Now a Yankee classic, this article was first published in September, 1988.
For the first time his wife Irene could ever remember, Harold Higginbotham decided not to go to work. It had been rainy and muggy all week along the stretch of Atlantic Coast from New London, Connecticut, to Point Judith, Rhode Island — a fitting conclusion to a summer that had been pretty much of a washout. Even though school had resumed and it was the third week of September, many families lingered on in cottages at summer beach colonies near the border towns of Westerly and Pawcatuck, hoping for one last break in the dark skies.
All week Harold, a foreman at the American Thread Company in Pawcatuck, and Irene and two of their three sons, Jimmy, 10, and Stanley, 20, had been staying in a small cottage on Montauk Avenue at Misquamicut Beach. Harold had been fighting off a cold, which on the evening of September 20, 1938, grew worse. The family packed up and drove five miles home to West Broad Street in Pawcatuck.
But they got a surprise the next morning. The weather cleared dramatically. There was just a riffle of breeze from the southeast and a benediction of warm sun. It was the kind of fine morning people had been waiting for all summer.
As the fishing fleet put out from harbors up and down the coast, sailboats appeared in Little Narragansett Bay, and college boys hired to close up the big summer houses of Watch Hill stripped off their shirts. Striped umbrellas appeared. Beach outings were hastily assembled.
At Christ Episcopal Church in Westerly, just before 10 that morning, a dozen women from the Mothers’ Club assembled with their rector for a drive to the beach and a picnic at the Clark cottage. At their handsome house in Watch hill, Mr. And Mrs. Geoffrey L. Moore, their four small children, a visiting relative, two family employees, and a college boy named Andy Pupillo were also talking about the sudden spell of good weather. There was some talk of strolling down to the Watch Hill carousel to take a ride on the famous carved wooden horses with their real agate eyes.
Sometime before lunch Stan Higginbotham got a telephone call from his mother at the Morris Plan Company, a bank where he worked as a teller. She explained that his father was feeling better. It seemed a shame to waste such fine weather, so she and Jimmy were taking Harold back out to the cottage at Misquamicut. Stan and his girlfriend Jean, she suggested, could join them there after Stan got off work at five.
Young Westerly Sun reporter Bill Cawley was just checking his beat at the Stonington City Hall and cursing his luck at having to work on such a nice day. City Hall was dead, and it would be a slow news day, yet he couldn’t shake “an eerie feeling . . . something in the air, like a kind of suspension was about to end.”
Cawley thought he was merely reading the social weather of the times: there were still some 10.5 million Americans out of work, and President Roosevelt had just recently declared the beginning of “the real drive on the Depression.”
On that morning the New York Times ran an editorial praising the U.S. Weather Service for keeping Americans so well informed about potentially hazardous weather movements, especially tropical cyclones or Atlantic hurricanes. The forecast for New York on that same day was cloudy and cool weather with increasing winds.
At the bottom of page one of that day’s Westerly Sun, however, a small AP wire story reported that a “tropical hurricane” would pass far off the coast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, “sometime in the next 12 hours.” Floridians were boarding up and fetching candles. The storm, which came out of the Cape Verde Islands and had first been sighted on September 16 by the captain of a Brazilian freighter 350 miles northeast of Puerto Rico, was expected to cause high tides in the Carolinas and Virginia before turning harmlessly out to sea.
Fishermen and bathers in Narragansett Bay noticed that the light had developed a peculiar yellow tint. The breeze was clearly picking up. Almost everyone could read the weather signs — yet another line storm was coming. It was almost predictable, they remarked, given the dreary way summer had gone. Some packed up and went home. Others stayed. In faraway Vermont a dairy farmer paused in his field, marveling. He could actually smell the sea.
In 1938 the U. S. Weather Service was but a shadow of its future self. For vital information, historian William Manchester has pointed out, “it relied on the 16th-century thermometer, the 17th-century mercurial barometer, and the medieval weather vane.” Meteorologists depended entirely on observations from merchant ships and aircraft to formulate forecasts. It was easier to know where a tropical storm wasn’t, it was often said with amusement, than where a tropical storm was.
