December 10, 2018

The Great Flood of 1933 Part 2

Flood
Aerial photograph of bridge to St. George Island from Piney Point, MD.

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 Oral histories are at the core of the center, which encourages students to explore the region through historical documents, images, literature, and scientific and environmental evidence.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.

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. The people on St. George Island speak of it as the Great Flood of 1933.

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By David Sayre

By the 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.

I would also like to mention various bits of information related to the Great Flood that may be interesting. I may mention and note that there were two places on the island that the waters did not cover, a narrow strip of land out by the Methodist church running in a northerly direction for about 700 or 800 yards, and then another narrow strip on the Potomac River side of the island, toward the south end of the island. The rest of the island was covered from three to eight feet deep.

During the height of the storm, many boats broke their moorings and were all over the island in marshes, wooded areas, etc. One 45-foot-long Chesapeake Bay canoe stayed tied up on higher ground for about a year, and the captain seemed to be very contented, greeting his friends and playing his fiddle.

As you know, the 1930s were an era of large sailboats, skipjacks, schooners, bugeyes, pungys, sloops, and also some large oyster buy-boats driven by motor, also many Chesapeake Bay smaller canoes, 26 to 35 feet long. During this great storm, several of these large vessels were anchored on the northeast side of St. George Island. They broke their mooring and were washed by the storm on the island, almost all of them in one wooded area. This area is the wall on the Potomac side of St. George Island. In October 1933 the U.S Coast Guard sent a coast guard cutter there; trees were cut down and made into roller skids, and they ran a cable and pulled the boats back to the water.

The people of the island had to deal with other conditions after the storm. Most of the chickens were drowned, and the odor was terrible. The other animals, such as dogs, cats, cattle and hogs, seemed to survive. One house [Richard Thompson’s] washed off its foundations, and the hogs that they had put up on the porch were found after the storm, asleep in bed, I was told. Another incident I actually saw happen: a cow trying to get out of the water, which was almost over its back. My half-sister got the cow buy its ear, and with a little coaxing and a little pull, the cow came up on the porch.

Another condition existed on the island, and I personally looked the entire island over. Mounds of oysters washed up on the land. Some of those mounds were as much as ten- to fifty-feet-long, 10-feet-wide, and five-feet-high. During the warm September that followed, they rotted and the smell was terrific. Crabs were over the entire island in the low-lying areas and ditches. They shedded until late fall, and you dare not step in a ditch. You would be apt to get bitten.

The Red Cross was very good to the island, and the health department helped considerably to clean up the island. One cannot believe the looks of the island after the storm. The way of life was much different. We lost our home. It took quite a lot of contacts and work to get another small home built. I personally slept in a friend’s attic for about six months, and father slept at sister’s home, and brothers slept elsewhere.

I also feel I may relate a short story that may be interesting. The day after the storm was one of the most beautiful days that you ever saw. The wind was very mild. The sun was brighter, and the atmosphere was very clear. I went to my sailboat, put up the mast and sail, and decided to do a little exploring, going north on the east side of St. George Island, deciding to see if I could find some of our furniture. I found four or five broken chairs, one of which we used later, but the greatest shock was a red handbag hanging on a tree limb about two miles up-river. I opened it and looked inside. It was my mother’s bag with 26 cents inside (one quarter and one penny). My mother had put this in the bag three or four days before. This was her insurance money, 26 cents a month (these were the Great Depression days).

The next day I decided to go exploring again, but in another direction. The water was so clear in those days, and sailing in shallow water, it was easy to see the river bottom. While sailing along I sailed over a big bunch of letters. I turned the boat around and came back immediately, took my crab net and bailed these letters up. Guess what? I could hardly believe my eyes; they were love letters. Beautiful love letters that belonged to beautiful young friends of mine. And as a boy would do, I ran my boat to the shore and read a few of these letters. These were really nice letters, nothing to be ashamed of, just lovely and exciting to a young boy. I teased these girls for a day and gave them back to them.

A footnote: [in the 1960s] while oystering, I tonged up the blade of an axe which belonged to the family and hadn’t been seen since the storm of 1933. The handle had long ago rotted and disappeared. I recognized the blade. It was a fireman’s axe with the end of the spear broken in a particular way I recognized. My big brother was the wood splitter in our family. He had a habit when finishing of sticking the blade in the chopping block. Evidently it floated away in the storm, came out of the block and fell to the river bottom on an oyster bar.

A new bridge was started about September 1, 1933, and completed late winter 1934. I personally got a job with the contractor who was building the bridge. I was the second one hired and the youngest. I received twenty-five cents per hour, worked ten hours a day, six days a week, and got paid every two weeks. Gee, I was rich in those days. I didn’t want to quit, but mom made me quit and go back to school about October 15.

This is the end of my true story. I hope any who read it will enjoy it.

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