Back in the Day: Rocky Point and the Hurricane of '38

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On the afternoon of Sept. 21, 1938, a nightmare rolled up onto the East Coast while everyone was still awake.

Tidal waves over 30 feet high and wind gusts reaching over 150 miles an hour tore through Rhode Island and surrounding states with a fury unlike anything anyone had ever seen.

Boats were flipped upside down, houses ripped from their foundations and carried great distances before being dropped back down as piles of splinters. Steeples were blown from churches and trees completely uprooted. The Northeast shoreline was being erratically altered and many towns quickly became submerged in several feet of water. By nightfall, hundreds of people were dead.

One of the areas most heavily damaged by the Hurricane of 1938 was Rocky Point Park. Destructive winds and waves wiped out the midway, destroyed the majority of the park’s standing structures, and left the grounds where so many had made happy memories an unrecognizable wasteland. The Wildcat ride was demolished, along with the Flying Turn. Other rides were reduced to heaps of fragmented metal. Even the Shore Dinner Hall had become a victim of Mother Nature’s wrath.

Recently discovered in a box at a Connecticut flea market was a letter written by a woman named Marjorie Nordyke on Sept. 22, 1938. Twenty-six-year-old Marjorie and her husband, Theodore, lived at 11 Spruce St. in Apponaug, and she was describing to her father, who lived in Boston, the destruction around her in the wake of the storm. The letter was postmarked Sept. 27 and was carried to her father in Massachusetts via airmail:

Dear Dad, Just a note to let you know we are all OK! Talk about your hurricanes! It was all very exciting. First of all, I got Aunt Eva and Uncle C. on Tuesday and had to drive all over New England trying to get back here on account of the high water.Arrived here at 7:30 Tuesday night. Then yesterday it kept getting worse and at three the storm really hit and kept up til last night. We have no lights, gas and last night had no water.Our dining room window blew out, the chimney blew down, the garage doors off and all the trees in the neighborhood blew down. Those big pines on the corner just folded right up.Buttonwoods will never be the same. The waterfront drive was wiped out, road and all. And they say Rocky Point is done for.Providence and Oakland Beach are under martial law and everything is in a dither.No bread left in stores so we bought crackers. Some excitement on a vacation for Aunt Eva and Uncle C.No trains through since yesterday as the road is washed out below here so any mail that goes, goes by air.All is well and hope it’s the same there. Am dropping a line to W. too. Love and kisses, Marjorie and Ted.

The damage to Rocky Point was so severe, the park closed down and the lease given up. It was leased and opened briefly in 1940 – and then, a few years later, completely renovated. The Shore Dinner Hall was rebuilt on concrete piers to protect it from any such catastrophic event ever doing such damage again. There the hall stood – until 1954s Hurricane Carol wiped it, and the park, into oblivion again.

Kelly Sullivan is a Rhode Island columnist, lecturer and author.

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