Hurricane Season: One Storm’s Impact on UConn

Nearly 80 years ago, students returning to Storrs for the start of classes found a campus with no electricity, phones, or water, and hundreds of trees blocking roads and walkways. (Jerauld Manter Photo/Archives & Special Collections, UConn Library)
Nearly 80 years ago, students returning to Storrs for the start of classes found the campus with no electricity, phones, or water, and hundreds of trees blocking roads and walkways. (Jerauld Manter Photo/Archives & Special Collections, UConn Library)

SHARELINES

Connecticut has largely escaped damage this week from Hurricane Hermine, but back in 1938, the state of Connecticut and the campus of Connecticut State College, as UConn was known at the time, suffered extensive hurricane damage. Students returning to campus for the start of classes found a campus without electricity, phones, or water, and hundreds of trees blocking roads and walkways.

Sept. 21, 1938, the day of ‘The Hurricane,’ must have been a busy day for Jerauld Manter. The Connecticut State College faculty member was the official photographer for the campus, and he spent much of the day getting photos of storm damage around eastern Connecticut after five days of torrential rain.

Throughout the region and the state, rivers and streams were near flood stage. Dams were overflowing, some were breaking. Barns and homes were badly damaged. Livestock had been killed.

Manter wanted to document as much of this as possible. But, like everyone else that last day of summer in 1938, he didn’t know the region’s troubles were far from over.

One group [of students], after traveling 50 extra miles to get across the raging Connecticut River, was forced to remove shoes, socks, and trousers to wade across the Willimantic River, on their way to Storrs. — Connecticut Campus

As the hurricane approached, students were heading to Storrs for the beginning of fall classes. Registration for new students was the day of the hurricane, and freshmen had been arriving since Monday, Sept. 19. Returning students were to register Sept. 22 and classes were scheduled to begin Friday, Sept. 23.

The hurricane took local residents by surprise.

“In retrospect, what strikes me the most about it is that, at that time, there was no warning,” said Rodman Longley, Class of 1940, when interviewed in 1998, although he noticed that the wind was very strong. “We didn’t know what had happened on the shoreline. The hurricane hit all of a sudden, taking us quite by surprise. It seemed like a hard rain, and then all hell broke loose.”

On the day of the hurricane and the following day, about 300 students arrived on campus.

“One group [of students], after traveling 50 extra miles to get across the raging Connecticut River, was forced to remove shoes, socks, and trousers to wade across the Willimantic River, on their way to Storrs,” according to an article in the first regular issue of the student newspaper, the Connecticut Campus, for the fall semester, published on Oct. 4, 1938.

What students found as they arrived was a campus without electricity or telephones, no water, and hundreds of trees blocking roads and walkways. There was also a concern about food shortages, but the campus managed with a delivery of meat from the Norwich area.

With no telephones, one student rigged up a ham radio and a generator to get messages out of Storrs to students’ worried parents. Using the one antenna on campus that had not been blown over, and two batteries – one pulled out of a car – Ronald Rast, a senior from Terryville, worked into the night after the hurricane to set up his amateur radio. He then sent word to the state’s disaster headquarters about the campus’s need for water, and sent a story on storm damage to The Hartford Courant. The message was relayed via a shortwave station in West Hartford that picked up the signal of Rast’s 10-watt transmitter.

At least 40 messages were sent by Rast. More than half the messages went to parents as far away as the Maine coast and York, Penn.

By Saturday, the main power lines to the campus Dining Hall and the Fenton River pumping station were restored. Most power was restored to the campus by Oct. 1. But by Oct. 4, although calls could come in to the main switchboard in Beach Hall, there was still only one other working phone on campus, in Holcomb Hall.

With telephones down, campus communications continued through special editions of the Connecticut Campus, normally a weekly during the semester. Following the hurricane there were several extra editions, printed on a hand-cranked mimeograph machine. The first is dated Sept. 22 – the day after the hurricane.

Sometime on Thursday, the day after the storm, two students undertook to catalog the damage. Longley and Barbara Everett (Fitts), Class of 1939, split up the campus and recorded every fallen tree – 42 species in all.

On the north end of campus, Everett counted 1,112 trees down. At the south end of campus, Longley’s total was 650.

Longley recalled that two areas of campus were hit very hard. A grove of red pines between the Duck Pond (now known as Swan Lake) and Storrs Hall, and another pine grove just north of Mirror Lake. Even some very large white oak trees were felled by the storm.

“With 14 inches of rain in the days just before the hurricane, these trees just blew down,” Longley said.

Combined, Everett and Longley cataloged 1,762 trees, only a few of which would be saved. A series of photos by Manter shows one uprooted birch tree, located on the front campus, being pulled back into place. And Longley recalled that some blue spruce trees near Koons Hall were pulled upright. But most of the trees were total losses. An oak honoring alumni and students killed during World War I was destroyed. At the Valentine Grove, an area that included many oaks and in which early commencements were held, 116 trees were demolished.

There was no loss of life at the college, and no severe injuries recorded (throughout the Northeast, however, hundreds lost their lives and thousands were injured). But there was quite a bit of damage to facilities: the estimated cost in 1938 dollars for damage to dormitories, barns, and other property, excluding trees, was put at $87,065. Including the trees, the loss was later said to be nearly $250,000.

The Connecticut Campus reported that years of research in the Animal Diseases Laboratory was lost: 300 chickens were killed, and 600 to 800 suffered from exposure. Eleven wooden research structures used by the laboratory were destroyed.

Albert Moss, a professor of forestry, later noted that he had found salt spray from Long Island Sound as far inland as 45 miles, damaging a large number of trees.

A short item in the Connecticut Campus gives a chilling glimpse of the strength of the storm. It noted that slate, which “hurtled from roofs like machine gun bullets, is being withdrawn from walls.” Those walls were made of brick.

Yet despite all the damage, the loss of electricity and telephones, and hundreds of trees down, classes for the Connecticut State College student body of 1,050 began as scheduled at 8 a.m., on Friday, Sept. 23.

Adapted from two articles in the UConn Advance newspaper, dated Sept. 21 and Sept. 28, 1998.

Sources: Issues of the Connecticut Campus, Sept.-Dec., 1938; special editions of The Hartford Courant and The Hartford Times, October 1938; Jerauld Manter photograph collection for the Hurricane of 1938. “Trees Destroyed by Hurricane, Connecticut State College Campus, September 21, 1938,” by Barbara Everett and Rodman Longley. All these materials are in the Archives & Special Collections of the University Library.

Bruce Stave’s history of the University through 2006, Red Brick in the Land of Steady Habits, notes that in September 1985 another hurricane, Hurricane Gloria, “swept the campus and caused an unprecedented closing.”