Whitney Web Page

Destruction in Southbridge following the Hurricane and Flood of
SEPTEMBER 21, 1938

Main street during the Flooding
Note the steeple on the Universalist Church at the bottom of the hill is in tact above, and gone below!

Main St after the Flooding subsided

Printable pdf from Nov 1947 AO News

AO Park Storm Damage

Cohasse Country Club Damage
Photos above courtesy of  Mindy Earnst-Fournier

This photos below, courtesy of Jacob Edwards Library and the Southbridge Historical Society, shows why Elm Street Church no longer has a pointed steeple!

Article Taken below from
The WELLS Family
Privately Printed in 1979

Photos  below courtesy of Joy Walker

Destruction at AO in the Flood of 1938

 "On Wednesday morning, September 21, 1938, it was still raining. Four consecutive days was getting to be a damned nuisance. Sooner or late he would have to confront it, and if there were anything Channing M. Wells had spent the sixty-eight years of his life learning how to avoid, it was direct confrontation either with circumstance or people.

He was the fine art of compromise, of third-party communication. To his younger brother, Albert, belonged the delight of taking on people and the world in head-to-head battle; to his youngest brother Cheney, belong an overriding passion for precision.

On his way home from the sprawling plant of American Optical Company in the Flats of Southbridge, Massachusetts, last night Channing had noted that the continuing rain had brought water “pretty well up to some of the bridges,” and this morning, it was raining harder. For four days, the rain had deprived him of one of his most valued pleasures, that of sitting in his favorite breakfast chair and enjoying the view from his home on the crest of Fiske Hill in Sturbridge, relishing the peculiar and pervasive charm of the rolling Massachusetts midlands - a charm far more subtle than the boldness of the Berkshires to the west or the restlessness of the sea against the coastline to the east.

Now, however, the view was obscured by the grey monochrome of the driving rain.

There was no real need for him to go to his office each day. Control of American Optical had been turned over to Albert’s son, George, and to a variety of committees which George said were needed to operate the vast international enterprise. But lifelong habit bit deeply and held. During those busy, challenging years when he and Albert and Cheney, at first under their father’s stern hand then on their own, had brought the company to its status of largest of its kind in the world, there had been one uncompromising principle. At no time would all three brothers be absent from the office at the same time.

At the moment, Albert was en route to his home in Rancho Santa Fe, California. Cheney was somewhere in France. So Channing maintained the tradition. Besides, it was that in-between period of the year - too late for his summer home on Cape Cod, too early for his winter haunts at Pinehurst, Palm Springs or Palm Beach. One never knew when the experience and knowledge of the elder generation might be of some use to young George and to his two key associates - Ira Mosher and Charlie Cozzens.

He prepared for his drive to Southbridge - a handsome man of medium build, still “elegant and distinguished” as described from college days.

As was his habit, at half-past eight precisely, he stepped from his door to meet the first of three major confrontations he would encounter that day. For Channing, this was three more than enough.

“I heard the roar of running water in the distance, and I couldn’t explain it, because there are no streams of any size up on the hill, so I naturally drew the conclusion that it must be the Quinebaug (River)...

“I commenced to feel anxious, and as soon as possible I started for town. I immediately found I could not get down the old road to Sturbridge.. So, I left the car in the garage and walked down the hill... and soon saw the most awful sights as far as washout is concerned.”

“Beginning at Cournoyer Corner, things were not too bad, but that was the top of the hill. When I reached the corner of the barway where you go into the Cournoyer pasture, just near my northwest bound, the water was coming out of my mowing in a regular torrent, and from there down the hill there was more of it. Immediately, I found I couldn’t have gone any farther than that point with a car, for from there on the road was completely washed out... just full of tremendous gullys so deep that if you stood at the bottom, your head would not be up even with the top of the road.

“Just tons and tons of gravel and stone were washed down the hill... and when I got down to where they had tarred a piece of road at the bottom... tar and all was gone. There was a great big lake in the meadow and in front of the Halls’ house. One could see that there had been a terrible amount of rainfall during the night which, added to what had fallen the previous few days, was bringing about a very serious condition.

