The Great Eastern Shore Deep Freeze in the Winter of 1976-77

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  • Eastern Shore Secrets: Winter of 1977 at the Chesapeake Bay Bridge on Maryland's Eastern Shore

The Great Eastern Shore Deep Freeze in the Winter of 1976-77

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Eastern Shore Road TripsPerhaps the deepest of all Eastern Shore deep freezes set in before Christmas, 1976, and it didn’t let up until well into February, 1977, two full bone-chilling months. Back then, only older folks on the Shore could remember anything like it—and those memories went clear back to 1918.

In order to top the Eastern Shore deep freeze of 1976/77, you pretty much have have to go back to the winter George Washington and his men spent at Valley Forge. On its website nowadays, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency’s history of Maryland weather rates 1976/77 the “coldest winter on the East Coast since maybe the founding of the Republic.”

By Christmas Day, 1976, the ice had already started inching out from creeks and rivers and into the Bay. As you can see from the photo up top here, the expanse that ice soon covered reached proportions that seem unfathomable to many of us living on the Eastern Shore today. Some of the scenes in old photos have an almost magical quality of winter wonderland, don’t they?

In St. Michaels, the hardy Miles River yacht-racing crowd got busy with hastily planned ice races. In Chestertown, Ken Noble recalled for the Beautiful Swimmers blog of the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum a day when he and a friend “skated from High Street  to Quaker Neck Landing and back—about 13 miles down the river. We could very well have skated to Baltimore!”

The Shore did not shiver alone that winter. During this bone-chilling stretch, 49 East Coast cities recorded record low temperatures. Snow fell in the Miami area for the only time in recorded history. Incredibly, the same thing happened on Grand Bahama Island.

Meteorologists at the time confessed to being a bit mystified. Some attributed the freeze to a strange and way out of place stretch of high pressure up over the Mississippi River Valley, which in turn forced to the south a cold front that in any sort of normal situation would have stay farther to the north by hundreds of miles.

Kids having fun on the Chesapeake Bay ice during the Eastern Shore deep freeze of 1977/78 in MarylandBack on the Eastern Shore, shipping in the Bay slowed to all but a standstill. Two barges with 1 million gallons of heating fuel got stuck, one at the mouth of the Wicomico and the other at the mouth of the Nanticoke. Government officials issued dire warnings about the need for rationing home heating fuel. Those fears never came to fruition, but it was the first time anyone on the Eastern Shore had even thought about fuel rationing since World War II.

President Jimmy Carter declared a state of emergency for the area in a nationally televised address in which he famously wore a casual-looking sweater while urging everyday Americans to turn down their thermostats.

The freeze left Smith Islanders out of touch with civilization for nine long weeks. (They did catch a bit of a break when, on orders from Governor Marvin Mandel, the state had some essentials flown in by helicopter.)

“It seems like each generation of watermen has a benchmark winter that stands out to them,” said Captain Eddie Somers, a native Smith Islander. “For my dad, it was 1936. For my grandfather, it was sometime in the teens. For me, it was 1977. That was the worst ice I’ve seen. No one was working.”

"Floebergs" of ice on the Chesapeake Bay during the Eastern Shore deep freeze in the winter of 1977/78 in Maryland

An aerial view of “floebergs” on the Bay.

Watermen up and down the Shore found themselves in the same bind. With many hundreds of workboats idled, seafood processing houses had to shut down for lack of oysters. Thousands of people flocked to unemployment offices in search of temporary benefits. Oyster prices soared to the then-unprecedented price of $10 a bushel.

But watermen are a resourceful breed, of course. Soon, some of them started operating in the manner of Eskimos, or Minnesota fishermen. They hauled out chain saws to cut holes in the ice and commenced hand tonging. In order get their catch to shore, they had to buy up just about every sled in stock at stores all over the Shore.

Sharps Island Lighthouse off of Tilghman Island tilted over during Eastern Shore deep freeze in the winter of 1977/78 in MarylandThere is one place where even today you can get a first-hand look at the impact of the big freeze. The reason why Sharps Island Light off of Tilghman Island ranks today as our own Eastern Shore Leaning Tower of Pisa is that the combination of tides and ice tilted the whole lighthouse by 15 degrees. Folks back then were sure is was going to fall over before the Eastern Shore deep freeze came to a close.