At about 2:15 that afternoon, a Long Island fisherman saw a huge fog bank rolling in fast from the ocean. He had never seen fog quite so dense, nor a fog bank move so fast. And then he realized his terrible mistake. He wasn’t looking at fog, but at a churning wall of water.
About the time Stan Higginbotham looked out of the bank and saw that people were grabbing their hats as they crossed Dixon Square in Westerly, the worst Atlantic hurricane in well over a century was bearing down with 200-mph winds on the villages, summer houses, and produce farms of Long Island’s fashionable Hamptons. The impact of the storm would register on a seismograph in Sitka, Alaska. In its path lay the richest industrialized seaboard in the world — and 13 million unsuspecting people.
In Westhampton a farmer saw the roof of his chicken house peeled off in an instant and 1,200 hens vanish in a deafening swirl of debris — house shutters, business awnings, tree limbs. Piece by piece, 200 Hampton houses began to come apart like paper, and the steeple of Sag Harbor’s famous Old Whaler’s Church smashed to the ground. In seconds all of Long Island’s phones were dead and power was out. In a matter of minutes, 50 people were crushed or drowned under collapsing houses and raging waters that boiled from the sea.
Sucked along by a trough of still, muggy air and a ground surface that had been saturated by days of heavy rain, the eye of the hurricane was advancing at 60 mph — roughly the velocity of a tornado — when it hit Connecticut’s shoreline shortly before 3:00 P.M.
In Stonington, Bill Cawley had stopped by the high-school playing field to watch practice and chat with the football coach. Trees around the field, he realized, were suddenly doubled over. The coach abruptly canceled practice, and the reporter raced for the newspaper office.
In downtown Westerly the large windows of the Morris Plan Company waved as if they were made of sheets of rubber. Staring out, Stan Higginbotham saw bricks flying through Dixon Square. As he watched, trees planted in the town’s park before the Revolutionary War were uprooted or toppled over “like bowling pins, one after the other.” Right in front of him, a postman was picked up and dashed into a light pole.
At a small grocery store a few blocks away, Stan’s next-door neighbor and pal Don Friend, also 20, watched the roof of the Pawcatuck Congregational Church fly by. He was worried. His mother Ruth had gone to Misquamicut with the Mothers’ Club from Christ Church.
Stan Higginbotham called home to see if his mother and dad and brother had gone back to the beach, praying they hadn’t. There was no answer. He called his girlfriend Jean Meikle at the telephone company and suggested they use her car to drive to Misquamicut and check on them. His 1929 Essex was parked out at the beach cottage.
By the time the couple reached her family’s house on Highland Avenue in Westerly, the Pawcatuck River had spilled over its banks and flooded downtown Westerly. The presses of the Sun were standing in four feet of water. Phones and power were out. The couple decided to wait for the raging wind to subside before heading for the beach. They hoped the situation would be better out there.
At Watch Hill during gales people sometimes gathered to watch the dramatic breakers. Harold, Irene, and Jimmy Higginbotham did just that. Their folly was compounded by a cruel natural coincidence: because of the phase of the moon, tides were running about a foot above normal. Also the storm struck on an incoming tide.
Quickly realizing their mistake, the trio hurried back to the cottage behind the sand barrier in Misquamicut to gather their things and get out. On their flight for higher ground they stopped at another cottage to pick up a young woman named Alma Bailey, who was dating their third son Ken. He was at his fraternity house at the University of Rhode Island, 30 miles away, watching trees snap.
Accounts still vary on the size of the tidal wave that struck the unprotected barrier beaches that stretch from Watch Hill to Point Judith. It has been described as anywhere from 30 to 80 feet high. What is known, however, is that 500 cottages sat on or around those normally tranquil beaches. And in those 500 houses, hundreds of people were riding out the storm.
Racing to make the higher ground of what was known as Shore Road, the Higginbothams found themselves trapped when their car stalled in rapidly rising flood waters. Harold shepherded everyone out of the car and into a nearby two-story cottage. They were barely inside the door when an explosion of water chased them up the stairs. On the second floor, Harold smashed out a window. The water rose to their waists. He desperately helped Alma out the window, advising her to grab hold of floating debris. Next, he put Jimmy on a large piece of flotsam, perhaps a door. Then he turned to help his wife. Irene was nowhere in sight. He called her name desperately just as the house began to splinter. The next minute, flailing in the churning water himself, Harold heard Jimmy’s terrified voice. Seconds later, Jimmy was thrown from his makeshift raft and disappeared.
