Munsonville, New Hampshire
September 21, 1938
The following pages tell the story of the hurricane of 1938 in Nelson and Munsonville. They are excerpted with permission from Night of Horror: An Eyewitness Account of the Hurricane of 1938 in Southwestern New Hampshire written by Ralph Page and published in 2003 by the Historical Society of Cheshire County, P.O. Box 803, 246 Main Street, Keene, NH 03431.
To get the rest of the story, please contact the Historical Society to purchase a copy of the entire pamphlet with accompanying, and amazing, photographs; although unfortunately there are none of Nelson. If you have any photos of Nelson’s hurricane damage to share, please let us know so that we can post them here. Likewise, if you have any stories to share, let us know.
In Ralph Page’s own words:
A tropical hurricane is impossible in New England? It might have been so once, but no longer. Mark Twain once said “If you don’t like New England weather, wait a few hours.” That may not be what he actually said, but it undoubtedly is exactly what he meant. It has rained more or less steadily since last Wednesday night, seven days and nights of almost uninterrupted rainfall.
A few minutes past five tonight came the climax. Rushing up from the West Indies came one of their patented blows missing the coast of Florida it became enamored of its northerly direction and continued up over the ocean. Striking our coast at Long Island and continuing north along the Connecticut River to Canada. It came with a numbing suddenness that actually took one’s breath away. Dark grey skies became black and awesome. The hurricane pounced on us as quickly as that. I was upstairs in my bedroom reading. The rain had let up about four o’clock and I intended to make a quick trip to the village to get something for supper to surprise the folks, but became interested in a book.
Our house shook from the force of the wind as if a mighty Paul Bunyan was leaning against it. Even then it was unbelievable that it was more than a strong wind. My first inkling that it was anything different came when part of one of our living room windows broke with a crash. It was caused by one of the blinds swinging against it. Hurriedly I got a piece of spare radio wire and tied both blinds together. Not much rain was falling then, but it was almost impossible to stand up against the wind. A chair had been put against the front door under the door knob to hold it shut. Quick gusts kept pushing me back about a foot. Calling to Dad and Haskell to take over I got two pieces of boards and nailed on the floor. This kept the bottom from blowing in. But the top kept swaying in. I sawed off a wide board and braced the top against the casing of the living room door. While doing this our biggest Manitoba maple along the driveway toppled over. It was uprooted and fell very easily no crash. Just pushed out of the ground. The rock maples in front of the house were being tossed and bent terrible and we thought they would fall over any minute.
Jack Sherrard came in with three bags full of books. Soaking wet, he wanted to put them where they would be dry and safe. He said part of his shack had been blown over. Many of his angora rabbits had been either drowned or killed by the house when it went over.
The wind had a fearful whine and crying sound. Almost continuous varying in intensity every few seconds and stronger puffs would come. It eased off a bit in strength after an hour and a half, but did not die out a great deal in strength or sounds until shortly after midnight.
New England radio stations shut off their regular programs and began a description of the conditions in their cities. Soon after twelve they began sending messages from people wanting to learn if their relatives in other cities were alive and well. They told of a tidal wave many feet high that added still more horror along the coast. I sat up until 3:30 daylight time listening to them.
The sun came up into a cloudless sky. Unspeakable devastation everywhere. Twigs and big branches everywhere. Once proud trees cowering on the ground like a licked dog. Everything seemed to be holding its breath. Afraid to take a deep breath for fear it would return. Our young pine lot southwest of our house is down flat. Uprooted, broken and twisted. The water has overflowed Uncle Wallace’s meadow along the main road until it looks like a big river. Nearly up to the road, from the village to our house and over the road in several places below us toward Keene.
I went to the village soon after breakfast. Several trees near my Happy Valley Log Cabin are down. The flag pole in the school house yard is down. Several trees in Harry Frazier’s yard, a strip of rubberoid shingles on Sheldon Baker’s shed. His barn is pushed away from the house nearly six inches. One of Everett Scott’s big maples is down and half another broken off. Part of the shop roof blew off and a great many of the slate shingles.
The lake was pouring over the old road by the north end of the mill. The dam was thought to be in danger of giving way and Bernard Richardson had drivers as far as East Sullivan telling all the families along the lowlands to be ready to get out at a minutes’ notice. The water has washed a hole nearly three feet deep in front of the mill pond, and the water was spurting through the rocks on the south side of the road as well as pouring over it.
Every one of Bert Wilder’s Carolina poplars are blown down. Not broken off but uprooted. No telephone service. Poles and wires are down, twisted and tangled.
The west side of Granite Lake gives you the creeps. The new development lots that this spring were so quickly sold because of the beautiful grove of spruces and pines that covered all that side of the shore, is an ugly sight now. I don’t believe there are fifty good trees that are left unharmed. Thousands of cords of tall straight trees are now only a tangled mass of timber. The same story all around the shore line.
