1938 Hurricane

Human Interest Stories - Arthur D. Raynor

The following personal account of the storm is from a letter sent to Quogue Historical Society and Westhampton Beach Historical Society by Arthur D. Raynor of Westhampton. This letter and many others can be found in The 1938 Hurricane As we Remember It: Volume II prepared by the Quogue Historical Society and Westhampton Beach Historical Society.

It's 60 years since the weather took a notion to rearrange the south shore of Long Island and other parts of New England, but the image remains sharp and clear.

You're really not supposed to find out that you're not indestructible at age 18. The shock to the nervous system is permanent, no matter how careful you are to ignore it.

What follows is one personal account of a day which would live in the memory of the participants all their lives as surely as if it had been engraved electronically. Not all participants remember the same things, but all remember.

(References are made to grandparents: Arthur Halsey Raynor and his wife Helen L. Raynor who furnished me a home from 1934 to 1941. My grandmother, Marietta Ketcham Fournier was also visiting at the time.)

If you had already been advised that Long Island was close to perfection on earth, that we had no worries about floods, earthquakes, hurricanes or other natural disasters that had befallen other unfortunate parts of the earth, the chances are pretty good that you could have gotten fooled on the 21st day of September, 1938.

Only a few months before, the local theater had shown a saga called "Typhoon," and among the things I had gotten out of that was an observation by one of the characters in the movie that "the birds were acting peculiarly." They were portrayed (how do you get a flock of wild birds to act?) as being excited, nervous, anxious and so forth. Not being an avid bird watcher, I couldn't really tell if our birds were doing the same thing that day around lunch time, but it was close enough for me to mention it to my Grandmother, and her Mother, a visitor at the time. And you could have bet money on the reply. "One thing you never have to worry about on Long Island is floods, hurricanes, earthquakes and all those other things everybody not smart enough to live here worry about."

There was cause for worry.

Weather coverage of that day was not anything like what is available today. For instance, no satellite, radar, or anything except ship reports. The spread of this information to the public was limited and most people didn't pay a lot of attention, since Long Island weather never seemed to fit the pattern of the continent most of the time.

John Novick and I had made plans to pick up his "girl," Lillian Miller, and go to the skating rink at Riverhead. He was running late. I was standing at one of the south windows looking at this flock of goofy acting birds when I made the remark. Obviously, anybody in their right mind is not going to ague with a grandmother, no less two grandmothers, so that was the end of that. Meanwhile, John slid into the driveway and after the usual "be careful" admonitions, we took off for the village of Westhampton Beach to pick up Lillian, and then on to Riverhead.

It had been raining for two weeks almost daily. The ground was soft and there was a fair amount of standing water around. Grey skies are no novelty in that part of the world, particularly on the fall equinox. "Line" storms were an expected feature. It would take about a week to get them organized - the wind would haul around to the northeast, the rains would come in cold, nasty, squalls and once in a while a branch would break off somebody's tree; the leaves which were about to hit the ground were accelerated somewhat and fall came in like a lion. For all intent and purpose, it was a bad case of normalcy.

The three of us had graduated from high school in June of the previous year and needless to say, John was the only one with a job. He was caretaker in the cemetery and I guess the reason he was able to get off to do the driving was the lousy weather. It was Wednesday. When we got to the Fair Grounds, the wind had picked up considerably, but undaunted as teenagers are and want to be, we parked the car in the lee of the building and went in. We were greeted by the manager who told us that there would be no roller skating that day because a piece of the roof had blown off and there was water on the floor. So much for Plan A.

