' Skip To Content
The Hurricane of '38 | Article

Arthur Small

Captain Arthur A. Small had kept the lighthouse on Palmer's Island near New Bedford since 1919. In 1938, he and his wife Mabel lived in a small white house on the island.

Arthur Small's lighthouse

Arthur Small: Whenever they say anything about a lighthouse keeper, they always act as if he were some kind of hero. We're not heroes. Here I am on this island, perfectly safe, working and painting pictures, while you wander around in New Bedford, crossing streets with automobiles and trolley cars whizzing by, just missing you by a few feet. Why, you people take more chances in a week than I do in ten years.

On September 21, 1938, the day of the great hurricane, Arthur and Mabel Small were the only ones on the island. Recognizing a storm, Captain Small sent his wife to the oil house at the highest point on the island — already flooded 3 feet deep. Leaving her there, he made his way to the lighthouse, injured by debris as he swam.

Mrs. Small went to the boathouse, intending to row out to her husband. He ducked a wave and saw the sea knock over the boathouse and then sweep it away.

Arthur Small: I was hurt and she knew it. Seeing the wave hit the boathouse was about the last thing I remember. I must have been hit by a piece of timber and knocked unconscious. I came to some hours later, but all I remember was that I was in the middle of some wreckage. Then I must have lost my sense again, for I remember nothing more.

Somehow he managed to get himself to the lighthouse and kept the light operating throughout the entire storm. The next morning, seeing that most of the buildings on Palmer's Island were gone, two friends evacuated Captain Small. On the 23rd, he sent a letter to the Superintendent of Lighthouses in Washington, D.C.

Arthur Small: In reporting the destruction of and loss of building and equipment at Palmer Island Light Station, New Bedford, Mass. on September 21st, 1938, the keeper made preparations all during that day, securing everything so far as possible, carrying extra oil and lamp equipment to the tower....

Arthur Small: Keeper swept overboard, but by swimming underwater, made the station again. Mrs. Small, the keeper's wife, was seen by the keeper while he was overboard. She left the oil house where he had told her to stay and evidently she tried to launch a boat to save the keeper, but she was swept away and drowned. ...There is no shelter to be had at the station, except in the top of the tower.

Arthur Small: Keeper remained on duty until properly relieved. The light and fog signal were in good order.

Arthur Small: Keeper removed to St. Luke's Hospital suffering from exhaustion and exposure.

(Signed) Arthur A. Small, keeper. Dictated by Arthur Small, Keeper, recorded by Wesley V. Small, keeper's son.

Harold D. King, Commissioner of the Bureau of Lighthouses, described Small's efforts as "one of the most outstanding cases of loyalty and devotion that has come to the attention of this office."

E.H. Tripp wrote a tribute to Mabel Small that read in part:

Arthur Small: Mrs. Small's forty-eighth birthday came two days after the catastrophe. Mrs. Small was a member of the Fairhaven's Mother's Club, for which she and Captain Small had given talks. Living by and on the sea and knowing full well the might of god's awful elements as well as sunshine on a sandy, rock-strewn isle, the brave wife of a brave man, casting aside all thought of self, nor by wind or tide dismayed, she tried to bring succor to her mate, who struggled in the raging flood.

Arthur Small: We, her friends who weep, may pause and say, "There is no greater love than this — her dear memory to us a treasure will be always."

Among the Smalls' material losses were their life savings, $7,500, which Mabel had on her person, and a personal library of books on ships and the sea.

The Treasury Department granted Captain Small a leave of absence with pay for two years, followed by his retirement on full pension.

The oil house, where Captain Small had brought his wife for safety, and the lighthouse were the only two buildings standing on Palmer's Island after the storm.

Support Provided by: Learn More