boat that couldn’t weather the winds and waves, according to a newspaper account at the time.

Captain Griffing had engaged in “beam trawling” off Montauk for many years and was a well respected resident, according to the newspaper account.

A second seaman from West Neck had been feared lost aboard the Catskill on a New London-Orient Point route, but the boat rode through the storm to safety.

Islanders were not spared close encounters with death that September day. “Scores of bodies” washed ashore from the ocean between Center Moriches and Sag Harbor, according to an account from nurse Viola Farrow of Shelter Island Heights, who kept a scrapbook of her own observations along with newspaper clippings.

Those who drowned were said to have occupied cottages along a 50-mile stretch of shore between Montauk Highway and the Atlantic Ocean and stretching from Center Moriches to Westhampton, Ms. Farrow wrote. She said six bodies washed ashore at Westhampton alone and 30 who had lived in what became ruins of 160 summer bungalows were missing.

On the Island, roads were blocked by fallen trees and forests were “reduced to acres of tangled branches,” according to an newspaper account preserved in the scrapbook. The wooded drive at the then Dering Harbor Club was destroyed; the east veranda and side roof of the country club was partly blown off and the course was strewn with pieces of the caddy house. A beautiful, forested area around Hay Beach Point that covered nearly 200 acres was wiped out. Dering Harbor Village roads and lawns were strewn with oaks and locusts.

Ram Island Road was impassable as huge waves tore up the Lower Beach road at Ram Island Estates, allowing the bay and harbor to meet across the roadway for hours. Great Ram Island’s forest was destroyed and the shore at Coecles Harbor was covered with boats that had snapped their moorings at the height of the storm. The Ram Island Beach Club was divided by the wind and waves, the main club room left standing, while the two bathhouse wings “floated merrily off to find a new location on Emil Brogel’s domains,” a newspaper account said.

Garages at Ram’s Head Inn were blown down and serious damage was done to several houses in the area.

At South Ferry, a detour had to be created on the Bailey-Smith property to provide access to the rest of the Island.

Two large windows were shattered at what was then the Bohack store in the Center.

At Menantic, five boathouses belonging to then Supervisor Everett Tuthill were “reduced to kindling wood” and 28 trees on the property were “torn to pieces.” Mr. Tuthill and three others had a narrow escape when a section of roof from one of the boathouses blew off and cut through the roof of another just a moment after the four men had evacuated the building.

North Ferry boats were landing at the town dock until fallen trees in the Heights could be cleared two days after the storm.

It took three days after the storm for 50 telephone company workers to begin untangling wires from trees. The following day, workers were able to begin to restore electricity to the Heights.

“Kerosene lamps and candles are in great demand and those having a hand pump and well are aiding waterless neighbors,” the newspaper account said.