There were two movie theaters in downtown Riverhead and we chose the one on East Main Street and could hardly believe our luck in finding a parking place right in front of the entrance. We got out practically under the marquis and started inside when a huge hummmm and a bright light attracted our attention: a power line had broken off a utility pole across the street andwas swinging in the wind, arcing against the phone cable when it came down and splashing hot lead over a wide area. Would that I could describe the guy who was attempting to park by backing directly under all that ... when he realized where all the fuss was coming from, he turned what up to then had been a very delicate maneuver into a real rubber burning scratch job. Down the street, the rolled-up roof of Amman's Hardware had draped itself over a couple of cars. By this time the wind was whistling through the power lines and trees at a pitch that was for my ears a signal that it was time to get under cover. Our attempt to get in the movies was a joke-the whole stage and theater pit was filling with water, the power was off and in a minute so were we.

LET'S GO HOME!

John's car was a 1929 Chevy four door, with a fancy trunk on the back and a straight 6 cylinder engine under the hood. In the past it had broken enough rear axles that he carried a spare in that trunk. It was dependable enough, but it had quite a high silhouette, and cross winds made themselves more than evident ... the thing was rocking. On the way home, John thought the ocean might be standing straight up and down and would be a sight to behold, so we headed for the beach and certain disaster, except that we decided to take a look at the yacht basin first, which might tell us if the beach road was flooded.

Atop a little bridge over Moneybogue Canal we could see the ocean plowing through the West Bay Bathing Club and it appeared that the south end of the bridge stood on end! With a prayer for "Uncle" Frank Bishop, the bridge tender, we decided to get on home.

It wasn't easy. By this time the wind had risen to 110 mph, sustained, with gusts going higher. Lillian's folks were glad to see her, and wanted us to stay. We left.

Under ordinary circumstances it should have been pretty simple. We swung through Six Corners, down past the school to South Country Road and west toward Culvertown.

As we started down the hill at Oneck Lane, about three feet of water shot across the road in front of us, pushing leaves, twigs and all sorts of debris in front of it. We stopped short of it to smell it. It smelled like "ocean" to me. If we try to go through it and stall, we still have Beaver Dam Creek between us and my house ... John wants to try it-after all, it's a tall Chevy. It wasn't tall enough. The carburetor sucked in a mouthful of water and the thing just quit. When we opened the doors to get out and push, the Atlantic poured in on John's side and out on mine. Pine trees were crashing around us like so many match sticks, but none across the road ... yet. The two of us pushed that thing out of the water and up the hill far enough to clear the engine. With full choke, the thing cleared out the water and fired back up, and we turned 180 degrees and got out of there.

By the time we got the half block to Oneck, the road was blocked by fallen trees ... it was to have been our exit to Mill Road. We got to Liberty, turned north toward Mill Road and found a whole row of catalpa crisscrossed, blocking it. A fire engine had taken to a plowed field to get around them and bogged down in the mud. It was deserted. With axes from it, and some help from some others in the same trap as we were, we cleared a path to Mill Road and made a mad dash to Cook's Pond.p> The ocean, by that time, had made its way to Beaver Dam Creek and there in front of God and everybody was Ben Owen's dredge sitting atop Montauk Highway. Now, both John and I were cut off from home by water... lots of water.

Water! For the first time it dawned on me that Grandfather was dead. He had gone on the bay as usual to run his eel pots, and if a thing the size of that dredge could wind up a half mile from its mooring up on the highway, what chance did the old man have in those little boats of his? In my mind now, he was dead, and if I didn't get back to those two Grandmothers I left at home, they might be dead too.

We thought we knew the back roads. After all, in the model T days, before this fancy Chevy of John's we rode a bunch of dirt roads before we had driver's licenses, or even a license on the car. No way could we figure except to go back to Riverhead and come in from the west by way of Speonk. So, back to Riverhead.

Metal buildings that had been standing an hour before had been blown over. A couple of semi-trailers were on their sides. John did a masterful job of keeping the Chevy right side up. Aside from the trees, things looked pretty normal in Riverhead ... we made the turn out past Great Pond (since renamed Wildwood Lake) and on to Speonk. It was there we met Uncle John, Grandfather's brother, and our close neighbor. He had bedding piled on top of the car..., "heading for higher ground;' he yelled. "Turn around ... it's all under water," and we drove off in opposite directions. John was heading home, water or no water.