After the thaw, experts replaced the old glass lens with a new plastic one that they mounted on a leveling plate to compensate for the strange angle.

Today, Jessie Marsh is an education expert with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. Back then he was a 12-year-old boy Smith Island. A few years ago, he served up this vivid memory in a CBF newsletter:

Ice surrounds Smith Island in the Chesapeake Bay during the Eastern Shore deep freeze in the Maryland winter of 1977/78

Question: In this view from the sky, are you seeing Smith Island, or are you seeing ice? Answer: Yes.

“This one morning we woke up, and there were these giant white walls on the whole west side of the island. The ice on the main part of the Bay had broken up in the wind, and the westerly winds had driven it into the shore. The ice had piled up, and they looked like icebergs, but they were actually ice piles. They were as high as 40 feet tall, walls of ice on the whole west side of the island.”

I posted the photo up top here on the Secrets Facebook page during a cold stretch of the winter of 2014/15. Something like a gazillion people jumped in with memories of their experiences during the great Eastern Shore deep freeze.

Thanks so much to everyone who took the time to do that. Here are some highlights:

• Art Gibb: “Nobody I know believes me wen I tell them the bay froze!”
• Janet Van Horn: “I walked across the bay that year!”
• Tricia Middleton: “As kids we put patio furniture on the ice and pushed each other around.”
• Terry Norville. “OMG I remember this. People were driving cars on the ice.”

• Sue Haddox: “Shhhh, don’t tell my dad, but we did donuts on the ice in Ed’s Mustang on Middle River.”
• Jon Abbott: “I remember the hardship my parents and other watermen families endured that winter.”
Go carting on the Chesapeake Bay during the Eastern Shore deep freeze of 1977/78 in Maryland• Susan Webster: “That was the year the ocean froze at Ocean City. It was eerie standing on the beach and hearing nothing, no waves.”
• Tammy Roberts: “I’m so old I remember that.”
• Lenny Thomas Jr.: That’s the freeze when I was 11 years old. I almost died. It was 30 mph winds. We skated out [such a long way, and] I tried to skate back. I was so cold. I was trying to fall asleep. We stopped at Dobbins Island to warm up. Everything was ice. I wanted to go to sleep. My buddy got home, and somebody rescued us.”
The Chesapeake Bay Bridge in Maryland during the Eastern Shore deep freeze in the winter of 1977/78• Tina Swift: “I remember that we still had to go to school!”
• Joe Stanavich: “Me and Ricky skated from the house on the Bodkin Creek out to the Bay Bridge.”
• Alice McJilton-Fox: “I remember the Wicomico River being frozen solid that year. Coast Guard cutters had to come up and down the river to break up the ice so oil barges could get through. What a noise the ice made when it was breaking up, an erie sound especially during the middle of the night!”
• Scott Saunders: We cut the ice away from the pilings with chainsaws that year. Reaching into the water to pull out the ice chunks was cooooold!!”
• Patti Willis: “I remember watermen were tonging out of the backs of pickup trucks parked on the Chesapeake Bay!”

Do you have winter of 1976/77 memories to share? Feel free to add them in here in the comments below or over on the Secrets Facebook page. I will come back when I can and add them to the main story here.

—Written by Jim Duffy

Here are a few of the resources I used in putting this piece together:

This 1977 article in the Washington Post–and this one, too

This article from the Baltimore Sun

This article from the Salisbury Independent

This article from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation

This post on the Beautiful Swimmers blog of the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum

• The photo here of ice boat racing on the Miles River appeared in this article by Howard Freedlander reminiscing about the winter of 1976/77 in the Talbot Spy, an online newspaper.

This Wikipedia entry.

 

45 Comments

  1. Barbara Baker December 20, 2015 at 10:13 am - Reply

    Feb. 3 1978 my son was born in Salisbury,Md. He developed complications after birth and the hospital had to make a decision. He needed tests to be done quickly and more snow was on the way. They decided to call the Md.State Police for help.The State Police at that time did not keep a helicopter on the Eastern Shore. The only one available was on the western side of the bay. When the chopper landed on the roof of the hospital, it made a lovely sight of snow falling all around. It was not a lovely sight for me.They came with a warm incubator, a doctor and a nurse and away they went with my 2 day old son to Baltimore. It snowed for the next day and a half. He stayed up there for a week. Coast Guard ice breakers were coming up the Chesapeake when we went to Baltimore to bring him home.My son is now a fine young man. I will always be thankful for the Md.State Police that day and I will never forget the sight of the bay being frozen over.

