Hurricane of '38 tested mettle of Massachusetts State College
If there is a yardstick to measure hurricanes against, old-timers say it is the fabled Hurricane of ’38, the ferocious storm that ripped through New England and the Massachusetts State College campus 70 years ago this month.
The first signs of the approaching tempest, according to the Alumni Bulletin, were detected by Engineering professor Christian I. Gunness, who was in charge of daily meteorological observations at the college.
As Gunness watched the barometer in Stockbridge Hall late in the afternoon of Sept. 21, reported the Bulletin, the instrument plummeted so rapidly “to the point where it could drop no farther, he could hardly believe his eyes.”
“The drop meant a hurricane, nothing more or less,” noted the Bulletin.
Since the campus barometer could no longer measure accurately, Gunness hurried to check a more sensitive aneroid barometer he had at home. The reading on Gunness’ barometer, 28.41 inches, was the lowest ever recorded in Amherst at that time.
Meanwhile, the continuous rains that had begun four days earlier continued to saturate the soil and weaken the ability of trees to withstand the hurricane’s gales.
By 5:30 that afternoon, the winds reached an estimated peak velocity of 80 miles per hour, a howling force that ripped a vicious swath of devastation through Amherst, the Mass. State campus and the surrounding countryside.
“It was an amazing and terrifying sight to watch the trees, telegraph poles and wires being uprooted, snipped off, broken and twisted,” reported the Bulletin.
As tree roots and soil washed away in the torrential rain, drain pipes became clogged and the basements in Goessmann Laboratory, Memorial Hall and Fernald Hall began to flood.
According to a Collegian report, “an underground brook” threatened to wash away part of Thatcher Way until a Grounds Department crew dug a ditch to divert the rushing water away from the pavement.
Another group of Grounds staff was dispatched to President Hugh Baker’s hillside house to board up windows and protect valuables.
While the workers waited out the storm inside the house, 11 trees toppled around the residence, but the damage to the house was slight.
Elsewhere on campus, flooding destroyed sidewa1ks and roadways and the whipping winds tore at college buildings, causing a gable corner of the South College dormitory to crash to the sidewalk.
According to the Collegian, the hurricane was oddly selective in choosing its campus victims. While many diseased trees escaped unscathed, many of the oldest and most valuable were tipped from the ground.
A grove of pines behind the President’s House was smashed into kindling while a double row of elms on Olmsted Road in front of Goessmann and West Experiment Station was barely damaged.
“The most ancient and flimsy-appearing building on campus, the Physics Building, remained untouched,” except for a new antenna rod on the roof, noted the Collegian. An old antenna on the same roof was undamaged, the paper reported.
The surrounding towns were also taking a beating from the hurricane.
According to town records, more than 1,500 trees were toppled into Amherst’s streets while a nearly equal number fell on private property.
Many trees were also destroyed on the Amherst College campus, including one that was later dated to 1760.
In Northampton and Hadley, severe flooding caused by nearly a foot of rain forced many residents to find other shelter from the elements.
By early evening, the storm began to abate and students emerged from their dormitories to join emergency cleanup crews.
The college administration, meeting in emergency session, declared the following day a campus holiday to allow students “to do their bit in clearing away the fallen trees,” reported the Bulletin.
Campus officials also opened the Cage to shelter flood refugees from Hadley for the night.
In Stockbridge Hall, C. Nelson Julian, Class of ’38, monitored storm reports on his shortwave radio. According to the Collegian, the “ardent ‘ham’” moved his equipment from his Amherst home to assist college officials in maintaining contact with local and state officials.
While reports of the storm’s destruction came in from other areas of the region, no deaths or serious injuries occurred at Mass. State.
Historic trees among the casualties
The next morning, MSC students reported to Farm superintendent Hap Parsons, ’27, and Grounds supervisor Bill Armstrong, ’99, who were directing campus cleanup efforts.
The crews had their work cut out for them; 140 trees had been uprooted across the campus landscape and 138 others had sustained damage.
Among the victims were the two oldest trees at MSC, both planted in 1788. A giant elm planted by the Class of 1876 lay across Stockbridge Road and a number of rare European and Japanese specimens planted near the Rhododendron Garden were completely destroyed.
“The splendid big elm in front of the Physics Laboratory was uprooted,” said the Alumni Bulletin, adding that the 1915 class tree north of Memorial Hall tipped over onto the 1912 class tree.
Undaunted, but no doubt impressed by nature’s fury, the students pitched into their assignments, including the righting of the Class of ’15 tree.