We pulled in the yard between fallen trees and his father, Adam, was tugging at a piece of metal roofing which had been rolled off their place. Obviously, John had to pitch in and help his folks. He had gotten me as close to my home as he could, and now the rest was up to me.

The swamp between South Country Road and Montauk Highway that we played "Tarzan" in as kids (before cars) had flooded with sea water and was pouring across "Novick's Corner."

I thought I spotted a rim of grass along the top of the curve and tried it. About halfway across, I hit a hole and went under! The pressure brought me back up and I got a footing and got out of there, running ... and I didn't stop running until I got to the house. It was probably one of my best runs of all time and there in the kitchen, calmly washing his face and hands was Grandfather ... risen from the dead ... and the Grandmothers were safe and sound and all that worry paid off ... the things I worry about never happen.

EEL POTS

You may not know about eel pots. Grandfather used to make them out of quarter inch wire mesh on a nine inch square frame, and about 18" long. One end has a door (with leather hinges) that lets the eels out and gives you a chance to re-bait the pot. The other end has a small funnel and a large funnel entrance, where the eel goes in and can't find his way out. The pots have a rope tied to them equal to or a little longer than the depth of the bay where they are to be set. At the end of the rope is a combination of corks to identify the owner, and to indicate where they are.

Now, if you are alone, as Grandfather was that day, you put the tiller between your legs and get slightly down wind of the line of pots you put out the day before. With a little practice you can reach over the side, pull out the pot, empty the eels into a box, re-bait, and throw it back in the bay just in time to be at the next pot where all this starts all over again for the entire string. A real pro, like Grandfather would pride himself on running a string of pots and not miss a one. In other words, he had set the engine speed, the tiller and his inborn sense of timing to perfection. Now, an amateur like me would have missed a pot and would have to do a circle to the down wind side and come back in position to try it again ... many times.

So, when things calmed down a little, I asked Grandfather how he determined it was time to come home. Simple, when he had circled the same pot six times and still missed it, it was time to come home.

Shortly after he tied up the boats to fallen oak trees that stood near the fish house, he said the water went out of Beaver Dam Creek. It had recently been dredged to a depth of eight feet. He rightly estimated that when it came back, it would most likely bring more with it. He tied the boats with snap lines and a main hawser that allowed the boats to rise with the tide, snap a line holding them close to shore and allow them to rise some more. All but the last snap line had broken when it was over. And when it was over he had the only three boats afloat in that whole area. The demand for them was something else again.

THE AFTERMATH

It wasn't long after I found my way home that supper was on the table. The wind began to lay and we guessed it was all over. Power and phone lines were down, so communication was limited to what you could see. It was that way for a week afterward because the power companies had worked out this really great plan to help each other.

The way it was to work was, when a hurricane appeared to pick a place to come ashore, let's say like in this case around Cape Hatteras, or Norfolk, then the New England companies would send every man and truck they could spare to that point ... and that's where they were on the way to when the thing jumped from a forward speed of 15 MPH to 45 MPH, and fooled everybody. They were a while getting back because the roads were blocked, bridges were out, and the railroads didn't trust a lot of their bridges.

Looking out the kitchen window to the south was quite a sight: a number of Coast Guard guys were walking down Apaucuck Point Road in various states of undress, except for life jackets. They had been awakened by the day shift and told to make for the life boats, as the storm waves were hitting the beach and they didn't wait for first class uniforms. In fact, they barely got into a life boat, and in the middle of some discussion about how to launch it from the cradle it was in, it launched itself-coming screaming across the bay before the hurricane force wind.

Most of the day shift had run up and down the beach trying to get people to leave, but without much success. Folks had been seeing these "line storms" come and go for years. Many had seen storms bad enough to tear a house down ... a house ... not ALL the houses. There was not a single board found of the Coast Guard Station those fellows had come from. The predominate guess was that the incoming waves loosened it up enough for the outgoing water to take it to sea. A lot of buildings that were on the beach were loosened up with the incoming waves and rode them over to arrive on the mainland of the Island in various modes of destruction.

