80 years ago: The Great New England Hurricane hits Wilton

Today, Sept. 21, marks the 80th anniversary of the one of the most destructive storms to hit the southern New England and Long Island region in the 20th Century: the Great New England Hurricane of 1938.

The Category 3 hurricane was born out a tropical cyclone that developed in the eastern Atlantic on Sept. 10, 1938. The storm was expected to make landfall in south Florida, according to History.com, but suddenly changed direction on Sept. 19, and began moving north, parallel to the eastern seaboard.

The hurricane hit Long Island and southern New England on Sept. 21, 1938, with the center of the storm reaching Connecticut around 4 p.m., according to History.com.

Impact on Wilton

According to the Sept. 22, 1938 issue of The Wilton Bulletin, the storm swept through Wilton “with the fury of a tornado,” knocking down and damaging power lines, telephone wires, and “hundreds of trees” along its way.

The Wilton Bulletin editor at the time, G. Evans Hubbard, wrote that the storm left the town looking like “a scene of destruction from the Apocalypse,” with “trees across the road, wire under foot and hanging in grotesque festoons from crazily leaning telegraph poles [and] the river in flood.”

According to The Bulletin, a resident named George Taylor saw “a huge maple tree” snap off and land on his property while watching the storm from the porch of his home near the post office. Fortunately, Taylor was uninjured and his home suffered only minor damage.

The “Old Gregory house on Belden’s Hill” was not so lucky. A “giant” maple tree fell on the home, damaging two dormers on the southwest side and causing water to enter the house through the leaks, according to an old Wilton Bulletin article.

In the Sept. 29, 1938 issue of The Bulletin, Harry S. Davenport wrote about how he went outside after the storm and “look[ed] upon a strange Wilton” where “everything [was] chaos.”

According to Davenport, Lovers Lane was “completely blocked by large uprooted maples trees,” and a “huge” uprooted ash tree south of Wilton Congregational Church hung over the road “supported only by telephone cables.”

Other tree destruction in town included a downed maple tree leaning on light wires on Ridgefield Road, an uprooted tree in the yard of a Miss Middlebrook that fell across the roadway, and a “great maple” that “snapped off” below Hillside Cemetery and “narrowly” missed a nearby home.

One of the “danger points” during the storm was the Route 7 “strip of road between Split Rock Farm and the Johnson’s FIlling Station, where the Norwalk River had overflowed its banks and covered the road,” according to The Bulletin. At one point, the water was more than three feet deep and cars coming from either Danbury or Norwalk had “great difficulty” getting through.

The storm disrupted all forms of transportation. As reported by The Bulletin, “no trains were able to get north of South Norwalk,” fallen trees and downed wires blocked many back roads in town, and many small bridges were “washed out, making travel dangerous.”

The hurricane left “considerable property damage” and lots of work for local crews who had to clear and clean up trees and blocked roads, The Bulletin reported, as well as “many days of work for the electric company and telephone company,” with hundreds of phones out of order.

Repairmen worked steadily Wednesday evening through Friday morning, according to The Bulletin. Most homes had electricity and working telephones by Saturday morning, but one-third of phones in town were still out of commission as of Sept. 29, 1938.

According to the Sept. 29, 1938 issue of The Bulletin, the Connecticut Light and Power Co. reported that its workers were “particularly pleased with the reception they received in Wilton” because “everyone realized they were doing their best and remained reasonable, even if their own job could not be done among the first.”

Fruit farms in town suffered “the most severe damage,” according to an article in the Sept. 29, 1938 issue of The Bulletin.

Thousands of dollars worth of apples had been “stripped from the trees,” dozens of bearing trees had been uprooted, and hundreds of trees had lost “important parts of their tops,” according to the article, in which the storm was referred to as “one of the worst disasters that has happened to the fruit farmers.”

The affected area was “too small to change the general price of fruit,” according to the article, and there would be “no increase in the value of stored supplies to offset the destruction of fruit on the trees.”

“It is an unmitigated loss to the owners, as well as to the dozens of men and boys who usually are employed to harvest the fruit when ripe,” reported The Bulletin. “The sympathy of the whole town goes out to these men.”

Wilton Bulletin columnist Duncan M. Smith wrote that the “wreckage on the landscape spread” of Wilton would be “a story to relate down through the years,” and Davenport wrote that the hurricane would “go down in history with the great blizzard of 1888.”

An old Wilton Bulletin article stated that the hurricane was “by all accounts one of the worst storms to ever hit Wilton.”

After Wilton

The storm gained speed as it made its way across Massachusetts, where wind gusts of 186 mph were recorded just south of Boston. The hurricane lost intensity as it passed over northern New England and eventually dissipated over night in Canada.

By the time it was over, the Great New England Hurricane of 1938 had devastated coastal cities and towns and taken 600 lives.