My god, it was a disaster! Mount Auburn Cemetery lost 811 trees, almost 16 % of their collection!

The Public Garden was ravaged!

Sadly, the Arnold Arboretum lost more than 1500 trees as well—though almost all the mature trees that collapsed were duplicated elsewhere in the collections.

Oh, come on—you didn’t think I was talking about that exaggerated bluster of a Tropical Storm we had in Boston on Sunday, did you? While Hurricane Irene was certainly an awful phenomenon elsewhere, most of Greater Boston just got a bit windy. No, I’m talking about the great Hurricane of 1938, which devastated trees all over New England on September 21 that year. Just to give you an idea of what it was like, here’s a brief excerpt from The Hurricane of 1938 by Aram Goudsouzian and Robert Allison:

“The heavy winds arrived in Boston around 5:00 as people emerged form their offices. Pedestrians grabbed onto streetlamps and each other, shielding their faces from flying gravel. The plate-glass display windows along Tremont and Boylston streets shattered… At the Blue Hill Observatory, just miles from downtown Boston, the windmill anemometer disintegrated after recording a two-minute average wind speed of 83 miles per hour. Another anemometer recorded and average speed of 121 miles per hour over a five-minute span, and it measured a peak gust of 187 miles per hour.”

The Massachusetts Executive Office of Public Safety and Security describes it on their “Hurricanes of Note” page (not “Hurricanes of Tremendous Force,” or “Hurricanes that Will Give You Screaming Nightmares,” or “Hurricanes Demonstrating the Gods’ Unleashed Wrath Against the Unrighteous;” just “of note.”) as well:

“The widespread destruction resulting from this storm included 600 deaths and 1,700 injuries.  Over $400 million in damage occurred, including 9,000 homes and businesses lost and 15,000 damaged.  Damage to the Southern New England fishing fleet was catastrophic, as over 6,000 vessels were either destroyed or severely damaged.”

But that’s not all, plant fans! According to the US Army Corps of Engineers,

“Throughout New York and New England, the wind and water felled 275 million trees…”

The Hurricane of 1938 left a permanent mark on New England’s forests that is still visible today, according to a 2007 study at the Harvard Forest in Petersham, which was particularly hard hit.

The shorter canopy is probably due in part to the extensive timber-salvaging that went on after the hurricane. Folks couldn’t save the forest, but they sure could take out the timber to sell it. Thousands of Harvard Forest trees were removed and submerged in nearby lakes to preserve the timber: as the 2007 study states, “Remaining slash was piled and burned modifying the underlying soil and adding to hurricane effects.” If the most modern possible educational forest owned by Harvard University was doing that, what were owners of private tracts doing to their land?

Trees come and go, as I noted in my post about the 2010 microbursts. In the Hurricane of 1938, a lot of trees went. Be grateful that Irene’s touch was gentle… this time.

Meg Muckenhoupt is the author of Boston’s Gardens & Green Spaces. Follow her on twitter: @megmuck