“Swinging axes, pushing saws, and collecting blisters, the maroon-capped freshmen worked tirelessly and energetically,” reported the Collegian.
Equally impressed by the undergraduates, President Baker wrote to the Board of Trustees that the students “worked with surprising effectiveness” to clear away fallen trees.
As college officials assessed the destruction, they estimated that the hurricane had inflicted about $25,000 in damages, a figure that more than doubled as more information became available.
Baker later reported to the trustees that the campus sustained “serious damage by water and wind” and that all buildings with slate roofs were “badly injured.” He noted that one-
third of the trees on campus were “either blown down or badly injured.”
In his report, he added, “The men of heating, repair and grounds services worked through days and night to clear the campus and to get buildings into use.”
The Bulletin echoed Baker’s praise, noting that “The College heat and light service was continued without noticeable interruption throughout and after the hurricane.”
The same could not be said for Amherst and the nearby MSC fraternity and sorority houses, which were left without electricity for days. Some of the sorority sisters were moved into Abigail Adams House, remaining in “The Abbey” until their quarters were repaired. In other parts of Amherst, it took as long as four weeks to clear roads and restore electric and telephone service.
When classes resumed and students returned to their studies, college officials posted “men wanted” signs at the entrance to campus to recruit “expert wood choppers” from Pelham and Shutesbury to help clear away the fallen timber.
With more reports coming in from faculty and staff, the administration increased the college’s damage estimate to $55,000.
Mt. Toby forest area hardest hit
According to reports from faculty and staff, the two hardest hit areas were the college farm, which sustained $8,000 in damages, and the Mt. Toby Demonstration Forest in Sunderland, where the storm destroyed 3 million feet of timber, half of the forest’s growing stock.
After the hurricane, Forestry professor Robert Holdsworth traveled to Mt. Toby to assess the destruction.
According to the Collegian, Holdsworth’s trip through the forest, normally a 30-minute hike, took nearly three hours to complete because of the devastation.
Returning to campus, Holdsworth issued an advisory to the campus, “All students are urged to refrain from visiting Mt. Toby in order to protect both themselves and the forest from fire.”
Responding to President Baker’s request for assistance, the state allocated $55,000 for storm-related repairs, $22,000 of which was earmarked for salvaging the fallen timber at Mt. Toby.
Holdsworth and Daniel McCleary, foreman of the forest, supervised the salvage operation. Holdsworth estimated that the sale of the Mt. Toby timber returned “somewhat more than the allocation of $22,000” to state coffers.
Conditions at Mt. Toby also contributed to the administration’s decision to cancel the Annual Mountain Day celebration scheduled for the week following the storm.
The freshman test score mystery
Eight months after the hurricane, one of most curious footnotes to the day was reported by the Collegian.
On the day of the storm, said the student newspaper, the freshman Class of 1942 completed the American Council on Education’s Psychological Examination, a test that was administered that fall to 71,000 college freshmen across the U.S.
According to professor Harry Glick, who supervised the exam, the freshmen class score was the highest in Mass. State history, ranking nationally in the 94th percentile.
The results, said the Collegian, were “especially peculiar” since the group completed the test “working in competition with the noise of the storm outside, and without lights,” which had been knocked out by the hurricane.
“Dr. Glick suggested as a possible explanation, that the hurricane may have had a stimulating effect on students,” the paper reported, adding that the professor theorized that the low air pressure may have acted as a mental stimulus for the newly-arrived class.
“Two days after the hurricane,” Glick told the Collegian, “State freshmen made a score on this college’s own examination 5 percent lower than last year’s rating for the same test.”
Attempting to explain the lower test score, Glick said the two days of constant wind and storm may have resulted in a psychological letdown among the students.
‘A real accomplishment’
While the effect of the storm on freshman test scores was never determined, the great Hurricane of ’38 more than left its mark on the campus by testing the mettle of the college’s faculty, staff and students.
Despite the damages inflicted upon his school, President Baker was proud of the college’s ability to respond to the disaster, calling the rapid repair effort “a real accomplishment.”
Like Baker, the college community took pride in weathering the storm. The hurricane became a rite of passage for the campus that had shed its “aggie” identity only seven years earlier. Although “Mass Aggie” had evolved into Massachusetts State College, the campus response to the hurricane showed the Commonwealth that the school may have changed its name, but did not lose its heritage of self-sufficiency, public service and pioneer spirit.
Adapted from a 1988 article published in The Campus Chronicle that was written with research assistance from Mike Milewski, Special Collections and University Archives.
Photos courtesy of Special Collections and University Archives, W.E.B. Du Bois Library
September 2, 2008.