Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Hurricane of '38 at Dumpling Rock

Dumpling Rock Light (U.S. Coast Guard photo)
Octave Ponsart became keeper at Dumpling Rock Lighthouse, off Dartmouth, Massachusetts, in 1937, after working as an assistant at Great Point Light on Nantucket. Ponsart’s daughter, Seamond Ponsart Roberts, was born in 1940, while her parents lived on Dumpling Rock.  

The worst hurricane in recorded New England history slammed into the south-facing coast on September 21, 1938. Roberts tells the story of the storm’s devastating impact on Dumpling Rock, as told to her by her parents:

On that gray Wednesday, September 21, 1938, my parents, my sister Bette and my cousin were scheduled to leave the Rock for a long-awaited vacation. It was to be their first vacation since the Depression. 

Octave Ponsart
Assistant Keeper Henry Fontenot’s wife, May, helped Mom to pack and supplied gentle chatter as they were about to row ashore. They had the suitcases in the dory, ready to go, when the wind suddenly rose and the water got really rough. The storm came on quickly. “Just like that!” they would later say with a snap of the fingers.

Dad was not about to launch the dory in that kind of weather. He headed Mom, my sister Bette, and cousin Connie back to the house. Dad and Henry tried to secure the dory, but their efforts were fruitless and the boat was swept seaward. They headed for the oil house and the light tower to secure what they could. 

The task of securing anything soon became impossible. Dad and Henry headed for the keeper’s house as waves began to wash the rocks, flooding the first floor. My father hung onto a doorknob on the front door as he hollered to my mother, sister, and cousin to get upstairs and go to the assistant keeper’s rooms on the lee side of the building. The dog, Rexena, was swimming in the living room. 

Henry pointed seaward, and all he and Dad could see was foggy foam and mountainous combers heading directly for their rocky island. From what they could see, the waves were getting progressively larger. Dad said that even the first ones coming in looked like they would engulf the tower. At that point, they were both sure they would not survive.

Henry said, “Octave, I think we’re going to lose the light.” Dad nodded and they headed upstairs to be with the women and children. There was nowhere else to go. My father had been on lightships, and he said he had never seen such a “quick sea” develop. In quick succession many waves hit, breaking completely over the house and lighthouse.

The keepers had been doing carpentry in one of the bedrooms and had nails and boards ready. They nailed boards over the windows and braced the floors with the biggest spikes they had in the toolbox. The window glass was quickly broken and the whole house was wet inside. Outside, boards were being torn from their nails and the screeching noise was terrible.

Pieces of the roof tore off. The house shuddered with each wave, and the side facing the sea caved in and was leaning. Henry and May talked of lashing themselves to a mattress to try to make it to Round Hill. Dad argued they would never last.

May Fontenot was crying. She told my mother, “I think we are all going to die, but at least I know we have been such good friends. I’m so glad you’re here with me.” My mother cried too, because May was such a sweet person. Mom would tell me this story later and she’d always cry, saying, “That May, she was one of the best friends I ever had.” And she’d add, “We really thought we were going to die. In a few minutes, even.”

My mother, sister, and cousin were in shock, huddled on the bed, wrapped in sheets. My cousin had a massive nosebleed, apparently from fear, and Dad tried to help her. Then there was a noise “like a freight train or what an earthquake must sound like,” as Mom described it. Then came a tremendous long-lasting blast of water and a huge pounding shock with a splintering of wood. Those on the bed were hurled to the floor.

Henry and Dad knew something even more drastic had happened. The water on the first floor was now almost up to the ceiling. They opened the bedroom door and peered around the whirling water to see a bit of sky through the side of the living room and a massive obstruction where just before the ceiling and walls had been.

A huge piece of rock had been torn free by the hurricane waves, lifted up and hurled through the side of the first floor living room. Now it sat there, actually anchoring the house and lighthouse to Dumpling Rock.The rock had opened up a channel through the house, easing the flow of water entering and exiting the building now without too much of an obstruction. Henry and Dad turned back to report this, and May cried and cried.
Seamond at Cuttyhunk

Blow after blow came after that and yet the rock in the living room  held firm. Mom said later when she sang the hymn, Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me, it had a new and much more personal meaning.The six remained upstairs through the dreadful night. When morning came and the waters had receded, they ventured downstairs.

Nothing was left. Nothing except Rexena, who had spent the storm in the linen closet, going to the top shelf as the water rose. This was proven by the dog’s footprints that had been left on each shelf.

The waters that swirled around Dumpling Rock were filled with debris, telephone poles, and pieces of homes and trees. There was seaweed on top of the light tower. The keeper’s quarters were in shambles. There were no clothes or furnishings or anything else left except a few canned goods still in a closet. A pile of canned goods was found a few weeks later, wedged between the rocks below the tide line, as well as one silver spoon inherited from a Cornell grandmother. On shore, Dad’s new car, which had been parked at the boat launch at Round Hill, was gone, probably washed into Buzzards Bay.

Roberts “learned to walk,” she says, “on the very rocks that were nearly a death trap for my parents and my sister in the 1938 hurricane.”