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Amherst College > News & Events > Amherst Magazine > Archives > Spring 2005 > The Tempest

The Tempest

The Main Quadrangle
in August 1938,
before the Sept. 21

The quadrangle after
removal of the fallen
trees and before regrading,
October 1938.

Wind and water—two of nature’s most powerful forces—fueled the catastrophic destruction wrought by the hurricane of Sept. 21, 1938.  The strongest storm ever to hit New England and unlike anything the area had previously experienced, it was all the more devastating for being completely unpredicted. Entire coastal communities were erased by 30-foot walls of water pushed up by the wind. The storm roared across the Northeast at a record speed of 50 mph with average winds of 120 mph and gusts up to 186 mph. At least 600 people were killed and more than 60,000 were left homeless; 9,000 homes and buildings were totally destroyed and 2 billion trees were wiped out. The estimated cost at the time was $6.2 million, which is the equivalent of $15 billion today.

In Amherst, the unnamed storm arrived at 3:30 p.m.; the worst was over by 4:30 p.m. But in that hour the hurricane of 1938 forever changed the face of Amherst College, wreaking destruction that remains fresh in the memories of those who experienced it. Buildings shook. The roof of Morrow Dormitory was ripped off. Electric-light poles snapped, and wires tangled. Tree limbs crashed down on cars. More than 140 trees on campus and almost 400 in the wildlife sanctuary were uprooted or destroyed.

Everywhere power was lost. Mail and telegraph services were crippled; the roads were clogged with storm-felled trees. The town and the college were cut off, isolated, for days after the hurricane passed.

What did the college community see when they woke on Sept. 22? Widespread scenes of devastation. The stately trees on the Main Quadrangle were wiped out; the College Grove—the site of the traditional Commencement Grove Exercises on the east side of Johnson Chapel—was destroyed. The beloved avenue of maples between Johnson Chapel and Stearns Church was flattened.

Landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted could not have foreseen such devastation when he wrote to the college trustees in 1925 that though the central campus had a somewhat bulging shape, the “sentiment and tradition” attached to the trees should prohibit any thought of “denuding and reshaping” the area “unless some calamity should destroy the trees in one fell swoop.” 

But as it has on many occasions, the college turned a calamity into an opportunity. The entire community—townspeople and the college, those on campus and alumni from afar—rallied and immediately began the work of cleaning and restoring the campus. There were so many requests from alumni who wanted to be part of the rebuilding that President Stanley King (1903) created a special Alumni Council committee just to receive support for the enterprise. It was the Amherst community that created the college in 1821, and it was the extended Amherst community that put it back together, starting Sept. 22, 1938. 

—Daria D’Arienzo
Head of Archives and Special Collections

See a gallery of hurricane photos and a contemporary poem about the storm.

Photos: Lincoln Barnes