“I went up to the Elms to telephone for someone to come for me, and just then Lester came along. He had been up to Walker Pond, and had to come back around through Sturbridge. So I rode back to Southbridge with him. He told me that there had been very serious damage in Southbridge... that the First Reservoir had gone out, that the Cohasse Dam was expected to go out. As we got down to where we could see the river, just before getting into Globe Village - it was the color of the western rivers - a dirty brown, and way up high. When I got down to the engine house at Globe Village, and could see the height of the water coming over the Globe Dam and running down through the factory and mills and down West Street, I can tell you that I was frightened.”

“Then I went on down, stopping at the Harrington factory, but that dam was behaving beautifully, taking care of everything that came through, with perhaps a foot or two to spare... Then I went on down - the only way to get to the factory was around Crane Street and down North - and then I could see that there had been a huge amount of water come down Central Street, and it had washed out a part of North Street. When I got down there, I saw that it had been running into our factory yard. I saw the American Optical Company’s main plant in the middle of a big lake, with water covering the tops of the basement windows...”

So much for Channing’s first two confrontations: the terrible destruction throughout the town and the unbelievable sight of his factory, sprawled over several acres, sitting in the middle of a dirty brown lake. Nor was Channing the only one who was terrified that day in New England. Virtually every mill or manufacturing town was being systematically demolished by the roaring flood water. And the worst was yet to come.

The cause of it all? A hurricane!

Channing did what he could. Word went out to Albert and Cheney along with a rather wry comment to Albert concerning the absence of top management personnel - an unthinkable oversight when seen in relation to the lifetime habit of the three brothers.

Channing wrote that on his arrival at the factory, he found a conference between those of the executives who were in town. Ira Mosher and George Wells were in New York and Charlie Cozzens was out west.

Albert got the message. President George heard about it later in typical Albert prose: “It is a damn shame, but I have no doubt it was absolutely necessary that you and Ira and Charlie happened to be away from the plant...”

For Channing it was a wearing day. By car and on foot he checked some of the other dams, and learned that the west side of the Globe Dam had been blasted out to save much of the town from total devastation. West Street was nothing but a deep gully. Between trips, he sat in on the continuing emergency conferences at the plant until late afternoon. Then, feeling he had done all he could, he left for home, and ran head-on into his third confrontation - the hurricane itself.

He wrote to Albert about it in his typically understated way, almost as if the entire misfortune had been a personal insult.

“I left the factory about quarter past four Wednesday afternoon, and got up to the hill about quarter of five. As I walked, I felt the wind had increased tremendously. It was impossible to keep an umbrella up, so I cut across the mowing and had considerable difficulty to keep to my feet.

“The branches on some of the trees were commencing to crack off. As I drew near my garden and had to go under some of the big trees, I made it quickly, for fear some of the branches might fall and hit me. Later on some of the trees themselves blew down. I arrived at the house about five, and took time to move some of the wicker chairs around onto the lee side, and then went in.

“By that time, Irene and the girls were busy fastening the windows. Some of the water was driving in despite the weather strips.

“Lester, one time a sailor, asked me if I had looked at my barometer. It had dropped to 27.8. Normal is, as you know, about 30. It was down about as far as it could go.”

Two years before, in 1936, Channing had lived through another flood. But that had been only a warmup for the full-scale disaster of 1938. Obviously, such occurrences could not be tolerated. Something had to be done.

Out of the devastation, perhaps, some good might come. Albert arrived on the scene, and Cheney debarked from his earliest possible sailing from France. For them not to have returned would have been unthinkable. Albert summed up his feelings in a letter to his son George, written on May 5, 1936:

“Closest to my heart is my family, the Wells family. Next to the family comes the American Optical. Nothing else in my life is worth thinking of in comparison, in any way, shape or form. I have given my life to my family... On the first day of next October I will start the 46th year of my connection with our company...” "

Excerpt From Ruth Wells Book on AO and Old Sturbridge Village

St. Mary's Roof damage after the Hurricane / Flood of 1938
Photo courtesty of Stan Regis

Two rare views of Main Street Southbridge, after the 1938 Flood.
the wooden bricks which were uprooted from the Street were subsequently used in the
floor of the AO Frame Plant (now Aearo) which was built in 1943.

Photos courtesy of Stan Regis

Universalist Church at 368 Main St with steeple destroyed

More 1938 Flood Photos - Southbridge

Check out the Universalist Church Then and Now photos :before and after the Steeple collapse in the Hurricance of 1938

More 1938 Flood Photos (AO complex)

AO History Main Page

Southbridge History Page

Flood Page