Grandfather had watched some of the wreckage come down the creek, slam into the South Country/Beaver Dam Bridge until one big piece wound the bridge to the open position. This might have been what John and I could have driven into if we had gotten through that first trough of water that stalled us out. One of the houses was being ridden by one of the King girls, whose folks owned the Hampton Chronicle. She got off at the fish house long enough to see the bridge open, then dove back in to ride the next piece of house nearer her home. Both her parents were lost, we were told.

TO THE RESCUE

If I were to define integrity, honesty, law abiding, and upright in on character, I would have to say it was the old man. No matter how many times I say it, you cannot understand the degree unless you had seen something like what follows in a number of different ways. (I'm just trying to prepare you.)

After supper we walked down to the creek to see how the boats fared and J. Madison Raynor and his brother Emerson drove up. They said their wives were on the beach. An inlet had cut through the beach where the Coast Guard Station had stood, and there was no way to find out if the wives were dead or alive. I swear to you: Grandfather's first response was that "he was not licensed to carry passengers."

After some gentle persuasion, pleading, etc., he decided it would probably be okay if he took them as "guests" of his. Armed with flashlights, blankets, etc., they started out the creek. It wasn't long before they were back. The mouth of the creek, the bay and everything in between was a mass of chimneys, bathtubs, refrigerators, sinks and the chances of crossing the bay in the dark was almost nil. At daybreak the next morning, they felt their way across the bay, marking their way with stakes and brought the ladies, along with many other grateful "guests," who had spent a night in terror only they could describe. He made many trips over and back that day.

While the old man was doing his rescue thing, I walked to the village. It was as if somehow I had been sitting in a movie theater, and while looking at a newsreel of a disaster had somehow walked into the scene.

My first stop was Eckart's where I picked up eight rolls of 120 film he had left and then I walked until the eight rolls had been used up. On West Bay Bridge, I took a picture of the ex-governor of New York and one time Presidential candidate Alfred E. Smith. I had played for a party in his honor at the Country Club only a couple of weeks before. He not only remembered me, he posed for a picture. He said it was "a national disaster."

I did not find that hard to believe!

Wandering around the village in a mental fog, people were in shock for the most part. The Red Cross folks had set up a tent between the bank and water company office and a ham operator, W2JFP, Ansel Tuttle, was taking emergency messages. I sent one to my Mother in Brooklyn and it turned out to be a good thing. Lowell Thomas, number one newscaster of the day had reported Westhampton "wiped off the map." It was days before we heard a radio and by that time all the good rumors had been squelched.

The business section of the village had been under water for the most part. Uncle Will Grimshaw's hardware store was a mess, for not only had the store been flooded, but the basement under it was full of mud, fish, seaweed, and similar goodies and the remains of his stock room.

Let's call it a 3000 gallon tank. It was a doozie. It had been drained empty over on the beach because the summer people had gone and didn't want it to freeze, so they pumped it dry. When the storm wave came over, it bobbed up like a cork. A number of survivors, including those Coast Guard guys saw it coming across the bay like a rocket.

References to summer people: In 1938, the "season" on the south shore of Long Island started May 30th, or Decoration Day weekend and ended Labor Day weekend. Had this storm arrived a couple of weeks earlier, the dead would have numbered in the hundreds, rather than the 30s, and mostly for the reason that these summer folks, by and large, thought the locals were a bunch of "hicks" and didn't know a whole lot ... they would never have left the beach. Storm parties were common in those days before so many people were killed.

