Fire and Ice: Some Calamities of the Old Colony (Part III: Hurricane Carol, the Great Hurricane of 1938, the Gale of 1815, and the Colonial Gale of 1638)
Eric B. Schultz
In part I of this series, we described some of the Old Colony’s most destructive fires, and in part II, some of the region’s heaviest snowstorms. Our third and final segment looks at the Old Colony’s long, calamitous history of surviving what’s blowin’ in the wind.
On the morning of August 31, 1954, the Rev. J. Holland “Skip” Beal, minister of Taunton’s St. Thomas Church and an experienced sailor, found himself and a crew of three aboard his 34-foot Friendship sloop in Plymouth Harbor. The dawn brought some extra bouncing around the boat, Beal wrote, and the threat of gale winds. But after breakfast, “I looked at the barometer,” he recalled. “Something was wrong; it had gone down an inch and a quarter.”
“We turned on the radio. To our horror, a voice said, ‘Hurricane Carol is due in the Plymouth area any minute now!’” The next three hours in Plymouth Harbor were mayhem. Beal’s sloop and crew were battered and soaked — but stayed afloat and alive.
Hurricane Carol, a Category 3 monster, slammed the Old Colony at the end of August 1954 with winds topping 100 miles per hour. In Taunton, the storm dropped more than two inches of rain, cutting power to 75% of homes. School was delayed for 800 students assigned to the new James L. Mulcahy and Lowell M. Maxham schools. Members of the Taunton Yacht Club and Taunton River Power Squadron in Dighton found most of their boats scattered and beyond recovery.
By the time Carol departed Massachusetts, 4,000 homes were destroyed. Damage in the greater Taunton area was estimated at $20 million.
A week later, a second Category 3 storm, Hurricane Edna, threatened the Massachusetts coast. Despite toppling newly replaced power lines and flooding parts of the Old Colony with up to six inches of rain, Edna saved her worst destruction for landfall on September 11 in Maine and Nova Scotia.
The one-two punch of hurricanes Carol and Edna is still a vivid memory for many older Old Colony residents. For younger residents, August 1991’s Hurricane Bob, a Category 2 storm and the last hurricane to hit the region, saw winds up to 100 miles per hour and a storm surge that caused $39 million in damage in Massachusetts.
If we were to list the top three hurricanes to descend upon the Old Colony throughout its storied history, however, neither twins Carol and Edna nor Bob would rate.
The Great Colonial Hurricane of 1635
The Old Colony was just 15 years old and Taunton two years from its founding when the Great Colonial Hurricane of 1635 struck the Massachusetts coast. John Winthrop in Boston and William Bradford in Plymouth recorded the event, which began around midnight on August 26. They saw trees uprooted and roofs ripped off houses. Pawtucxet Trading Post in Plymouth was destroyed.
Using Winthrop’s and Bradford’s estimates of storm surge, combined with modern analysis of sediment deposits along New England’s shoreline, researchers have estimated this 1635 blast to be a Category 3 hurricane with peak winds of 135 miles per hour.
These few pieces of information provide us with enough evidence, meteorologist Eric Fisher writes, “to rank the Great Colonial Hurricane of 1635 as one, two, or three in ferocity and destructiveness with the September Gale of 1815 and the Great New England Hurricane of 1938.”
The Gale of 1815
“The summer of 1815,” historian Sidney Pearly wrote in 1891, “was remarkable for exceptionally violent and disastrous storms all along the Atlantic coast.” However, the storm that began in the morning of Friday, September 22, “exceeded them all in violence, and caused greater and more general disaster than any that had preceded it, not that year only but since the settlement of the country.”
The storm made first landfall on Long Island and second at Old Saybrook, though Narragansett Bay and Buzzard’s Bay were hit hardest with storm surges as high as 16 feet. All but two ships were driven onto the land at New Bedford, and most warehouses along the water were swept away.
The wind carried ocean air forty miles inland, pushing flocks of seagulls to Worcester, where windows in the town were covered in salt.
At the storm’s worst, fires in home fireplaces were blown out as fast as they were lit. When the wind changed to the southeast, the air became so oppressive that some Old Colony residents found breathing difficult. Oaks and pines were leveled, leading to a surge in home-building activity in 1817 and 1818 unlike any before in the Old Colony.
Like the 1954 hurricane, the Gale of 1815 would remain a terrible memory for generations of New Englanders. “It chanced to be our washing day, and all the things were drying, the storm came roaring through the lines, and set them all a flying,” wrote six-year-old fledgling poet Oliver Wendell Holmes.
“I saw the shirts and petticoats go riding off like witches, I lost, ah, bitterly, I wept, — I lost my Sunday breeches!”
The Great New England Hurricane of 1938
Holmes’s poetry brings us to the mightiest hurricane ever to hit New England and the Old Colony, the Great New England Hurricane of 1938. Nobody alive in 1938 experienced the 1815 Gale, so nobody was prepared for a storm of such power and destruction.