  2. Holly Hagelin December 20, 2015 at 11:00 am - Reply

    One thing I remember; that duck/goose blinds were lifted off their pilings – which also were pulled up and out and as the ice shifted with the tides, were demolished. Lots of piers were also lifted up to several feet above their height and has to be rebuilt the next summer.

  3. Charles December 20, 2015 at 11:18 am - Reply

    I was only a couple of years old and don’t remember it, but not long ago my parents were talking about this. My father remembers there not being any open water due to the ice, and there being all kinds of waterfowl in the field behind our house. I am talking about canvasbacks, redheads, blue bills, and other diving ducks that never leave the deep water. I would have loved to have seen that.

  4. Joe Gillin December 20, 2015 at 1:09 pm - Reply

    Not to be a nit-picker, but some of the dates in the media links (e.g. the January 14, 1977 dateline on the Washington Post article) confirm my personal memory that the super frigid winter on the East Coast was actually 1976-77. The following winter, 1977-78 was not quite as cold but was very snowy, which also would have caused hardships for many people. I think memories of these two harsh winters are blurring together.

    • Secrets of the Eastern Shore December 20, 2015 at 2:53 pm - Reply

      Joe, thank you so much! That was just a careless mistake on my part. It has now been corrected. You can go ahead and “nitpick” anytime on this page … 🙂
      Thanks a million, Jim

  5. Rick Carey December 20, 2015 at 2:47 pm - Reply

    I remember the snowstorm that February. We got socked in and couldn’t get out until a guy across the road came through in a huge front-end loader. My daughter was born 9 months later.

  6. Rick Carey December 20, 2015 at 2:49 pm - Reply

    The statement that that year’s snow was the first recorded snow in Miami is false. I had a landlord in 1976 who went to Miami and had a car accident while there due to snow.

    • Secrets of the Eastern Shore December 20, 2015 at 2:59 pm - Reply

      Hi Rick Cary, I made an initial error here, calling this the winter of 1977-78 when I meant the winter of 1976-77. It has since been corrected. Thanks for pointing it out!

  7. Michael Roark December 20, 2015 at 3:24 pm - Reply

    I remember it quite vividly. I arrived for my first stint at St. Francis de Sales Church on Oct. 4, 1976, from Wilmington, having been told that Salisbury was unimaginably far south and the weather there so much better. Disappointment set in as morning after morning I undertook the block-long trek from the rectory to the church with no amount of bundling up able to resist the icy winds coming off the icy river. Toward the end of the adventure I went over to Ocean City and was duly astounded by ice floes many feet high piled on the beach. Every subsequent winter of that stay, 1976-80, and the next, 1999-2007, represented a vast improvement.

  8. E. Marcus Thomas December 20, 2015 at 10:15 pm - Reply

    I remember this time also . We ice skated every day after school. If you skated with the wnd you could go long and far. Therefore you had to be careful not to skate too far . I remember skating to far and making it home long after dark half frozen and exhaused from fighting the wind and cold to get home. Then there was also handtonging threw the ice. What times they were.

  9. Chuck Stoddart December 21, 2015 at 12:12 am - Reply

    I have many pictures I will share from Lewes, Delaware. WHAT A WINTER!!! I was age 12 in ’77 and made a fortune shoveling driveways including sidewalks for $10 for both. Nowadays kids wouldn’t do it for $100 for both because XBOX is much more important!

    CHUCK STODDART

  10. Kurt Bailey December 21, 2015 at 2:27 am - Reply

    What I remember is that I left the Shore for California that fall! My first Thamksgiving there was around 80 degrees and people were enjoying their swimming pools. I heard all about it from my Mom and other friends back home..

  11. Michael Lawson December 21, 2015 at 4:51 pm - Reply

    I remember being at Skill Johnsons house at rocky point on the moth shore of Oahu. He was showing me the front page of The Dispatch with a frozen ocean and half the pier gone. We were both thankful we missed that one!