In a matter of seconds at Watch Hill, the yacht club, a public bathhouse, and 39 cottages were ripped from Napatree Point and swept toward the Connecticut shore across the mouth of the Pawcatuck River. Forty-two people were inside.
Trapped in their disintegrating house, the Geoffrey Moores and their employees huddled upstairs in the attic and felt the floor begin to buckle wildly. Three of the children wore life jackets. They clutched rosaries, yet were remarkably calm. As the house slid away beneath them, however, the children began to cry. Harriet Moore reassured them. Moments later, the roof blew off the maid’s room — it was the best thing they would have for a raft, so with Andy Pupillo’s assistance, all ten people clambered aboard. Clutching each other and jagged wall pipes as huge waves broke over them, the Moore party drifted toward the open water of the bay.
The same wave that swept the houses from their foundations at Misquamicut Beach sent a massive wall of water up the Providence River toward downtown Providence. The killer wave, 100 feet high, crushed the city’s docks and broke near City Hall, drowning dozens of startled pedestrians in shops, doorways, and their own automobiles. The great skylight of the Providence Library came crashing down.
In his dorm at Brown University junior Bob Perry, whose family kept a summer place near the dunes at Weekapaug, adjacent to Misquamicut, looked out and saw slate shingles from the roof embedding themselves in century-old elms. His first thought was that everyone at home would probably be okay; the intensity of the storm made him think it couldn’t possibly be happening anywhere else.
In downtown Providence a flying sheet of fabricated metal cut a man in half. Display windows blew out of shops; a woman was sucked through a restaurant’s plate-glass window. Falling trees crushed motorists in their cars. A rat floated down Main Street, bobbing on an empty gasoline can. Living-room furniture, office desks, restaurant tables, a biblical tide of struggling people and everyday objects swirled down Main Street.
When the wave subsided, the downtown district was under 13 feet of water. The headlights of thousands of automobiles shone eerily underwater. Bob Perry, safe on the hill at Brown, got chills listening to the wail of sirens and shorting auto horns.
Around 6:00 P.M. in Westerly, the wind abruptly died, and the air grew menacingly cold. Bill Cawley made his way from the newspaper office to the police station where, right on his heels, a pale half-dressed man in the early stages of shock appeared. “Watch Hill is gone,” he mumbled dazedly. “It’s all washed away.” Cawley and a policeman didn’t believe him. They decided to go investigate.
Others were also heading to the beaches. Don Friend and his father Frank were in their Model A trying to find a way across the boiling Pawcatuck. Also headed to Misquamicut, Stan Higginbotham, Jean Meikle, and a neighbor were stopped by a policeman, who commandeered their vehicle and ordered them to deliver badly needed morphine and other medical supplies to Westerly Hospital. After that, the group drove toward Watch Hill, but the road was soon under water. They turned on Shore Road and came to a halt.
“There, across the road, as high as a house,” remembers Stan, “was the largest pile of rubble I had ever seen. It was unimaginable. We got out, and a young policeman and I started to climb the mountain of debris. I saw a human hand sticking out. Even though it was utterly shocking, I thought that when we got to the top of the pile we would probably find Mom and Dad and Jimmy perching on a roof somewhere.”
What they saw instead was a “mountain of rubble of destroyed houses and dead bodies that stretched out of sight.” The group went from house to house along Shore Road to search for survivors. Near dusk, they reached the Oaks Inn, which stood on higher ground. The proprietor saw them coming and yelled, “Stan, your father’s inside!”
