A frozen bay turned into a footpath


Cold: In 1936 rescue mission trundling food and medicine to Smith and Tangier island led to the death of one State Police officer.

Way Back When

January 13, 2001|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Maryland winters can be particularly ferocious or quite benign.

The winter of 1779, which earned the sobriquet of "The Hard Winter," left icebound ships in the Chesapeake Bay loaded with desperately needed supplies for George Washington's Continental Army, shivering in winter quarters at Morristown, N.J.

The coldest winter in the past 100 years was the winter of 1917-1918, which roared into Maryland, dropping three times the normal amount of snow and freezing the entire bay.

Commercial vessels were marooned in Baltimore harbor while people easily crossed from Smith Island to Crisfield on foot.

The ice was so thick that the battleship Ohio was brought in to smash a shipping channel from Hampton Roads to Baltimore, an effort that took 2 1/2 days.

Joseph B. Kelly, a retired newspaperman and Baltimore resident, was born that February. "I recall my mother telling me that it was so cold and the ground so hard that people couldn't be buried and there were stacks of coffins waiting for burial."

The winter of 1934 stands out in Kelly's mind.

"I was a student at Loyola High School on Calvert Street then and I remember seeing in the Sun's Rotogravure section, or what Baltimoreans called the `brown section,' a picture of a car that had crossed the bay. It seemed incredible to me that a car was driven across the bay," he said.

In 1936, the Cheseapeake was once again in the cold and snowy grip of winter, prompting an ill-fated rescue mission to Smith and Tangier islands some said was unnessary: Attempting to take food and medicine to Smith and Tangier islands.

By late January, the upper Chesapeake was completely frozen over and the lower bay mostly frozen over. Watermen improvised an iceboat to come to the aid of the lighthouse keeper at Love Point while ferry service was suspended. The Solarina, a freighter, stuck fast in the ice and leaking, sent out an SOS for help.

Gale winds raked Baltimore, unroofing three homes on Broadway. The Evening Sun reported that "a sheet of ice, 10 inches thick piled three feet high in places, is extending ... below the mouth of the Severn."

As heavy, packed ice continued to sweep down the bay, the U.S. Lighthouse Service evacuated its keepers from nearly 60 lighthouses.

"For the first time in the history of that section of the Eastern Shore motor cycles crossed the Little Annamessex River under their own power yesterday. Two riders intended to try and ride from Crisfield to Smith island," reported The Sun.

Three men walked out over the ice from Love Point as three others set out on foot from Matapeake to visit a British freighter trapped in the ice. While they were talking to the stranded ship's crew, the Annapolis to Matapeake ferry came steaming along and its captain stopped and picked up the hitchhikers.

In early February, J. Millard Tawes, then head of the Crisfield chapter of the America Red Cross and later governor, attempted to get supplies to the 2,000 fishermen and their families on Smith and Tangier islands. Airplanes dropped supplies and a blimp had touched down on Tangier Island.

"The visits of the plane and the blimp also provided some of the residents with their first touch with the outside world in nearly two weeks," reported The Sun.

"A Coast Guard cutter, the Unalaga, was about a mile off Tangier Island today, but was unable to get closer. It was said, however, that the surrounding ice was so thick that islanders could walk out to the boat if they needed medical supplies or emergency aid," said the newspaper.

A ferocious snowstorm on Feb. 7 brought three to six inches of snow in the Baltimore area while temperatures fell to 13 degrees below zero in Lutherville.

Late in the afternoon during the height of the storm, Maj. Enoch B. Garey, head of the Maryland State Police, led a volunteer party of 15 men pulling two sleds containing 2,000 pounds of food and medicine across the ice to the residents of Tangier Island.

While making their way to the Coast Guard cutter Travis, anchored three miles off the island, disaster struck.

State Police Sgt. Wilbert V. Hunter, who volunteered for the mission even though feeling ill, explained that it was his "job" to go. But as swirling snow hampered their progress, Hunter fell through the ice. Rather than return to Crisfield, he urged the party onward.

He later died on the ice of exposure as Garey and several other men struggled on toward the Travis.

"He died at his post like a gentleman. He was our model of a gentleman and officer. We loved this boy," Garey told The Sun.

Gov. Harry W. Nice was "miserably shocked" when told what had happened to the mission that was called the "food party."

Tawes, speaking to reporters, said, "It was about 4:25 p.m. when they left and it was snowing heavily. I didn't think the trip was necessary, because I really didn't think there was actual need there. But they decided to go anyway."

It turned out that Tawes was right, and the trapped islanders had sufficient supplies to ride out the storm.

In an editorial, the Salisbury Times wrote that "the death of Sgt. W.V. Hunter was a needless and outrageous sacrifice."

Nice convened a special board to investigate the death of Hunter; several months later, it exonerated Garey.

"It was not the time for beasts, much less men," a veteran waterman said of Garey's decision to strike out over the windswept ice.

"It is not an indictment of his courage, of his integrity or of his good intentions," said an editorial in The Evening Sun. "But it is an indictment of his judgment and good judgment is fundamental to commanding men. If it is well founded it should be decisive."

"My one consolation is to know that Wilbert was trying to help others in trouble when the end came," said his wife.

It wasn't until the end of February 1936 that winds and tide combined to clear the Chesapeake of ice.

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