Hurricane of 1938: Old Negatives Offer New View Of Storm’s Fury

Never-before-seen photographs from storm damage in Southampton showcase hurricane damage. Images courtesy of The Morris Studio.

The first image shows a damaged house, pieces of wood that once made up the residence scattered about the ground like kindling. A section of the first-floor roof appears to be teetering, threatening to collapse at any moment, while the windmill and converted silo standing to the rear appear to have escaped the ordeal mostly unscathed. The foreground is dominated by flattened phragmites.

The second captures an enormous beachfront home, its third floor storm shutters still in place and whose ground floor appears to have stood in the path of an unyielding and undeniable ocean. Five men are frozen in time as they appear to be simultaneously stabilizing and boarding up the weather-beaten structure.

Both black-and-white photographs—the first of a house near Lake Agawam, and the second of a home along Meadow Lane—were taken in Southampton Village shortly after the Category 3 hurricane, later named “The Long Island Express,” steamrolled the East End on the afternoon of September 21, 1938.

But the common thread between the two does not end there.

Both images were reproduced from old-time glass plate negatives recently uncovered by Neal Thomason, the former owner of the Morris Studio in the village, and his former longtime employee, Mary Godfrey, owner of Mary Godfrey Photography.

Both were most likely taken by George Morris, the founder of the studio that opened in 1892 and was most recently owned by Thomason and his late father, Jim Thomason.

One of the two images on display at the Southampton Historical Museum. Images courtesy of The Morris Studio.

And both were never viewed by the public prior to the August opening of a year-long exhibit, titled “Morris Studio: The Unseen Collection, Photographs of Southampton 1892-1940,” now on display at the Southampton Historical Museum at the Rogers Mansion on Meeting House Lane.

“The one of the house that’s on the beach, that one is a bit softer,” Godfrey says. “But the one of the house near the lake, the resolution is so sharp that it blows my mind. You can see the grain of the wood.”

She estimates that of the roughly 5,000 negatives recently discovered by herself and her former employer, between 30 and 40 of them show damage from the Hurricane of 1938. Though they are still reviewing negatives, Godfrey says most of those capture images of life in eastern Southampton Town in the days immediately following the storm making landfall.

For now, the two aforementioned storm photos are the only ones on display as part of the exhibit that features hundreds of other unique images of the Hamptons taken over a 48-year span. However, the plan is to rotate those prints every few months and, with those opportunities, introduce other never-before-seen photographs, including those showing the damage caused by the hurricane. The next set of storm photos could be unveiled in early 2019, according to Godfrey.

And based on early reviews, the public appears eager to see more of them.

“They love them,” Godfrey says. “People are actually purchasing the prints off the walls.”