Eugene Coffin and family are in their cottage and can’t get out until the lake goes down. It is pouring over the road clear up to Newberry’s landing. He is about frantic. He insists he must get to his home in Greenville. “Get a pump and pump it out.” Ye gods! Pump out the lake? How foolish people sometimes get in such conditions. He couldn’t get there if he got out, so why not stay where he is. They were right on the edge of the new development and could hear the tress snapping and tearing up all night long.
Mrs. Arthur Mason says her husband was the most scared white man she has ever seen. He stayed in the living room in the dark, waiting for his two big apple trees to blow over and crash the front of the house. They are still standing.
Wesley Dutton has a pile of four foot wood piled back of his house. On top of it is a pork barrel. You can rock it back and forth with one hand easily. It is still there, barrel and all. Yet a few feet away was a pile of boards. He saw them lifted into the air and tossed around like straws. Some of them came down in Scott’s field driven endways into the ground a foot and a half.
All of the boards are gone on the west side of our wagon shed. In front of the shed was a wheelbarrow and on it a mash hopper. They are there this morning. Fifty feet south of it one of our hen houses has been blown off of its stone foundations and twisted around cornerways.
A rock maple limb four inches through and twenty feet long is laying in our yard but where it came from nobody knows. No limb of that size has been torn from the trees in front of the house. The nearest rock maple other than those is at least a quarter of a mile away. Glad it didn’t come through any of our windows.
Grace Peart was visiting Mr. and Mrs. DeMartelly at the Spaeth place and came home afoot just as the blow struck. Ran most of the way, scared to death. When she got home the doors were all blown open and she hadn’t strength enough to keep them shut. Her father and stepmother were in Keene. “There I was all alone, all night long. Wind blew so hard I couldn’t keep a light. Had to stay in the dark, scared pink and there wasn’t a drink in the place. Boy did I need one.” She came over Murdough’s hill and never a tree hit her though several came close.
Albert Quigley was walking to his home in Nelson Village from Murphy’s store here in Munsonville. The storm broke when he was half way home. He described the rest of the trip as a nightmare. He had on new shoes and not wanting to get them wet he took them off. No stockings on as he went barefoot and there are much easier things to walk on then wet tarvia. Especially when one is running. Trees were beginning to fall across the road and in the picnic grove when he panted up Nelson hill. The east side of his house was deshingled and of course that side of his roof leaked like a sieve. While comparatively new it is made of old boards and old lumber. It rocked and creaked until Quig and his wife and two children dared not stay in it any longer. They ran down to Carl White’s summer residence and spent the rest of the night. Quig’s studio is pushed partly off its foundation and twisted about some.
Horace Upton and Roger Upton had to leave their cars near Patrick’s Bridge. Too many trees across the road. They clambered over and crawled under the trees up the hill. Coming over the brow the full force of the wind hit them squarely in the face. Horace was unable to stand up and Roger had to take him by the arm and help the rest of the way home. A tree fell across Dick’s car jamming the top a little. Horace’s car was undamaged.
John Warner was driving home from Keene with Mrs. Creamer and two children. Trees across the road forced them to leave the car by the side of the road and they dodged trees and brush the rest of the way. Opposite the so called Henderson place, where Mr. Avery lives, they were frightened out of a year’s growth. They saw two chicken houses flung high into the air and bounce about like so many feathers. They crashed into the road only a few feet in front of them.
Mr. Creamer tells of noticing nearly a score of partridges squatting against a stone wall that runs along the road by his house. They were too scared to pay any attention to human beings. He believes he could have picked them up but didn’t try. Instead he watched them in fascination and wondered why they were there. They could sense the coming of great danger and protected themselves in the only way they knew.
The most harrowing experience? Lord only knows. Everybody feels and thinks that his was the worst. All were exciting enough. All were scared enough. The screaming of the tortured air saw to that. Anyone who says they felt no fear is one of two things. A damned liar, or an idiot. The most exciting thing brought to my notice was experienced by Harold Tompkins, Edward Murdough and Dick Upton.
