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The Hurricane of 1938
In Amherst, Now
It is not only that the trees are gone,
Whose roots were in our breasts, as now we know,
When the earth yielded and the breast held on,
Not knowing any way to let them go ...
Not merely that the lost and wandering eye,
Ranging horizons to the east ... to west ...
Finds unfamiliar angles of the sky,
And wanders on and finds no certain rest.
Not this alone ... Our minds had somehow been
(For very long and happily in this place)
Another sky that elms were branching in
With such cool benisons of special grace,
That we shall know, I think, a nameless lack
Of something gone, of something wanted back.
- David Morton
Wind and water. Two of nature's most powerful forces fueled the catastrophic destruction of the September 21, 1938 storm.
The climatic disturbance that struck New England with hurricane force winds, widespread flooding and a coastal tidal wave was unlike anything previously experienced in the region. Diverted from the usual seaward path of hurricanes by a high pressure area, the storm center struck the shore of eastern Long Island, and hit the eastern coast of Connecticut and Rhode Island with rain and wind and waves of such vicious intensity that entire coastal communities were erased by the thirty-foot walls of water pushed up by the wind pressure. The storm roared inland at a record speed of 50 miles per hour with average winds of 120 mph and gusts up to 186 mph, pushing a path northward over eastern Connecticut, Rhode Island, central and eastern Massachusetts, across New Hampshire, and Vermont into Canada. Locally it followed the path of the Connecticut River Valley.
In its aftermath communities were crippled. More than 60,000 people were homeless; 9,000 homes and buildings were totally destroyed. Two billion trees were wiped out. The estimated cost at the time was $6.2 million, which translates in today's figures into more than $15 billion.
It was New England 's most devastating storm and the destruction remains fresh in the memory of those who experienced it.
In Amherst , it arrived at 3:30 p.m. on Wednesday, September 21, 1938 and the worst lasted only until 4:30 p.m. But in that hour the hurricane of 1938 forever changed the face of Amherst College . Though the Connecticut River Valley had suffered from extreme weather conditions in the past, the wrath of this storm took the town and the College by surprise, for there had been little warning of an approaching hurricane.
The fury of the rain and wind struck the campus with unprecedented destructiveness. Buildings shook. The roof of Morrow Dormitory was ripped off. Electric light poles snapped and wires tangled. Tree limbs crashed and rested in unnatural positions on top of cars. More than 140 trees on campus were uprooted or destroyed. Almost 400 trees in the wildlife sanctuary were uprooted or broken.
Everywhere power was lost. Mail and telegraph services were crippled. The roads were clogged with the storm-felled trees. The town and the College were cut off, isolated, for hours - for days - after the storm ended.
What did the college community see when they woke up on September 22nd? Widespread scenes of devastation. Nothing looked the same. The stately trees on the central campus quadrangle behind College Row were wiped out. The College Grove - the site of the traditional Commencement Grove Exercises on the east side of Johnson Chapel - was destroyed. The beloved avenue of maples between Johnson Chapel and Stearns Church was flattened. Little had survived the wild winds of the previous day.
Landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. could not have foreseen such devastation when he wrote to the College Trustees in 1925 that though the central campus had a somewhat bulging shape, the "sentiment and tradition" attached to the trees should prohibit any thought of "denuding and reshaping" the area "unless some calamity should destroy the trees in one fell swoop."
But as it has on many occasions, the College turned a calamity into an opportunity, this time to restore the campus to a new beauty. The entire community - townspeople and the College, those on campus and alumni from afar - rallied. It immediately began the work of cleaning and restoring the campus. There were so many requests from alumni who wanted to be part of the rebuilding that President Stanley King asked that a special Alumni Council Committee be created for the purpose of receiving contributions and support for the enterprise. It was the Amherst community that created the College in 1821, and it was the extended Amherst community that put it back together, starting September 22, 1938.