Unlike Hurricane Bob, which formed off Bermuda, the 1938 hurricane was hatched off the coast of Africa and gained force as it journeyed for two weeks to the Americas. Making landfall in New York as a Category 3 storm, the hurricane made a second landfall in Connecticut and then ravaged the Rhode Island coast, eventually taking 380 lives there.
The storm that slammed into Massachusetts brought the strongest winds ever recorded in the region at 121 miles per hour with gusts of 186 miles per hour. Five percent of the forests in New England were blown down in a single day. Sections of Falmouth and New Bedford were buried under eight feet of water. The Taunton summer colony at Westport Harbor disappeared in a tidal wave that swept everything before it for a quarter mile.
In Taunton, flood waters that rose eight feet in half an hour crippled the municipal lighting plant. Members of Battery F 101st Field Artillery were called to assist the police department in securing a darkened city.
Water rose to four feet in the press room of the Glenwood Range Company. The 100-foot chimney of the Paragon Gear Company crashed through the machine shop, while the large brick shed of the Stiles and Hart Brick Company was leveled.
Furniture from cottages as far away as Tiverton and Newport floated up the Taunton River. The Berkley Bridge was submerged underwater.
Two emergency operations were performed at Morton Hospital during the height of the storm, with nurses borrowing sterilization equipment from the maternity ward, a unit run by gas.
Likewise, Middleboro was thrown into complete darkness when power was cut to repair electrical lines downed all over the town by falling trees. “Without movies and radios for the evening, “ the Taunton Daily Gazette reported, “and with kerosene lamps or candles furnishing the only illumination, Middleboro took a temporary step back thirty years.”
Despite the New Bedford railroad station being flooded and abandoned, the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad maintained service, delivering Tauntonians home safely from Boston, if three hours late. The Gazette was also happy to report that King Philip’s Oak “on the old Capt. Phillip’s estate at the corner of Somerset Ave., and White Street, one of the oldest and largest trees in the city . . . that once sheltered King Philip,” escaped damage and “stood majestically today, symbolic of the sturdiness of our ancestors.”
The Great England Hurricane of 1938 destroyed 8,900 homes and 26,000 automobiles. Two-thirds of the boats in New Bedford Harbor were lost. Five hundred sixty-four people were killed, with another 1,700 injured in southern New England. “If you are ranking all-time New England hurricanes,” Eric Fisher concludes, “‘38 starts and ends the discussion.”
As it now ends our series on Old Colony calamities.
 J. Holland Beal, The Mountains, The Main, The Tribe: True Life Stories (North Conway, NH: The Reporter Press), 1969, 62–68. Beal would survive this hurricane, retiring from St. Thomas in 1958.
 Eleanor J. Menice, “Hurricane Wind Batter City; Torrential Rains Whip N.E.,” Taunton Daily Gazette, August 1, 1954.
 “Owners Initiate Yacht Search: Storm Rips Fleet At Dighton Site,” Taunton Daily Gazette, September 2, 1954.
 “$20-Million Damage In Great Taunton Blames to Hurricane,” Taunton Daily Gazette, September 2, 1954.
 “Great Taunton Escapes Brunt of Hurricane ‘Edna’ Destruction,” Taunton Daily Gazette, September 12, 1954.
 “Hurricane Bob in New England,” The Boston Globe, August 20, 1991. Also, Melissa Hanson, “Massachusetts’ Worst Disasters: These Fires, Hurricanes and Explosions Have Devastated the State,” MassLive, November 4, 2018, Web August 30, 2022, https://www.masslive.com/news/erry-2018/11/fa8ce0cc02831/massachusetts-worst-disasters.html.
 Sidney Perley, Historic Storms of New England (1891; reis., Lark’s Haven Publishing, 2009, loc. 3035.
 Eric P. Fisher, Mighty Storms of New England: The Hurricanes, Tornadoes, Blizzards, and Floods That Shaped the Region (Guilford, CT: Globe Pequot, 2021), 100–101.
 Sidney Perley, Historic Storms, loc. 3035–3294.
 “Mrs. Morse Escapes by Seconds,” Taunton Daily Gazette, September 23, 1938.
 “Repair Storm Damage,” Taunton Daily Gazette, September 23, 1938.
 “Tidal Wave Brings Destruction Upon N. England Coast,” Taunton Daily Gazette, September 22, 1938.
 “Emergency Operations At Hospital,” Taunton Daily Gazette, September 22, 1938.
 “Town Dark When Power Is Shut Off,” Taunton Daily Gazette, September 22, 1938.
 “Maintains Service on New Haven Road,” Taunton Daily Gazette, September 22, 1938.
 “Withstands Storm,” Taunton Daily Gazette, September 22, 1938.
 Hanson, “Massachusetts’ Worst Disasters.
 Fisher, Mighty Storms of New England, 113.