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The Great Flood of 1933 Part 1

Great Flood of 1933
Maryland Geological Survey: Shoreline Change of St. George Island -1858, 1942, 1943, 1958, 1993

The SlackWater Center at St. Mary’s College of Maryland is a consortium of students, faculty, and community members documenting and interpreting the region’s changing landscapes. Oral histories are at the core of the center, which encourages students to explore the region through historical documents, images, literature, and scientific and environmental evidence. Some of this work has been published in the print journal SlackWater, some of which is online and some published here. The work below was first published in spring 1998 in SlackWater Volume I: St. George Island.

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By David Sayre

Introduced by James Ivy

A headline on the front page of the August 25, 1933, edition of The New York Times announces, “Flood Peril Rises: 42 Dead in Storm.” A few pages later, three photographs detail the damage caused by one of the strongest, most destructive hurricanes ever to hit the Atlantic seaboard: from Norfolk, Virginia, there is a picture of the “battered upper deck” of the steamship Madison; from Washington, D.C., there is an aerial view of the derailed Crescent Limited train on the tracks of a bridge that spans the Anacostia River; below these two images is a photo of a group of children swimming in the flooded downtown streets of the nation’s capital.

I describe this picture last because it has stayed with me. The children have witnessed the effects of gale winds and raging waters, yet they wear the expressions of vacationers playing in the surf. David Sayre could have been one of those kids in that picture, save for the fact that he was born and raised on St. George Island instead of in a major city. In another, smaller headline, the Times announced that the storm took the lives of ten Marylanders; the article declares that Ocean City and other Eastern Shore towns, such as Salisbury, suffered the greatest property losses.

David Sayre, born July 14, 1916, on Ball’s Point, St. George Island, tells another story. He tells the story of a small, isolated, waterman’s community literally destroyed by crashing waves and rising waters. As it was for those children in The New York Times picture, the flood meant vacation and excitement for him and his peers; it meant struggle, heartache and loss for his parents and his parents’ parents. He tells the story of hope, cooperation and rebuilding. He tells the story of the great flood in his memoirs he began writing in the early 1980s, a story The New York Times missed because, like the rest of Maryland and the rest of the nation, they had heard neither of the tiny island nor what it endured late in the summer of 1933.

Except for a few editorial changes, Sayre’s memoir is reproduced as he wrote it. Sayre died in 1995.

On August 23, 1933, the Chesapeake Bay area was struck by what is known to be the severest storm of the century on St. George Island, Maryland. We the people on St. George Island speak of it as the Great Flood of 1933. This great storm ravaged the Chesapeake Bay with high winds from the east and southeast, and with extremely high tides. It seems that these high winds from the east and southeast pushed the waters through the capes of the bay and up to the northwestern part of the bay, causing damage far worse than in the southern part.

I personally never before experienced such a great storm, and citizens and past generations that experienced the storm agreed that St. George Island received the worst damage of the century from this storm.

On August 23, 1933, St. George Island was hit by this storm without any warning. The reason for no warning was because we had no communications. No radio, no daily newspaper (the Baltimore Sun only once a week), no telephones. This storm struck without any advance knowledge at seven a.m., with strong flooding tides and strong winds up to sixty miles per hour from the east and then shifting to the southeast.

At this particular time my family owned a large, two-story home on St. George Island on the northeast side of the island, on a small peninsula jutting out into the St. Mary’s River. On this particular morning of the storm, we were eating breakfast in a large family kitchen that was not connected to the main house when a large wave hit the kitchen. We immediately moved to the main house and started eating again. Almost immediately again another wave came inside, broke the flooring under the table, knocking some of the dishes off the table, and by that time the water was well upon the floor. We decided to get out of the house and move to my sister’s house, Rhoda Biscoe, close by. My two brothers and I moved my mother and father to the lea side of the house and got them through the lower window, which was in a calmer area. While we were walking my parents to my sister’s house, the waves were washing at times over our heads. My two sisters were staying with us that day. Their husband’s were captains on the mainland, so we were a family of seven fighting for survival. The island bridge then was washed away.

We had no idea that the storm would get so severe, so we tried to save the chickens that were in the two chicken houses. This was my job. Grabbing the chickens by wings, legs, wherever, I proceeded to get them in another house nearby, slipped in a ditch over my head, lost the chickens, got hung in a barb-wire fence, lost shirt and shoes, and when I looked around, the chicken house was going up the river with chickens flying everywhere. One Rhode Island red rooster was still riding the chicken house. I often wondered what happened to that rooster.

After this, the family tried to settle down and ride it out, but the storm continued to get much worse, winds increasing and tides getting higher. By that time, boats of all kinds were coming by, and then there came two one-story homes floating between us and the home we had left, and clothes could be seen hanging on the hangers in the attic. Then looking at the big house, we saw it move, and big waves hit and the entire thing disintegrated, and everything — house, furniture, clothing — went up the river. We had absolutely nothing left. It seemed it was time to try to leave for higher ground.

I had my mind on my eighteen-foot sailboat, which I had docked at a fairly safe place the evening before. My brother and I managed to get to it by wading almost to our shoulders. The mast and sail were lying in the bottom of the boat. We pumped it out and brought the boat back to my sister’s house, loaded mother, father, two sisters, and other brother, and took off paddling the boat into some partially sheltered area through the woods to the church, one-half mile away. We were about the first to get to the church, but many followed shortly after. The elderly were greatly upset. We, the young ones, didn’t worry. We rather got a kick out of it. One of our greater worries was that we were hungry and had nothing to eat, so my friend and I decided to try to get to the nearby store, about a half-mile away. We followed the road to the store, but at times we could not follow and stepped off the road over our head, swam back to the road, finally got to Walter Wise’s store. Mr. Wise was standing behind the counter on a metal wash tub with his pants rolled up to his thighs. He said, “Where did you boys come from?” We said, “We just came from the church, and all the people there are hungry. Have you got anything to eat in here?” He replied that he had some apple butter and ginger snaps. “Everything else in soaking wet.” Mr. Wise gave us a bunch of ginger snaps and apple butter and he loaned his wash tub so we could float them back, dry. The people were so glad to get what we had brought back. Next day we got some groceries at Thomas’ store on the island and at Swann’s store in Piney Point.

By this time, the storm had abated and the water gone down; the sun was shining, and it was a beautiful day. The St. George Island bridge was gone, but we had transportation back and forth to the mainland by boat.

In Part 2: The day after the storm may have been a beautiful one, but Sayre describes the damage left behind. “The way of life was much different,” he wrote.

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One Response to “The Great Flood of 1933 Part 1”
  1. Peggy Guy says:

    My grandmother, Margaret O’Brien, her 4 children and her brother all walked/swam from their cottage on the Bay in Scotland Beach, Md, to the home of Thomas and Cecilia Ridgell who took them in during same storm of 1933. Much of the cottage had to be rebuilt but it still stands for all of their heirs to enjoy to this day. Margaret and Charles O’Brien from VA purchased it in 1932.

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