CHICOPEE, Mass. (WWLP) – In 1938 a category three hurricane hit the Eastern States Exposition fairgrounds and brought a lasting impact to what we see and don’t see at the Big E today.
Rita Moore from Agawam was 12-years-old when the hurricane hit.
“It poured. It just didn’t seem to ever want to stop for a while,” said Moore.
The Great New England Hurricane of 1938 blew through Long Island, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts on September 21, killing 700 people, bringing 50 foot waves, and maximum wind gusts of 186 miles per hour.
The storm hit the Eastern Exposition fairgrounds in West Springfield while the fair was underway. The hurricane came immediately after a separate, but very rainy storm system.
The two storms combined to bring 10-15 inches of rain into the Pioneer Valley.
Rita Moore is 90 years old now. she remembers flood waters almost to the roof of the better living center.
“I remember the youngsters coming from Agawams’ Ag. department to The Big E to help bring the cattle out of the water and they were running up over our old bridge and the water was lapping over the bridge,” said Moore.
The flooding destroyed the old grandstand which was behind the coliseum. The Ferris Wheel was toppled over and the water got into Storrowton Village.
Dennis Picard is the director of storrowton village and museum.
“Antique flooring that had been brought here had to be replaced so we had to re restore restored buildings to get them to what they look like today. We lost a lot of papers and books. Nowadays we have ways to preserve antique pieces like that, but back in the 30s they didn’t have the scientific techniques that we have today so we lost a lot of the ephemera as well as the infrastructure,” said Picard.
At the time the Maine and Massachusetts buildings were the only state buildings at the fairgrounds, while the Connecticut building was being built at the time.
The flooding hit the fairgrounds with such devastating power because there was little flood prevention measures in place. The high waters of the Westfield river poured into the Connecticut River and that water then backed up into surrounding communities like West Springfield.
Flooding in 1936 and from the hurricane in 1938 prompted the army corps of engineers to build a flood prevention levee system in West Springfield, Springfield, Chicopee, Holyoke and Northampton. A levee is an embankment. The levee system wasn’t complete around the eastern states exposition fairgrounds until the early 1940s.
The levees in place now are 16 feet high are are built to prevent river flooding 50% higher than the highest river levels ever recorded in this area.