Early on, I said everyone had their own individual tale to tell. My all time favorite of these is about my old friend, Lou Green. He played Santa when I was a kid, and was one of the first adults I ever met who liked kids and didn't mind showing it. In fact, he liked kids all year 'round. Lou was over on the beach turning off the plumbing and draining the summer home of some folks I can't remember the name of. When the weather got so rough he thought it was time to leave, he found his old truck stuck in the sand. With waves lapping at his feet, he tied some of the boardwalk duck boards together and saved himself and two women. They spent the night in a tree near the 16th tee on the golf course, not knowing if they were the last people on earth, or not. The best part is, Lou couldn't swim a stroke ... neither could the two women. But Lou said that tank I was talking about passed them close enough to where he thought it was going to run them down-driven by 110 mph winds. It didn't run them down, but it did make it to Main Street where it bobbed up and down, knocking out plate glass windows out of every storefront in town, or until it ran out of water to float it ... I don't know which.

THE SECOND DAY

Things started to get organized the second day. Looters were hitch hiking in from the city and had to be stopped. Roads needed to be opened and monumental amounts of private and personal property needed to be picked up, protected, classified and returned to rightful owners wherever possible.

(I need to go over the old records and see who was running the village at that time. Whoever it was did a fantastic job.) The locals jumped in to help each other. Soon the federal government discovered this might be a place for a jillion WPA workers to look busy and in a few days a convoy of them from the west end of the island came in dump trucks to "work." This was one of the Roosevelt boondoggles and with this being the summer hometown of Basil O'Connor, his law partner, I suppose we got some attention sooner than most. The fact that I was in charge of one of these trucks and couldn't get a day's work out of the lot of them distorts my views somewhat, but at the time, a good many others shared the view.

The village ran out of money, Southampton Town ran out of money, Suffolk County ran out of money and the federals could have helped a lot, under the right circumstances. In time, it got cleaned up, anyway.

IN OUR OWN BACKYARD

Today, a decent hurricane would have a name, at least.

The 1938 blow that clobbered us is shown on some old weather maps as the Long Island Special and such as that. But it went on up into New England and busted up such famous places as Boston and points in between, too. There must be literally millions of people even 60 years afterward who can tell you exactly what they were doing, and what followed that '38 storm. There was a record of a "great" storm in 1812, but nothing compared to the fury and devastation of the 1938 storm ... perhaps because of the state of development of the land, the population increase, and those kinds of factors. Whatever the case, you have to believe those of us who saw it, did a little swimming in it, lost many personal friends to it, we were impressed!

When I first visited Grandfather's house as a small child, there were two things that caught my attention: kerosene lamps for light, and a can of sugar cookies for delight. (about 3" in diameter with three big seeded raisins on top).

We moved to Westhampton from Brooklyn in 1924. We had gas lights in Brooklyn and I had seen some electric lights, but those beautiful kerosene lamps were different, to say the least. This was something you did without any connection to a public utility or anybody. Just tilt the glass chimney and light it yourself - with a kindly yellow light and kindly odor.

As children, my sister and I were told to be careful, not to bang into the table and knock one of the lamps over, but other than the general run of the mill "don'ts" and "look outs" they didn't appear to be all that dangerous. Statistics prove how wrong a child can be, but the bottom line here is, they were never dangerous in the, hands of OUR family. This includes kerosene room heaters that are deadly in the undisciplined hands of the '90s.

The years passed, and the old man did some rebuilding to the house, and in the process had it wired for electricity. The house was quite a distance from the paved road and the power company wanted to charge him for a couple of poles to run the lines on. He balked. No way was he going to pay for poles so they could sell him electricity.

The alternative was a Delco home lighting plant. I suppose a 24 volt system that gave him lights, if nothing else. The generator (battery charger) was out in the garage, along with a bank of glass batteries which my grandmother was elected to keep filled with rainwater, collected in a china wash basin she would put out on the lid of the cesspool whenever it rained. They used that system for a number of years, until one day Luther Cook drove up in the driveway to see if they would like a telephone. We had one with a crank and you had to know the combination of "longs" and "shorts" rings for your particular phone, since everybody's phone rang at the same time on the same party line. The local all time best hobby was listening in on the party line. The old man wanted no part of that.

