Digest>Archives> April 2009

Collecting Nautical Antiques

Hurricane Of 1938

By Jim Claflin


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We recently turned up a most interesting and rare photo of the U.S. Lighthouse Tender Tulip high and dry at New London, Connecticut in 1938. Looking at the photo led us to research the incident further.

The Tulip spent her entire career assigned to the Third LH District. On the afternoon of Wednesday, September 21, 1938, a hurricane of unmatched proportions in the Northeast struck Connecticut and is even now considered the state’s worst natural disaster of the 20th century. In terms of fatalities and property damage - the 1938 hurricane is still one of the worst disasters in North American history. In a matter of hours, 688 people were killed, 4500 were injured, and more than 75,000 buildings were damaged or destroyed.

Striking without warning, the first blow of the storm demolished the harbor. Ships were ripped from their moorings, the storm slamming them around the harbor and wrecking wharfs and other vessels before sinking or beaching themselves. The wind and surf tore the Tulip, 190 feet long and weighing about a thousand tons, from its moorings and marooned her on the tracks of the New York, New Haven and Hartford railroad. The tender remained in the center of town, across the tracks, for 17 days, proving, very difficult to move. Indeed, it took the construction of a new waterway to relaunch her. She would continue to serve until 1945, when she was transferred to the Philippine government.

The storm had traveled over 600 miles in 12 hours, one of the fastest movements ever recorded. As the storm drove up the Connecticut Valley late that afternoon, huge wind-driven waves slammed into the coastal towns. Residents began to take shelter wherever they could. The civilian light keepers and the men of the Coast Guard worked to keep the lights shining to guide mariners in distress and to effect rescues where possible. In New London, the anemometer was reading a 98 mph wind speed when it was blown away as the hurricane struck.

While onlookers helplessly watched the devastation, Prudence Island and the lighthouses at Beavertail, Bullock’s Point, and Whale Rock were enduring similar onslaughts by the storm. In Jamestown at Beavertail Lighthouse, the fog whistle house was torn away, revealing an earlier foundation. This foundation was probably that of the original wood lighthouse that occupied the site in 1749.

At Westerly and Watch Hill, the sea claimed entire settlements. On Prudence Island, the water ate away the banking up to the iron lighthouse while six residents of the island perished. Despite the light keeper’s best efforts, his wife and son were carried away by the seas as their house was swept into the sea. The keeper only narrowly escaped the same fate by securing himself within the iron lighthouse tower.

Grim scenes repeated themselves throughout the region as the hurricane approached. Keeper Andrew Zuius Sr. at Bullock Point redoubled his efforts to keep the light shining. Although mountainous seas tore away the end wall from the structure, Zuius climbed to the second floor and kept the burner in operation. As the boiling green seas built up against the light, the granite foundation under the dwelling became undermined and began to crumble. Soon the end walls were breached by the sea and, when the storm subsided, Zuius found that all of his supplies, his belongings, and the station boat had been washed away.

At Whale Rock Light, the cast-iron light tower had stood since 1882, its iron V -base bolted to the subsurface rock. Before the night was over, this too would be thrown into the raging sea with its keeper alone in the tower.

Palmer Island found itself directly in the storm’s track. Keeper Arthur Small was intent at keeping his fog signal blasting, as he knew that the Nantucket boat was soon scheduled to pass with its load of 200 passengers. As the mountainous waves struck the island and soon demolished their house, Keeper Small helped his wife to take refuge in the brick oil house. Keeper Small removed shelving and built a platform for his wife, Mable, to wait, and then went to resume his work on the fog signal. The keeper had no way of knowing that the Nantucket boat had already taken refuge from the storm. As wave after wave washed over the island, Keeper Small was swept into the sea. When Mable Small saw her husband in peril, she left the safety of the oil house and went to his aid but was herself swept away. Keeper Small awoke some time later lying on the wreckage of the boathouse, but his heroic wife succumbed to her injuries.

At Brenton Point off Newport, the Coast Guard station was ripped by the winds and pounded by the sea. Much of the bottom level of the building was torn away as the men fought to save their station.

The next morning, as the storm proceeded northward, the waters began to recede almost as fast as they had risen. By 10 A.M., residents began to venture out to view the devastation and to count the dead. In all, more than 682 men, women, and children perished. Thousands were injured.

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Jim Claflin is a recognized authority on antiques of the U.S. Lighthouse Service, Life-Saving Service, Revenue Cutter Service and early Coast Guard. In addition to authoring and publishing a number of books on the subject, Jim is the owner of Kenrick A Claflin & Son Nautical Antiques. In business since 1956, he has specialized in antiques of this type since the early 1990s. He may be contacted by writing to him at 1227 Pleasant Street, Worcester, MA 01602, or by calling (508) 792-6627. You may also contact him by email: jclaflin@lighthouseantiques.net or visit his web site at www.lighthouseantiques.net

This story appeared in the April 2009 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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