Robert Whitcomb: 1938's vast wine-pine-lumber surplus

Forest damage after the 1938 Hurricane.

Forest damage after the 1938 Hurricane.

Thirty-Eight: The Hurricane That Transformed New England, by Stephen Long (Yale University Press) 272 pages, as various prices.

This piece first ran in The Weekly Standard.

When I was a boy living in coastal Massachusetts, I frequently heard stories about the great hurricane that crashed into Long Island and New England on Sept. 21, 1938. Most of the people who described it to me—my father and some of his friends—were only in their 30s and early 40s when they told me about it, and had very vivid stories, especially after a few drinks. What the 1906 earthquake is to San Francisco, the 1871 fire is to Chicago, and Hurricane Katrina is to New Orleans, the '38 Hurricane (aka "The Long Island Express'') is to New England and Long Island.

Seeking relief from my humdrum world, I once longed to experience such an event. What I didn't appreciate at the time was how long the mess and inconvenience from such a storm could last—in the case of the '38 storm, for decades in some places. Given the scale of the catastrophe in one of the most populous and richest parts of the country, the 1938 Hurricane at first got surprisingly little attention from the rest of the country because attention was riveted on the Munich crisis; many assumed that war was about to break out in Europe. (Of course, that wouldn't be for another year.) But the storm killed around 700 people and destroyed many buildings, bridges, and miles of road. Its tidal surge altered long stretches of the southern New England and Long Island coasts.

Stephen Long clearly and dramatically, and sometimes with droll humor details the mayhem produced by torrential rain followed by winds that gusted to nearly 200 miles an hour on Blue Hill, south of Boston. He serves up a mix of regional history, meteorology, botany, ecology, politics, economics—all seasoned with anecdotes. But his book is mostly about the trees that the storm took down, especially in New England's large and well-established second-growth forests and in "the pastoral combination of farm field and forest [that] adorned'' the region, interspersed by villages with steepled white churches. That's the (unrepresentative) scene that many tourists most associate with the region; the storm's massive blowdowns (including of steeples) altered the views in many places.

As a boy, I saw evidence of this damage in the woods next to our house, where there were numerous pits where the roots of uprooted trees had been. From the pits' shape you could tell which direction the strongest wind came: from the southeast, at more than 100 miles an hour. And there were still many gaps in the woods where tall trees had once stood. Long, founder and former editor of Northern Woodlands magazine, focuses on the ecological, economic, and sociological effects of the storm's destruction of mature trees in a wide swath of New England.

"The roaring wind toppled forests in every New England state," he writes, "with New Hampshire and Massachusetts [east of the eye of the storm] hit particularly hard. The path of destruction spanned ninety miles across.'' And "70 percent or more of the toppled timber was Pinus strobus—eastern white pine''—the most valuable and vulnerable tree crop in New England because of its height, straightness, and its many uses, from lumber to houses, furniture, and cheap shipping boxes. All this devastated many landowners, already brought low by the Great Depression, who depended on pine sales from their wood lots to make ends meet. Also torn up were many maple-tree stands, the sap from which provided a lot of extra income to New England farmers and other landowners. Long writes accessibly about why certain trees sustained far more damage than others: "The taller the tree the longer the lever and the greater force it can exert on the ground where it's anchored.'' Trees on southeast-facing slopes were particularly vulnerable.

Enter the Roosevelt administration, in an example of what perhaps only government can do: clean up damage from natural disasters that extends over many square miles. Much praise was due the U.S. Forest Service as well as FDR's Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in responding to a disaster as huge as the '38 Hurricane.

The first imperative, state and federal officials and an anxious public thought, was to reduce the chances of massive forest fires from the downed, and thus drying, trees and branches. Indeed, some of the forests were closed to the public for long stretches after the hurricane for fear of fire. That the hurricane had made many of the firewatch towers inaccessible—roads were blocked by fallen trees—made it that much scarier. And so, Long explains, federal officials, led by the Forest Service, pulled together the resources of various organizations, but especially thousands of otherwise unemployed men working for the CCC (young men) and the WPA (which had older men as well). They opened roads and helped clean out much of the

But what to do with the fallen timber taken out of the woods, which could flood the market and lower the already-low price of the wood? To address this issue, the federal government invaded the private market with a vengeance: "The Forest Service saw the need for a stabilizing influence on the price of logs and the flow of lumber to market," Long writes, "so it put the power of the federal government to work'' by establishing "a fair price for logs,'' buying up all it could, and then gradually selling it as "demand required." At the heart of this reasoning was that the purchasing program would allow thousands of local landowners to realize a decent return from what could have been a nearly total economic loss. The cost of the salvage program was $16.3 million (in 1938 dollars), of which 92 percent was recovered by the government.

It's doubtful that such market intervention by government will happen after the next big hurricane blows through, but then, Roosevelt saw the hurricane response as another way of fighting the Depression. The cleanup also showed, in private-public collaborations, just how good Americans can be at addressing an emergency—as they were soon to prove after Pearl Harbor. A lot of that hurricane wood was used in war-related products and, later, in the postwar building boom.

Meanwhile, with the continuing disappearance of farmland, New England is now more forested than at any time in the past 200 years. Some year, the Northeast will again have a record surplus of lumber on the ground after another huge hurricane. And we may even long for another CCC and WPA.

Robert Whitcomb is editor of New England Diary.