Fall arrived on Long Island this weekend carrying with it bright sunshine and comfortable temperatures -- ideal conditions for the start of autumn golf season. Eighty years ago this weekend, however, in the first days of the new fall season, Long Islanders on the East End ventured outside not to play golf, but to survey the damage left behind by one of the most vicious storms in local history.
On September 21, 1938, a storm so fast-moving that it would come to be known as the "Long Island Express" crashed ashore near Bellport as a category 3 hurricane. Its uncommon speed left Long Island unprepared, weather forecasters flummoxed and areas east of the storm's eye in ruins. In the days that followed, East End residents picked up the pieces of homes and businesses and first witnessed a newly changed landscape, as the Island's south shore geography changed in a flash.
The Express took its toll on the Long Island golf landscape as well, already struggling through the turmoil of the Depression era. The Maidstone Club in East Hampton was "battered to pieces," wrote the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, with remnants of the club's cabanas strewn across the beach amid other damage. The club's 36-hole layout, feared lost at first, was reduced to its current 27 due to storm damage. A source described the state of the course for the Daily Eagle in the storm's aftermath:
The worst damage was done on the ninth. There the wind tore through the big protective dunes, swept away the tee and carried on through the tenth. The ninth fairway is under about three feet of water. The 15th tee is gone and, freakishly, the waters knifed off the back of the 14th green. Plenty of mud lies on the 17th, while the holes across the pond, the third and 16th, got a severe salt bath. Both bridges were tossed almost across the road.
Westhampton, just east of the storm's landfall, was leveled by the storm. More than two dozen people were killed in Westhampton alone. At the Westhampton Country Club, the clubhouse was temporarily repurposed as a morgue. On the course itself, debris littered the fairways, and a boat thrown ashore by the storm was left with its anchor resting in a bunker.
Just to the east in Quogue, two bridges connecting the beach to the mainland were destroyed. The Quogue Field Club itself was spared in the short term, but the rerouting of an access road through the heart of the course to a new beach bridge eventually caused the club to downsize from 18 holes to nine.
Montauk Downs, like the rest of the Montauk area, was stranded at sea as the Atlantic surged over land and reached Napeague Bay, temporarily turning Montauk into an island.
Meanwhile, to the west, many of the Island's courses were spared lasting damage from what the Daily Eagle described as, at least in some areas, merely "one big rain." The Lido Club suffered $100,000 in damage along the shoreline. Stately trees fell at Rockville Links, Hempstead, Garden City and Wheatley Hills. Fresh Meadow (then in Queens) flooded and lost several trees, though Ralph Trost of the Daily Eagle viewed it as a positive.
"Two were meant to go," Trost wrote. "They always cast too much shadow on the 14th green. But until the wind did the job, no one had the heart to cut 'em down."
[Photos courtesy of East Hampton Library and Westhampton Beach Historical Society.]