Stan found his father in an upstairs room at the inn “sobbing like a baby. They had found him stark naked and full of sea water. Alma Bailey had also survived, with a broken leg. The owner of the inn had pumped my Dad full of booze to make him throw up all that salt water. All he said to me between sobs was, ‘Stan, they’re out there somewhere. Go get ’em.’ ”
But darkness was falling; there was nothing to do but wait for dawn. Stan and Jean drove three hours over precarious roads to the university, where they picked up Ken and brought him back to Jean’s house in Westerly. They huddled around a single gas-jet flame trying to keep warm until morning.
About the same time that Stan found his father, the Geoffrey Moores and their entourage found themselves washed up on the debris-strewn shore of Barn Island, on the Connecticut side of the Pawcatuck. Everyone was bruised, cut, and full of sea water — but otherwise miraculously well. Shoeless, they stumbled through briars to the remains of a barn. While Harriet Moore got her shivering children arranged under the hay, Andy Pupillo went to look for help. He saw lights flickering on the shore, heard voices, and called out, but there was no answer. He returned to the group and cradled one of the small children in his arms.
“The stars came out and the wind died down,” Harriet Moore told a reporter later. They saw light in the southern sky — the glow of New London on fire. They talked and hugged each other, trying to get warm. “We called out intermittently all night long,” she reflected. “Of course, we did not know the catastrophe was so far reaching.”
Harriet Moore was not alone in her ignorance. All over dark, battered New England, thousands of huddling refugees were asking themselves that same question: how extensive had the great storm been? Why hadn’t they been warned?
By the next morning — survivors remember it as being a glorious sunrise –news of the devastation had barely reached New York; and from isolated places like Westerly it would require days to get the story out to the world.
Units of the National Guard and Civilian Conservation Corps were stationed on roads leading to Westerly’s beaches as hastily organized search parties headed that way at dawn. Among them were Bill Cawley and Charlie Utter (whose family owned the Westerly Sun), Don Friend, Stan and Ken Higginbotham, and several volunteers from Ken’s fraternity who drove down to help search for survivors.
The grim labor of digging through the piled-up houses commenced. There was an aura of unreality about the work: someone found a woman’s severed finger with a beautiful diamond ring on it. Dogs chained to posts had gone mad trying to free themselves. Picking up a board, Stan found the body of his Sunday school teacher, Mrs. Bishop. One by one, bodies were transported into Westerly and lined up in a makeshift morgue in the gym at the city high school. Stan identified the body of Don Friend’s mother, Ruth; the other ladies of Christ Church were found nearby.
Bill Cawley set out for New Haven around 4:00 A.M. on Friday. Driving over golf courses and through backyards to avoid downed power lines and uprooted trees, talking his way through police and military barricades, Cawley finally staggered into the office of the Associated Press several hours later. An editor on duty refused to believe the horror story he told about Westerly. As authorizing calls were placed to Washington, Cawley sat down to write his first-person account. His story broke on the front page of the Washington, D.C., Evening Star that afternoon.
“I reached the outside world today after witnessing the scenes of horror and desolation that came in the hours after a tidal wave, hurled miles inland by a hurricane, engulfed Westerly, Rhode Island, my home, two days ago.
“I counted bodies — row upon sickening row of them — stretched out in the old town high school after all the city’s morgues were filled. When I left at four o’clock this morning, there were 74 dead and almost 100 missing…”
The world now knew about the horror at Westerly.
That same day Stan and Ken Higginbotham learned the fate of their little brother Jimmy. He was found, unclothed, under eight feet of rubble, near Brightman’s Pond. “At the high school, when I picked him up,” recalls Stan,” a photographer wanted to take my picture with him. I picked up a fireman’s axe and almost killed the poor fellow. A doctor determined that Jimmy didn’t drown. He died of fright.”
On Friday afternoon, employing antique handpress, the editors of the Sun put out an emergency edition of the paper that listed the local dead and injured. Telegrams were pouring into the newspaper and Red Cross offices from all over the world, inquiring about the fate of loved ones. Doctors, it was reported, were giving emotionally shattered relief workers sleeping pills to permit them to rest.
Four days later, not far from where her husband had washed up on Shore Road, search crews, following the scent of decaying bodies, finally found the remains of Irene Higginbotham.