  12. Maeve Finn December 22, 2015 at 1:53 am - Reply

    Being 16 at that time , all I have are fond memories of that winter. I lived on the Choptank River . Everything was frozen and white . You would step right off the sea wall onto ice. Your private ice river ! I would wear 2 coats . The second one a no sleeved vest. All you had to do was open it up like you were flashing someone and Bam… you were off ! So fast , you felt as if you were flying. We got so good at this , we learned to use the vest almost as if it were a rudder and could control direction. Of course the dogs would be trying to keep up sliding all over the place ! Then , there was the ice sailing , but with that you needed the use of a vessel and there were only a few available.. What a Winter !!!!

  13. Lynn Heinmuller December 22, 2015 at 1:43 pm - Reply

    I learned to skate on the Miles River that winter.

  14. Mike Landrum December 22, 2015 at 2:15 pm - Reply

    I remember sitting in Steamboat Landing restaurant in Galesville, Md watching a Volkswagen Beetle doing figure 8’s in the middle of the West River.

  15. Al Ulrich December 22, 2015 at 7:47 pm - Reply

    My daughter was born middle of Jan.,1977. I took my brother to the hospital with me, to sit in the car and keep the engine running while I went in to check my wife and new born daughter out of the hospital.

  16. Vernon Shiflett December 23, 2015 at 9:56 am - Reply

    Was in Ocean City with Peg and the Kellys from Westminster and we could actually walk out on the Ocean for about 300/400 yards. Never heard of the Ocean freezing before or since!! It turned out to be one of the funniest weekends of my life. We headed back to South Baltimore in the driving snow and could barely get up Hamburg Street. The poor Kellys still had to get back to Westminster. Remember this weekend well!!

  17. […] The Great Eastern Shore Deep Freeze in the Winter of 1976-77 […]

  18. Shelley Dryden Wagner January 11, 2016 at 7:12 pm - Reply

    I was working at the Crisfield Meatland and remember boxing up the items to go to Smith Island .

  19. Cynthia Sterling February 23, 2016 at 12:28 am - Reply

    I must be the only person to get divorced during this winter. LOL

  20. Bill Davis December 19, 2016 at 8:15 pm - Reply

    The National and international ice boat races were in St. Michaels. The river in New Jersey had a lot of snow on it so they brought them down to St. Michaels, where the ice was reportedly three feet thick. It was smooth as glass. It was a sight to see people from all over the world. There were actually Dutch people with wooden shoes. It was a trip to sail an ice boat at 60 miles an hour, lying flat.

  21. Jamie Justice December 21, 2016 at 10:47 pm - Reply

    My family walked across the Susquehanna River at Wrights landing between Lancaster and York Counties. It was windy and cold and the ice would suddenly make loud booming noises like a cannon. You could see fish frozen in the ice.

  22. Beverly Elliott December 22, 2016 at 1:15 pm - Reply

    My husband to be was tonging on ice on Hambrooks Bay that winter. I was afraid I would lose the groom before the wedding. He survived and we will celebrate 40 years of marriage this February. God is good!

  23. Major December 23, 2016 at 1:07 am - Reply

    I’ve got pics of my old man and his friends seven miles off the esva standing on twenty foot tall pressure ridges during that freeze…

  24. Steve Boone December 23, 2016 at 7:35 am - Reply

    I lived in the DC area then, and the Potomac had 18″ of ice on it. People descended from all over to get near the Tidal Basin so they could skate on the Potomac. Hundreds of people, so many that the Park service was worried.

    I skated down as close to the 14th St. Bridge as I could and as far north as the Key Bridge and crossed over to the Virginia side a few times before stopping to get warm.

    My 22 year old body was excited. My 62 year old body might be a little less so. 😉

  25. Dave Hudgins December 23, 2016 at 4:24 pm - Reply

    I’ve always told my kids about the winters we had on the magothy (& bay), with cars being driven across the river, and I think the bay too…although I do remember the story of one car that broke through the ice while trying to cross the bay near the bay bridge. I always mention how we lived on the ice that winter (76/77) skating every day, working to keep pier pilings from lifting up, and during melt down we would ride mini ice bugs up and down the river. Couple of times we had to break out the 12 ft john boat with the 10 hp johnson, to for an iceberg ride rescue. And then I’d always tell my kids about the monstrous snow storm we had with at least 4ft of snow and snow drifts as high as some 2 story houses. Like someone else said, I think those two winters (76/77-77/78) kinda blurred together, so thanks for clearing that up.
    Now that I’ve seen this article, I’ve got proof to my kids that I wasn’t just bragging.
    Thanks for the great memories!

