80th Anniversary Of New England’s Worst Hurricane Caused Tragedy at Two Rhode Island Lighthouses.
Great New England Hurricane of 1938
On September 21, 1938, one of the most destructive hurricanes in recorded history struck Long Island and Southern New England. It was only supposed to be a breezy fall day in New England, but the track started surprisingly barreling up the coast.
The storm hit Long Island and Southern Connecticut on September 21, with sustained hurricane force winds of 121 and a maximum recorded wind gust of 186 mph, the highest ever recorded. It produced three to seven inches of rainfall.
Rhode Island got the worst of it. The storm surge of 12 to 15 feet destroyed most coastal homes, yacht clubs and marinas on Narragansett Bay. More than 63,000 people lost their homes. Almost 20,000 public and private buildings were destroyed, and 100 bridges had to be rebuilt. Nearly 700 people died in the storm (682) and damages came to over $300 million at that time, equivalent to nearly 5 billion dollars today. From this destruction, Rhode Island also mourned tragedies that struck two lighthouses on Narragansett Bay from the storm at Prudence Island (Sandy Point) light, and Beavertail light.
Tragedy at Sandy Point (Prudence Island) Lighthouse
On September 21, 1938, with hardly any warning, New England’s worst hurricane caused massive wind gusts and a huge tidal wave to come up Narragansett Bay, destroying everything in its path. Three guests had arrived beforehand to visit Keeper George Gustavus at Prudence Island (Sandy Point) lighthouse. They were former keeper Martin Thompson, James Lynch, and Lynch’s wife, Ellen. Gustavus’ wife Mabel, and their youngest son of ten children, Eddie, was also at the house. The keeper’s two young daughters were still at school when the storm struck.
As the winds continued to increase, all six took refuge on the second floor of the keeper’s building, where former keeper Martin Thomson persuaded everyone that the structure was sturdy enough to survive the storm. The keeper’s instincts turned out to be incorrect. The massive storm surge raised the water levels so high with its ferocious waves crashing into the building, it caused the structure to break apart. All six occupants were swept under the tidal wave. Keeper Gustavus was swept back to shore about a half mile away from the lighthouse, and miraculously was able to make it to safety with the help of 18-year old George Taber, a local islander who saw the keeper near the shoreline. Gustavus learned soon afterwards, much to his horror that his wife, son, and their three guests had perished in the storm. His other children had survived the incident. Only the lighthouse tower survived the hurricane.
Keeper’s Worst Nightmare Comes True at Beavertail Light
During the unsuspected tidal wave caused by the unknown hurricane of 1938, Keeper Carl Chellis of Beavertail lighthouse was trying his best to protect the beacon as it was being battered around from the storm surge, and where the lighthouse faced the open waters, rocks and debris were flying everywhere from the destructive winds. As the storm was coming upon the region without warning, school officials closed the schools that day feeling the children would be safer in their homes. The local school bus carrying Keeper Carl Chellis’ son and daughter were heading towards the lighthouse, when huge waves, caused by the massive tidal surge, overtook the bus and swamped the vehicle, unable to allow its occupants to get to safety.
The bus driver Norman Caswell, fearing he and the children would drown if they stayed on the bus, tried to bring the kids to higher ground. As they all got out of the bus, another tidal storm surge hit and swept all the children away, drowning them all, except only the keeper’s son and Caswell himself.
It was hours later where Keeper Chellis had nearly escaped with his own life as he watched Beavertail lighthouse nearly become destroyed from this destructive storm, but also had to receive the horrible news that his daughter had drowned by the tidal wave sweeping over the school bus.
Caswell died shortly after the incident, overcome with guilt and unable to cope with deaths of the children.
Keeper Chellis would perish seven years later on tour of duty in the Pacific during WWII.
In the “wind that shook the world,” as it was later called, New England lost more than 25 percent of its cherished elms and over half a million property deeds had to be resurveyed because of severe storm damage. In New Hampshire alone, one and a half billion board feet of timber were knocked down; the recovery of “storm” lumber would take years. When war broke out in Europe, much of the lumber was used to build military barracks and the interiors of transport ships.
New England has never had as much destruction as from this storm, and with today’s technology, plenty of warning would be provided so that this scope of tragedy and destruction should never be replicated on such a massive scale again.
Exploring Prudence Island and Beavertail Lighthouses Today
You’ll find little evidence of the destructive force that engulfed this region 80 years ago.
Prudence Island is a quiet island which measures about 7 miles long and 1 1/2 miles wide with tracts of land maintained by various conservationist organizations consisting of land primarily owned by the Rhode Island state park department, Audubon Society and various private foundations. There are no public bathrooms unless you find something available at the dock. The main beach, which is quiet all year round, is about 1 1/2 miles long. There are two general stores on the island.
Access to the island is made by boat or by taking the Bristol – Prudence Island Ferry. It’s a mile walk to the lighthouse (bring plenty of bug repellent).
Beavertail lighthouse, the third oldest beacon in the United States, is a popular attraction for many visitors to the state. Beavertail is located in Beavertail State Park at the end of Beavertail Road, at the southern tip of Conanicut Island, Narragansett Bay. There is also a museum there to explore along with its unique rock formations enjoyed by many tourists to the area. The park is good size for plenty of outdoor activities and places to escape and enjoy the quiet as well.
Nearby, Newport is Rhode Island’s a main vacation playground for tourists to visit and explore while they’re in the area. This region provides some of the best sailing around the Narragansett Bay, as well as providing tourists with plenty of boat tours, excursions, and events. Visit some of the famous elaborate mansions.
My 300-page book, Lighthouses and Coastal Attractions of Southern New England: Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts, provides special human interest stories from each of the 92 lighthouses, along with plenty of indoor and outdoor coastal attractions you can explore. These include whale watching excursions, lighthouse tours, windjammer sailing tours and adventures, special parks and museums, and lighthouses you can stay overnight. You’ll also find plenty of stories of shipwrecks and rescues. Lighthouses and their nearby attractions are divided into regions for all you weekly and weekend explorers.