Rob Burbank's Outdoors with the AMC: Hurricane of '38 was more than 'overdeveloped breeze'
When the big blow that came to be known as the Hurricane of 1938 tore through the White Mountains, Bob Ohler, hut master at the Appalachian Mountain Club's Madison Spring Hut, reportedly didn't think it much out of the ordinary.
"On Sept. 21, the hut rocked quite a bit . and the steel sash windows bent in about an inch and a half with the big gusts, but Bob still thought it was an overdeveloped breeze," wrote AMC Trail Supervisor John Hutton in the 1938-1939 edition of "Appalachia," AMC's journal of mountaineering and conservation.
Last month marked the 75th anniversary of the ferocious storm that wreaked havoc across New England, particularly in coastal areas.
Hutton related that damage from the hurricane was reported throughout the White Mountains. Though some areas received relatively little disruption, others were scenes of destruction.
AMC's huts came through the storm well, but miles and miles of trails were obliterated by uprooted trees.
Perhaps Ohler was accustomed to fierce winds and wild weather, given his station as a high-mountain hut master. According to Hutton, it wasn't until the hutman attempted to descend the next day that he realized the effects of the storm. Equipped with an ax, Ohler headed down the trail. "Nightfall found him three quarters of a mile down the trail, an entire day spent chopping through the blowdowns," Hutton wrote.
According to the writer, the U.S. Forest Service estimated the hurricane knocked down 175 million board feet of saleable timber. About 50 million board feet were deemed unrecoverable, but woodsmen were kept busy for quite some time cutting and hauling trees out of the forest.
Trail workers were kept busy, too. Picture it: "The Greenleaf Trail was completely obliterated by fallen trees and more than half a dozen slides .
"From Guyot to Zealand Falls, the trail is a tangle of blowdowns. The A-Z Trail is impassable, and the stands of virgin spruce on the Crawford side of the height-of-land between Mt. Field and Mt. Tom have been demolished .
"In the Crawford Notch region and in the watershed of Nancy Brook, a tragedy of forest history has taken place. Several million board feet of virgin softwood, including one of the few remaining big stands of old forest in the mountains, are gone .
"The Air Line, the Castle Trail and various trails on the north and west sides of the Mt. Washington Range were badly hurt. So was the upper part of the Valley Way, which will have to be relocated because of the tangle and washouts on the upper mile and a half," wrote Hutton.
Yet, other areas were hardly touched. Pinkham Notch, for instance, was "near the edge of the wind path" and "suffered in spots only," Hutton related.
The trail supervisor expressed great concern when he surveyed various scenes following the storm. "My first impression upon viewing the bewildering devastation was the feeling that I was observing a destruction that was irreparable," he wrote.
But trail crews set to work and accomplished a great deal in a short time. "By working the clock to shame," wrote Hutton in a subsequent report in "Appalachia," "the crew punched a hole through along the Appalachian Trail from Franconia Notch to Gorham by the first week in July (1939). This rate of trail clearance exceeded our expectations.
Following this job, the crew attacked the more popular trails. By the middle of July, the Franconia Ridge and feeder trails had all been cleared, although several trails remained closed to the public because of the fire hazard." With so many dying softwood trees and dry conditions, the increased potential for forest fires was a persistent concern.
Wrapping up the 1939 report, Hutton wrote, "Looking back over the summer's work, we can happily feel that the hurricane has been beaten. Practically every trail is ready for use in 1940 . The mountain climber will find the peaks and trails as challenging as ever, and his interest and enthusiasm will be fired by broader panoramas now thrown open."
The journal "Appalachia" is a treasure trove of accounts of hiking and climbing in the White Mountains and around the world. An index to all articles published in the journal from 1876 to the present, as well as subscription information, can be accessed via the library and archives and publications tabs, respectively, at outdoors.org.
Rob Burbank is the director of media and public affairs for the Appalachian Mountain Club in Pinkham Notch. His column, "Outdoors with the AMC," appears monthly in the New Hampshire Sunday News.