The 1938 hurricane was the worst natural disaster in American history — a gale that wreaked more death and havoc than either the great Chicago fire or the San Francisco earthquake. Even today, the numbers are startling. Almost 700 people perished as the result of the storm, and 2,000 were injured. More than 63,000 people lost their homes. Almost 20,000 public and private buildings were destroyed, and 100 bridges had to be rebuilt. The cost of the damage totaled more than $400 million in 1938 dollars. Only about four percent of the businesses lost were insured. Many, struggling to stay afloat through the Great Depression, finally sank in the Great Hurricane.
In the “wind that shook the world,” as it was later called, New England lost more than 25 percent of its cherished elms. “The greens and commons of New England,” lamented an editorialist. “will never be the same.” Over half a million property deeds had to be resurveyed because of storm damage. In New Hampshire alone, one and a half billion board feet of timber were knocked down; the recovery of “storm” lumber would take years. When war broke out in Europe, much of the lumber was used to build military barracks and the interiors of transport ships.
Perhaps the only other good to come from the disaster was when an outraged Congress ordered that the U.S. Weather Service be systematically improved so that such a tragedy could never happen again.
In Westerly today, where quarries once produced the granite for most of the monuments at Gettsyburg, two generations have come and gone, and there are no monuments to the hurricane that changed every life in town. If you are seeking landmarks, people will send you to the high-water mark on the wall of the Westerly Sun pressroom, and to a small brass plaque attached to a rock that shows where the raging waters rose on the Misquamicut golf course. The real monuments, people say, are in lives pieced back together after the tragedy.
Bill Cawley was cited by the Associated Press for his “courage and enterprise” in getting the story of Westerly’s ordeal to the outside world. After serving with the Air Force during World War 11, he returned to Westerly and went back to work for the Sun, becoming sports editor in 1965 and retiring in 1982. “I became, in a way, a kind of celebrity,” he reports. “For years, people wrote to me from all over the world wanting to know more or about someone from here they once knew.”
No monuments were ever built in Westerly, he suggests, “Because the hurricane acted as a prelude to world war — we were just getting started, turns out.” He cannot pass the place where the old high-school gym once stood, now a peaceful town park, without remembering the lines of corpses laid out on the floor.
Bob Perry, a retired banker, still drives to his family house out on Winnapaug Point. He passes million-dollar houses built on the sands of Misquamicut, new cottages, water slides, and penny arcades. He marvels at the wonders of flood insurance, regularly taps his barometer, and ponders the unspeakable: “If it happened today, with 10 times the population and so many year-round residences…” he speculates — and draws silent.
Every September the hurricane’s victims, especially the ladies of the Mothers’ Club, are remembered in the prayers of Christ Church. On the wall a small lamp bums in their memory. A move has begun to raise funds for a larger memorial.
For the past 24 years Don Friend has lived out at the beach, near Brightman’s Pond, where his mother perished. He and Ken Higginbotham, he reports, often go sailing in Ken’s 24-foot Bristol sloop. “But we never leave the protected bay,” he adds soberly. “Never.”
Stan Higginbotham, who retired a few years ago after selling Chevrolets in town for 34 years, spends a lot of time thinking about what happened to his father and, oddly enough, his ’29 Essex.
Harold Higginbotham lost his job soon after the hurricane when American Thread shut its doors and moved out of town. For a pension Harold was given a modest $1,000 — or about $500 less than he needed to bury his wife and youngest son. He never found a steady job in town again. “He was a proud man. Friends gave him odd jobs to do,” says Stan. Finally, near the end of his life, Harold moved to Massachusetts and found a position at a mill. He died in 1978.
A lot of curious stories, Stan points out, came out of the Great Hurricane. Dogs were found alive in closets of shattered houses. A table set with china survived perfectly intact as the house came apart around it. Two babies survived by floating on a door. A man caught a two-pound river trout on Main Street with his bare hands. “Everyone who survived it has a peculiar singular memory he or she may wish to finally remember it by,” Stan says.
His own goes like this: Not long after his mother and brother were buried, he found the remains of his ’29 Essex out at the beach. All that was left of his dream car was a chassis, a battery, four tires, and two unbroken headlights.
He looked at it a while, then picked up a piece of driftwood, he says, and knocked out the headlights.