Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

The Great Hurricane: 1938

by Cherie Burns

“Very good . . . sure to help keep the terrible storm in its proper place in New England’s memory, as well as being timely reading in this period of unusually heavy and frequent hurricane activity.” –Jonathan Yardley, Washington Post

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 240
  • Publication Date July 11, 2006
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-4254-2
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $16.00

About The Book

On the night of September 21, 1938, news on the radio was full of the invasion of Czechoslovakia. There was no mention of severe weather. By the time oceanfront residents noticed an ominous yellow color in the sky, it was too late. In a matter of hours, a massive hurricane of unprecedented force ripped its way from Long Island to Providence, obliterating coastal communities, destroying whole commercial fishing fleets from Montauk to Narragansett Bay, and killing seven hundred people.

Early that morning, old-salt fishermen heading out on calm seas noticed a sudden drop in the barometer, which made some turn back. Hurtling toward them at a record speed was a powerful hurricane–the big cat stalking the coast was ready to strike. It struck Long Island with the tide at an all-time high under a full, equinox moon. The sea rose out of its shores like a demon, with catastrophic waves surging over fifty feet. Winds whipped up to 186 miles per hour, trashing boats and smashing homes from Long Island to Connecticut and Rhode Island. Most victims never knew what hit them.

Flowing through The Great Hurricane: 1938 are personal stories of those like the Moore family who were sucked to sea clinging to a raft formerly their attic floor. Like The Perfect Storm, Burns’s masterful storytelling follows the storm’s punishing path in a seamless and suspenseful narrative, preserving for posterity the legendary story of the Great Hurricane.


“Very good . . . sure to help keep the terrible storm in its proper place in New England’s memory, as well as being timely reading in this period of unusually heavy and frequent hurricane activity.” –Jonathan Yardley, Washington Post

“A tantalizing monster story . . . She forms a patchwork of images of the ocean’s deadly surge that may only be conceivable after 2004’s tsunami footage. B+” –Jeff Labrecque, Entertainment Weekly

“She does an excellent job of personalizing the disaster. . . . There’s no denying the drama. . . . The book is a powerful reminder of what nature can toss at us, whether we’re ready for it or not.” –Robert Krier, San Diego Union-Tribune

“Stunning . . . Full of warm and intimate details . . . This report of the storm that devastated our part of New England 67 years ago is well worth reading.” –Phyllis Meras, Providence Journal

“This is exceptional reporting, meticulously researched and powerfully told.” –Larry Cox, Tucson Citizen

“Does a more than creditable job piecing together, in a lively style, an hour-by-hour, family-by-family account of [the Great Hurricane of 1938].” –Joan Baum, The Independent (Hamptons)

“Burn’s liberal use of detailed personal accounts gives the text a gripping intimacy, grace and nuance. . . . From start to finish, this powerful story of nature’s fury and human survival pulls the reader in and doesn’t let go.” –Publishers Weekly

“[Burns] diligently mines and layers anecdotes to build a picture of Long Island and New England seacoast communities in a balmy late September. . . . Bizarre tales of survival and doom: a plum for beach chair readers who like to raise surrounding eyebrows.” –Kirkus Reviews

“Burns’ rendition is solid and will engage the imaginations of those who wonder, as she posits, “What would I have done?” . . . Integrating data of the storm’s force and the coastal topography that intensified its devastation, Burns perceptively instills the experience of a tragedy that swept away some 700 lives.” –Gilbert Taylor, Booklist

“Cherie Burns has finally given this major cataclysmic events its proper dues. . . . Burns sets the stage at the beginning of The Great Hurricane of 1938 nicely and then hour-by-hour takes us through the slow buildup and the ferocious blast of the hurricane. . . . Burns lays out the story in The Great Hurricane of 1938 like a movie–and reading the book is a very visual experience. . . . The Great Hurricane of 1938 is a fascinating quick read that will have you scratching your head and wondering why this story hasn’t been told in print or on film previously. Compared to The Great Hurricane of 1938, The Perfect Storm was a small squall!” –Howie Green, Edge

“Taking on a story of enormous natural chaos, Cherie Burns tames it in unusually graceful and vivid prose. In fact, it’s precisely this combination–irresistible subject matter plus elegant writing–that makes Great Hurricane: 1938 a thoroughly compelling read.” –Dave King, author of The Ha-Ha

“Before there was the Perfect Storm, there was the Great Hurricane of 1938. Cherie Burns’s new book is not only a riveting and wonderfully written account of one of the worst storms of the century, it is a marvelous portrait of an era and a region. A must for all New Englanders and lovers of the sea.” –Nathaniel Philbrick, author of In the Heart of the Sea and Sea of Glory


