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Don’t fret these unpredictable rain showers

You’re annoyed because your weather app can’t always predict this spring’s showers to the hour? Here’s a little perspective. Back in 1938, a hurricane packing the fastest recorded surface wind in US history pounced upon New England out of absolutely nowhere. This is back when hurricanes had no names, television didn’t exist and radio weathermen relied on scant info phoned in from ships at sea.

People didn’t listen to the radio a whole lot anyway. It was merely an occasional night-time luxury — and this hurricane came during the day. “Turning on the radio was something people did the evening if they had time to sit down and maybe read the paper,” says Irma (Alberghini) McGuff, BHS class of ’43. She grew up on Church Lane. “People did not have them on all the time. It would be a distraction. Monday was laundry day. That was a full day’s work. We had a laundry room in the basement. When we got home from school, my mother was still working in the laundry room. Besides, weather people had no idea this was heading towards New England.”

Moreover, New England hadn’t seen any serious storms in a generation, so no living soul had any firsthand experience with a hurricane.

“My brother and I decided to go out and see what was going on. The electric lines were lying across the road, so we headed for the ball field at Simonds Park. The winds were so strong we couldn’t stand up to get up a little embankment, so we crawled on all fours to get onto the field. We got halfway across the field, with great effort, getting hit with stinging rain and with flying stuff including branches. So we decided to go home. Nobody knew what was going on. I distinctly remember the atmosphere being not cloudy but very grey with a slight yellow effect, and not heavy rain either.”

The statistics are horrid:

  • A 50-foot wave recorded in Gloucester
  • A wind gust of 186 mph recorded at Blue Hill Observatory
  • New England deaths: 682
  • New England homes damaged or destroyed: 57,000
  • Property losses: $306 million ($4.7 billion now)

Eleven-year-old Tim Santry, future founder of Winn Street Service, used his family’s tractor to yank the trees off Lowell Street so his father could get through. In the hurricane aftermath, a gas station around the corner on Winn Street was without power. Tim removed the tire from his bicycle’s back rim, turned the bike upside down, ran a belt from his rear rim to the gas pump motor and hand-pumped gas when customers pulled in.

Herb Crawford, fire chief from 1955 to 1985, says the barn at his family farm (now Beacon Village) was lifted from its foundation. Only some surrounding trees kept it from flying away. It then crash-landed back onto its foundation.

Back at the Alberghini house on Church Lane, a miracle. “My mother had gone out in the yard to check on the chicken coops and rescue the laundry. The clothes were whipping in the wind. When she got in the house she realized her eyeglasses were gone. The wind was so strong she hadn’t even felt this. But the next morning when she went back out to check on the chickens, her glasses were right there on the path and not broken!” Burlington wasn’t broken either, mostly because there wasn’t much to break. Nobody died here.

Water became a challenge. Electric wells didn’t work due to the power outage. Luckily, Church Lane had a hand-operated one in the Simonds Park woods. Hurricane or not, people frequently parked there and pumped water. It’s still there today.

Abandoned well Simonds Park woods

The hurricane performed a roof-ectomy on one of the Reed Ham Works buildings on 3A.

 

The first image above shows the tracks of the Boston to Lowell electric rail line. Just up the line from Burlington, Billerica had one major hurricane fatality at its trolley stop. Pinehurst Park on the corner of Cook Street and 3A, the future home of the E.M. Leow’s Pinehurst Drive-in, didn’t survive the storm.

The park offered 20 acres of meandering woodland paths dotted with swing sets, dance pavilions, concert venues, concession stands and outdoor bowling alleys. The name “Pinehurst” made sense then. This was a nice natural retreat for city dwellers. The trolley carried people from Woburn center to Pinehurst for five cents. Note the tracks in the first image.

 

The park opened in 1901 and instantly died in 1938 when the hurricane bowled over the trees. The name Pinehurst has since become a major misnomer. Try finding pine trees in this part of Billerica now. Forest fires haven’t exactly helped matters either.

Billerica forest fires of 1954

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