Ed Murdough is the road agent and he and Harold were over to Lake Nubanusit turning water from the road. Dick was along for the ride and to take a look at the lake which was beginning to pour over the road even then. Just before five they started home. All of them in Eddie’s Chevrolet truck. A big pine blocked the road just beyond the Sheldon place. They had no axe. They were stopped from using that road out. The pine naturally enough had fallen across the electric light wires and snapped them off. They drove back to Wilmer’s and tried to call up the Public Service Company in Keene to tell them of the mishap. This undoubtedly saved their lives. There is a wood road back of Wilmer’s house that comes out on to Hall’s road. They drove through the field trying to make it. But it is up hill. The ground was soft as a sponge and their tires cut through the turf and spun. Zigzagging across the hill got them almost to the top, but not quite. No use so they came into the road thinking to go down the road by Shubrick Clymer’s and so come on to the Cabot road. Trees and a minor wash out blocked that. There was nothing to do but walk. They left the truck in the yard by the Sheldon place and started afoot. Instead of one pine blocking the way, a dozen were down by this time. Crawling under some and straddling others they made the best time possible. Aided by the wind at their backs this was much faster than under ordinary conditions. Huge pines falling behind them. Telephones poles and light poles in front of them. Tripping over wires. Falling into the ditch standing horror stricken while a great pine bent and bowed just in front of them. Waiting hours it seemed, for it to fall, before they dared to continue. Hearing trees crash into ex-Sheriff Lord’s garage and piazza. Hurrying on at last. Wading through water above their knees near the junction at Hall’s Corner. They stopped at Wayland Tolman’s a few minutes to rest their aching lungs. Dark was coming. All three were worried about their families. So after a short time they started out again. The wind took them up Tolman’s hill as fast as they could ordinarily have ran down it. Probably lucky too. Near Stebbins garage a white birch knocked Eddy headlong into the ditch. Up again without benefit of count, he and his police dog ran headlong up the road, too scared and excited to know what he was doing. Just a mad desire to get out of the nightmare. Harold and Dick who were a short distance behind, waited a few seconds for a big oak to decide whether to stay up and fight a while longer or to quit and fall down. Dick was just about to step onto the top of a birch that had knocked Eddy kicking, when the oak decided. It quit and fell across the birch at right angles and giving the top an awful snap. Had Dick stepped on to it he would have been tossed as if from a catapult and probably killed. Two more miles of this to Nelson Village where Dick said a prayer and goodbye while he turned down the road leading to his home. Eddy was waiting at the top of Nelson Hill. The water was coursing down the tarred road nearly knee deep and the hill is so steep that the current was feared to be unwadeable. So down the road by the picnic grove. Out into the mowing there they were free from falling trees but hurried on by the wind which still was increasing in speed, tone and fierceness. Down Henderson’s road, the road almost impassable by that time. Stones rolling with the water stumbled them into a foot of water. When at last Harold reached home he was totally exhausted. “My lungs felt raw and my heart was swollen so big I thought it break into a hundred pieces.”
If anyone had a worse time I haven’t heard about it yet. Until I do, let’s hand the ivy wreath to those three young men. They were born under a lucky star, else they would have been killed.
When Bernard drove down to warn the valley folk of the danger of the dam bursting, Hutchins, Nadeau and Tompkins woke up their children, grabbed an overcoat and went to Will Guillow’s for the rest of the night. Eddy Murdough, wife and two kids were already there, as well as Maurice Guillow and wife, and five transients. That made a total of thirty-four who stayed the night there. The children were bundled into bed. But the older folk were unsleepable and kept awake all night.
I walked over Murdough’s hill to the Four Corner’s. Over a hundred trees are across the road. And the south side of the hill is washed deplorably. Near the top it was easier to walk around a tree than to scramble through its net of branches. By the stone wall I stopped and looked. Have I said too many times that the wind had terrific force? Wait a minute. Two stones had been dislodged from the top of the wall. Both were heavier than I could lift. Not a tree was down nearer than fifty feet in either direction. Nothing but wind ever took them off. Believe it or not Bob Ripley, but there they are. Come up and see them for yourself.
Clint Frazier tells of seeing a chipmunk with no tail. Only a bloody stump was left for him to use as a rudder. What a pinching he took.
Charles Poland spent the night at MacBean’s cottage on the north shore of Granite Lake. Mr. and Mrs. M. there as well as their daughter and butler. They spent the early hours holding the doors and barring the windows. Hoping without doubt that the trees would fall some other place but onto the house.
Mr. and Mrs. “Tote” Sebastian were also at the summer home on the south shore of Granite Lake. They were on the back porch watching the lake. The waves were three or four feet high. Were shaped like a pinnacle. The tops were twisted off into spray. They were standing within a few feet of each other and had to shout at the top of their lungs to make themselves heard. The wind at first was from the southeast as quick as snapping your fingers it changed to the south west. “We knew it was the end of everything. And – well if that was the way we were going out we were sort of glad we were together.”
The storm was freaky as a woman in love. As irritable as a snake in the sun. As reckless as a drunken driver.
And from Jack Sherrard. “I’m ruined. Ruined. Got to start from the bottom again. Lost twenty-eight out of a herd of forty-nine – Angoras – by God! MacBean and Watson will pay for this. Pay dear for it too. Through the nose. You wait and see.”
Old growth trees were not respected any more than much younger upstarts. There were a few of these old trees – white pines – at Tolman’s cottage near Ed Lord’s Cottage. They have over four hundred rings on their stumps. Gone now, like yesterday’s smile. They can never be replaced in several leftimes.
Practically every road needs repairing. Entirely rebuilt in places. Dozens of culverts must be replaced. One bridge – near Albert Quigley’s studio – should be replaced. As far as washouts are concerned the Stevens or Bailey road is the worst mainly because it is one of the longest. From Nelson village to the Stoddard town line it is about four miles. From Horace Upton’s there is one continual wash varying in depth from a few inches to four feet. Fortunately there is not a great deal of timber to be cut on this stretch of road.