Milt Miller was awake by five. Like the whalers and fishermen in his family before him, he’d always been an early riser. He’d started fishing, he liked to say around Montauk, as soon as he could walk. Now that fishing was good, he often stayed on board the boat overnight to make the most of each day. His wife of three years was used to that, and he was making over two hundred dollars a month, which made it easier. When he came up on deck of the 110­ foot dragger, the dawn sky was hazy but unremarkable. The sea was flat calm. There had been stars in a clear sky the night before when he turned in after he and the rest of the five-man crew had iced and shipped a boatload of cod and porgies west to New York City. Fish was bringing in ten cents a pound. Life, for a twenty-five-year-old man conditioned by the Depression, was pretty good.

But as he moved slowly into the day, preparing to take the boat out and pick up a net they’d left the night before on Gardiners Island, an eighty-year-old fisherman on the dock called out, “If you’re going to go, you’d better get over there and get back. I’ve never seen the barometer so low.” Milt took note. He knew the old-timer had what fishermen called a “weather eye,” a squint that could tell what the weather was going to be bet­ter than any other kind of forecast.

Montauk Point, at the end of Long Island, thrusts east toward the dawn while the rest of America is still in dark­ness. To the northwest lay Long Island Sound, and just over the horizon were the sleeping coasts of Connecticut and Rhode Island. East toward the sun was the Atlantic. Tidal waters swirled around the point, into the sound, and back again, carrying schools of bait and the larger fish that fed on it. There was money to be pulled from the gray waters off Montauk.

Milt pulled away from the dock at the Promised Land fish factory and eased the boat across mirror-flat waters toward the sound. It had been nearly 2:00 A.M. when he fi­nally moored the boat and went to sleep the night before, but he was a vigorous, chunky young man and could get by on a few hours’ sleep when the fishing was good. He loved to fish.

When the fishing boats set out to sea at the start of the day, Milt felt exhilarated. He watched the Ocean View, a bunker steamer that belonged to the Smith Meal Com­pany, the biggest fish factory in Montauk, set out with the other boats. Its crew fished for menhaden, the small, bony fish used in making soap and fertilizer.

Also heading out the harbor, going toward the point, was a trawler from Fort Pond Bay dock. He knew it was Capt. Dan Grimshaw’s boat and that his friend, Stevie Dellapolla, was on board. Dellapolla, eighteen, was busily squaring away the deck, but he waved when he saw Milt. He felt good when he saw Milt Miller. Everyone knew Milt, who had been fishing since his early teens, longer than any of the other young men. Stevie also much admired his brother-in-law, Andrew Samb, a fisherman who had gone out on a bunker boat, the Robert E., that morning. Stevie was proud to be working as a fisherman.

Dan Grimshaw was known as an able captain. Navi­gational equipment was minimal and consisted of a compass, a radio, and a direction finder only, so the captain’s skill and knowledge of weather and sea conditions and handling the boat were every bit as important as the vessel’s seaworthi­ness. Stevie felt in good hands with him. He had spent a lot of time on the boat that fall, because its trips alternated between commercial dragging and party-fishing, and so far they had been party-fishing three days a week when the passenger train brought out clients.

Often, when the train didn’t bring anyone, they went swordfishing. That was a very specialized technique. First, a crewman standing in the bow would harpoon the sword­fish, which had a habit of basking on the surface. Then two men would pick up a small barrel on the bow and throw it overboard. Inside the barrel was six hundred feet of line tied to the harpoon. When the fish took off, the barrel bobbed along behind and marked where the fish was going. It was a smaller version of a similar method used for whaling in these waters a hundred years before. Stevie was learning a lot, and also earning $2.50 a trip. On this morning, as Milt’s boat moved away toward the northwest and Gardiners Is­land, Stevie noticed that Dan Grimshaw was staring intently at the horizon.

Grimshaw had noticed the sudden drop in the barom­eter that signals the approach of high winds and bad weather. Like a giant vacuum cleaner, the low pressure in the eye of the storm was already drawing the air south. He listened to the radio, but there was no advisory. Halfway out to the fishing grounds, when the barometer neared 29 inches, he turned back. He wanted to reach a good moor­ing before whatever was coming hit. After they’d turned, Stevie watched the forty-foot lobster boats go by, continu­ing out to the ocean. The crews were busy with the excite­ment in anticipation of a storm, and working to secure their gear and lines. Still, a few of the men paused to wave at Stevie. Stevie caught the eye of some of the crewmen. Later, he thought he had seen a manic gleam in their eyes. He had a sense of foreboding, and thought they did, too. Something just told him, he said later, that they were waving good-bye.