Through the Storm Blizzard of '22: 'Storm of century'killed father, altered a young Sparrows Point family forever, but in retrospect also made it stronger

January 18, 1996|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN STAFF

The Blizzard of '96 has dissolved into sooty mounds of snow. Our attention has turned to other news: The first lady's troubles, the budget talks, the Super Bowl. And yet, for some, storms like these change life forever.

It happened to the Cooks of Sparrows Point in the storm of the century, the one that dumped a record 24.7 inches of snow here in January 1922, and was everyone's point of comparison as drifts piled up last week.

When Jacqueline Cook Sanders read about the Blizzard of '22 in her morning paper last week, she stumbled across a piece of family history. "Suddenly, it occurred to me this was the blizzard that killed my grandfather," said Mrs. Sanders, 56, of Stoneleigh. As she read on, she turned to her husband and said, "My God, Ronnie, [it] mentions him."

Mrs. Sanders' grandfather, George C. Cook, was killed by a train during the blizzard, apparently the storm's only fatality. A foreman at Bethlehem Steel in Sparrows Point, Mr. Cook ventured out in the height of the storm to help his crew clear a railway switch. The blinding snow hid Mr. Cook from the oncoming Pennsylvania Railroad engine that hit him.

In that instant, the steelworker's wife, Mabel, became a widow at 34. His four children, including Mrs. Sanders' dad Leon, lost a father they hardly knew. And a family's security, tied to the bedrock of steel, vanished in a blinding swirl of snow.

Their father's death would be only the first life-altering event for the Cook children, who would face more tragedy than most families experience. But, in the end, their determination to survive would provide a valuable lesson -- in adversity, there is strength.

Living a stable life

When the storm of the century hit on Jan. 27 and 28, 1922, George and Mabel Cook were living the kind of stable, middle-class life that promised an even brighter future for their children -- Leon, 13, Loretta, 5, Dorothy, 4, and Donald, 2 1/2 .

Mr. Cook had left the hills of West Virginia for a better job in a bustling port city. He found it at Bethlehem Steel. A rail-yard supervisor, Mr. Cook earned $34 a week plus monthly bonuses of $25 to $75, more than twice the national average for the steel industry then. His family lived on F Street in Sparrows Point, in a roomy house the company provided.

A weekend outing back then meant a trolley-car ride to Bayshore Park, a picnic table full of crabs. It was a time when lamplighters set a neighborhood aglow each night and a young boy like Leon Cook could walk to the corner saloon and come home with a bucket of beer for his dad.

Mabel Cook and the children were home, gathered at a window admiring the falling snow, when a railway man arrived with the horrible news of Mr. Cook's death.

As a superintendent, Mr. Cook was responsible for hauling slag away from the big furnaces at the Point. On what would be the last morning of his life, Jan. 28, 1922, he and his crew had orders to rush the slag from the furnaces because of the snowstorm. The night crew had not met its work load.

Mr. Cook and his crew rode into the yard on a Beth Steel engine. The conductor got off the engine, saw the switch covered under a foot of snow, and called for a broom. Mr. Cook jumped down, broom in hand, and walked toward Conductor Daniel Lastor.

Suddenly, Mr. Laster heard a train approaching on an adjacent track. As he looked up, the train blew its whistle and struck Mr. Cook, dragging him to his death.

"Cook had no chance whatsoever to get out of the way," Mr. Lastor said later.

After Mr. Cook's death, a state accident commission ordered Bethlehem Steel to pay his widow $18 a week for slightly more than five years and up to $125 for funeral expenses. Within six months, the struggle to raise her children alone forced Mrs. Cook to return to her family in West Virginia.

They moved to a little house that belonged to Mrs. Cook's in-laws, and the eldest, Leon, who had finished eighth grade, went to work in the sock mills of Martinsburg to help support the family.

In retrospect, it would be the beginning of Leon's struggle to keep the Cooks together.

Tragedy strikes again

Seven and a half years would pass before tragedy struck the family again. Mabel Cook, sickly ever since her return to Martinsburg, died of tuberculosis in October 1929, just as the nation was about to plunge into the Great Depression.

The four Cook children were farmed out to family members. Within the year, though, the three youngest children were sent to an orphanage operated by the Loyal Order of the Moose -- George Cook had been a member -- hundreds of miles away in Illinois. Leon, then 18, stayed behind.

An uncle took Loretta, Dorothy and Donald by train to Mooseheart, about 40 miles west of Chicago. It sounded like a wonderful place, recalled Donald Cook, 76, a retired postal worker known to his wife as George, but to other family members as Donald. He lives now in District Heights, Md.

It turned out to be just that.

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