Excerpt: “Under Siege”

Trees at Risk explores four centuries of Worcester’s history to tell the story of how our urban forest evolved and is now endangered—who were the players, what were the political forces and cultural values that shaped our urban landscape, how did geographic location and nature impact the planting and care of public trees and green spaces, why it’s been so difficult to protect our trees, and how priorities need to change. The following excerpt about the devastating hurricane of 1938 is taken from the introduction to the sixth chapter, “Under Siege.” 

It had been raining hard since Saturday, so hard that the road to Barre was under five feet of water. Throughout western Worcester County, flooding had cut off rural towns from food supplies and emergency assistance, leaving hundreds of families homeless. But the front-page story in the Worcester Evening Gazette on Wednesday, September 21, 1938, was reassuring: according to chief meteorologist G. Harold Noyes of Boston, the endless rain would finally ease by evening, and the tropical hurricane heading up the Atlantic coast would spare New England and veer out to sea south of Nantucket.

Noyes was wrong. Shortly after the Gazette hit the streets, a devastating hurricane with gusts up to 100 miles per hour smashed into New England, wreaking death and destruction as it tore through Worcester and raged up the border between New Hampshire and Vermont. By the weekend, the New England death toll from the hurricane neared 500, parts of Rhode Island were under martial law and Worcester was struggling to recover from an estimated $5 million in property damage. . . .

“Buildings were partially collapsed,” reported the Gazette, “roofs ripped off, church steeples toppled, store fronts blown out, trees uprooted, chimneys leveled, signs torn down and the streets littered with glass, tree branches and other debris. There were dangling live wires in many sections. Telephone and electric service, affecting lighting and radio went out of commission.”

With Worcester’s trees, the hurricane was ruthless. In just three hours, the storm downed 3,931 street trees and 11,189 trees in city parks and playgrounds—roughly a third of an estimated 50,000 public trees throughout the city. Thousands of others suffered torn and broken limbs. Working day and night, men from the federal Works Progress Administration helped clear homes and pubic buildings of dangerous branches and fallen trees, but the full repairs would take years. Overwhelmed by the arduous task of recovering from the storm’s damage, Parks and Recreation Executive Director Thomas E. Holland had a “breakdown” and took a six-month leave of absence.

For Holland, the Hurricane of ’38 came as a crushing blow after two decades of defending city trees from nature’s fury. First there had been the chestnut blight that claimed all of Worcester’s chestnuts during the 1910s and early 1920s. Then there was the ice storm of 1921 that had sheathed trees in glistening casts for three days, fracturing so many thousands of limbs that it took three years to repair the damage. In the meantime, there were elm leaf beetles, brown tail moths and gypsy moths to contend with, and then in the 1930s, word of a new blight, Dutch Elm disease, which was spreading relentlessly throughout the Northeast, destroying the nation’s most popular shade tree, the graceful American elm. And a hurricane had struck at the worst of possible times, during the Great Depression that had decimated the city’s parks and recreation budget and rendered Worcester dependent on the federal WPA. . . .

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