The day Luther showed up, they had come up with a better system and they had it fixed so that the only time the phone would ring it was for you ... assuming that they asked for the right number in the first place. Well, Luther was asked the key question: "Who's going to put in the poles and who pays?" "Why the phone company, of course," says Luther. "And will the power company be allowed to put wires on the phone company's poles?" "Oh, the power company is free to use the poles." "Put 'er in." And Grandfather got power on his terms, changed the light bulbs from 24 to 110 volt, sold the Delco and put Grandmother out of the battery business, for which she was eternally grateful.

Electricity changed quite a few things. The pitcher pump on the southwest corner of the garage had been the water supply for years and there was a "3 holer" on the back of the garage that required attention from time to time. So along came plumbing and took the thrill out of going out to the bathroom in the middle of a cold winter's night, or doing your thing in the china pot and storing it under the bed till morning. It also eliminated hauling water. A new well point was put in the small basement under the kitchen and an electric pump brought the water into a tank and right into the kitchen. Hot water came from the "water back" on the cook stove and was available mostly following mealtime. All this was reversed when the power went off and we were among the few who still had the outdoor pump and the outdoor privy.

Miss Josie Goodman, our neighbor on the north side of South Country Road, got her water delivered in a copper clothes cooker, in a wheelbarrow pushed by me. The rest of the neighbors were welcome to pump their own and many used the john while they were there. All in all, we were quite popular for the week or ten days till they got the power lines connected back up.

Harold Raynor had a garage with gas pumps across Montauk Highway from the cemetery and he rigged a bicycle to drive the pump with a rope "belt" replacing the normal position of the back tire. A number of others ran their water pumps that way. We did, when it began to look like the water back on the kitchen cook stove was in danger of running dry. Most of the inconveniences were just that, and taken in good spirit. Once the roads were opened and the papers and mail got delivered, the world began to rotate once again and we got around to seeing about others beyond the immediate neighborhood.

The statistics were pretty grim. No attempt will be made to record them here in the face of the years delay in putting this down, but the figure in Westhampton alone was over 30 dead, I knew most of them quite well, all of them at least casually.

The year round population could not have been over 1500 in the village and Westhampton, doubling in the summer. No one was untouched. Everybody lost something; many someone. The lifeblood of the area's summer people was the beach, and the beach was in tatters. Inlets had been cut through from the ocean to the bay in four places: from west to east-where the U.S. Coast Guard station had been, just west of West Bay Bridge, Quantuck and Shinnecock. Quantuck and the one near the bridge just about closed themselves with tides. The one at the Coast Guard site was stubborn, to say the least. Tons and tons of debris was dumped into it, including great stumps of some of the trees that had blown down. Junk cars, huge rocks and continuous push of sand as the tide would bring it in.

Finally at low tide one day, the gap was closed and the job of rebuilding roads, dunes and all the rest began. It wasn't long before the city people began building again, but to start with, further back from the dunes. By now, what dunes there were were artificial piles of sand subject to wind and water. Beach grass was set and I believe for the first time, many of us began to realize why the older folks didn't want us sliding down the dunes when we went to the beach ... they tried to preserve them and the grass. The city kids did it all the time ... they still do, but like I said, they think they have all the answers.

Most of us were pleasantly surprised at the rate of new construction. West Bay became the Swordfish Club, and was built around the original swimming pool. A great deal of color was added to the beach in new construction, where the past had been weathered shingles and white trim. By the summer of 1940, it began to look like it would revive, even if on a smaller scale. The cottages were smaller, less elaborate and some even built them where the tides could run under them, if need be. (Little did they know.)

It made work for the locals. Grandfather built new eel pots to replace those lost and his main complaint was finding more fireplaces, tubs, major appliances, etc., on the bay bottom. The new inlets made a change in the tides, water temperature and salinity.

You could hardly hear it, but off in the distance a crazy paperhanger was getting ready to involve us in something else. But for now, there was work - a chance to learn a trade and believe me, that hurricane sure made some work!

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