How a Deadly 1938 Hurricane Gave New England Its Fall Colors

Fall in New England didn't always look like this. . Michael Warwick/Shutterstock

I'm a New Englander, born and raised. We love our fall foliage, and even those of us who have witnessed it for decades look in awe as the trees change colors, especially during peak season. I get excited each time I notice that local roads and highways are ablaze with red, orange and yellow trees, and I can't imagine autumn in New England any other way.

But it turns out New England's tourism-drawing fall scenery wasn't always so vibrant, and today's gorgeous eye candy is the result of one of history's deadliest hurricanes: the Great New England Hurricane of 1938.

Today's history lesson comes courtesy of Vermont resident Stephen Long, author of "Thirty-Eight: The Hurricane That Transformed New England."

Around Sept. 21, 1938, a Category 3 hurricane formed off the coast of Africa and headed to Florida. Without warning, it turned up the U.S. coast and instead came ashore in Long Island, New York. The hurricane passed through Southern Connecticut and up through Massachusetts and Vermont, according to Long in his essay for Smithsonian. More than 600 people were killed, especially in coastal communities that were were destroyed by storm surge.

The storm's 100-mile-per-hour winds extended inland to Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine, destroying roads, bridges, dams, railroad tracks and buildings. The infrastructure damage was extensive, and the damage to nature was similarly memorable. Nearly 1,000 square miles of forest were uprooted, with "holes in the tree canopy ranging from the size of a city yard to as large as 90 acres," Long writes.

A postcard shows flooding after the hurricane of 1938.
A postcard shows flooding after the hurricane of 1938. Unknown [public domain]/Wikimedia Commons

Salvaging timber, regrowing the woods

Much of the forest at the time consisted of white pine, which rural families would cut and sell when they needed money. Roughly 90% of the destroyed trees were white pine.

Long says that this is where the federal government stepped in. The U.S. Forest Service ordered that downed trees be stripped of branches and needles to cut down on wildfire danger. Then, the government created an organization to purchase timber that had fallen and been salvaged from residents, as wood to rebuild was in short supply. This helped families replace some of their lost income.

As the forest grew, deciduous hardwood trees — think oak, maple, birch, dogwood, elms — grew in place of the white pines that had kept them shrouded in darkness on the forest floor. These are the trees that change color in the fall and provide the breathtaking visual effects we see today.