  26. Gerry Negley December 24, 2016 at 9:45 am - Reply

    I lived in Fenwick Island Delaware. The ocean was frozen out about 600 yards, not smooth ice, but big chucks that would creak as the ocean water pushed on it. The ocean did not actually freeze per se, the ice moved out from the Delaware bay during a thawing spell, floated down along the coast and then refrozen….

    Have not seen anything like that since…… We did have a great time ice skating bayside……

  27. Burton Jamison March 17, 2017 at 11:30 am - Reply

    My friend Bobby Duvall drove a VW from Valentine Creek (Severn River) to the Severn River Bridge and then to the Bay Bridge!!

  28. Angie March 17, 2017 at 11:45 am - Reply

    This is a great article! 🙂

  29. Gwen March 17, 2017 at 1:39 pm - Reply

    I lived outside Rehoboth Beach, stranded in my house w/out electric/heat. The top of the antenna on my red ’76 corvette was all I could see, it was buried by snow. Warmed soup in the fireplace and carried our mattress
    Out in front of the fireplace, but we didn’t get much sleep. Super cold!!

  30. Louise Windsor March 18, 2017 at 12:29 am - Reply

    It was about 13 weeks that the Deal Island Harbor was iced over, so bad that several boats broke apart from the pressure of the ice. I remember National Geographic came down and did a lot of photos, many aerial photos which were published in their magazine. It was a devastating time but so awesomely beautiful too.

  31. Theresa Brown Jones March 18, 2017 at 12:03 pm - Reply

    I remember the hardships that the watermen went through no help with assistance for food or unemployment. Many people fell behind in house payments and were close to foreclosure.My son was born in November of 1976 and we did not go anywhere with him except doctor’s appointments due to the cold.Luckily the any problem was frozen water pipes and our neighbor helped us with water.I also remember the snow storm in the sixties not sure what was the year was when my dad and had to open a window and shovel out to let the dog outside thankfully she was little and he and Mr. Bob Wagner went to Rock Hall to get milk and supplies for the neighborhood at George Myers store the only thing open. This took them almost all day pulling a sled to carry back food.The snow was as high as the telephone lines.

  32. Frances McMahon March 18, 2017 at 6:04 pm - Reply

    The date is wrong. The ocean froze in February 1979. I was living in Century One at 99th Sreet and was five months pregnant with my daughter. I still have the newspaper article which stated that it was the coldest winter in 75 years.

    • Secrets of the Eastern Shore March 18, 2017 at 6:09 pm - Reply

      Thank you, Frances. I believe that both the date in the story and your date are correct–there were two exceedingly cold winters in that decade with lots more freezing than we are used to now. My piece is on the earlier one, and your comment is on the later one, so now we’ve got them both covered!

  33. Marge March 24, 2017 at 4:50 pm - Reply

    I lived in Pasadena Md. then and Lake Waterford froze one of the only times I can remember. We went ice-skating on the lake and my son was like three. He kept screaming mommy I’m cold lets go so we left. All the water around Pasadena was froze, people were walking right across. Boats were frozen where they last stayed. It was crazy, glad I was there to see it.

  34. Susan Moerschel August 30, 2017 at 8:33 pm - Reply

    That winter I was a college junior. On the way home to Severna Park, the Bay Bridge crossing gave a birds eye view of the immense ice mosaic. The ice looked like a patchwork quilt of colors and shapes. My grandmother lived on Stoney Creek (western shore). She had a bubbler installed under the pier to keep water circulating around the pilings. This kept the pilings from rising up with the extreme cold. It worked. Except for the water under the pier, the creek with frozen solid. I only wish I had skated the creek.

  35. Barbara Wheeler Tyler December 21, 2017 at 12:58 pm - Reply

    I was a young teacher on Smith Island that winter. The elementary school had classes from 9-3:30 and the the high school students came in from 4-6 as sort of a study hall thanks to their teachers in Crisfield who sent assignments over by helicopter. The helicopters landed in the school yard several times a day bringing supplies for the stores, medicine, etc. After about the 5th landing I could get through a lesson without all heads turning toward the windows!

  36. Will skinner December 22, 2017 at 11:33 am - Reply

    Lived in Havre de Grace, Md. 1976/77 The Susquehanna river froze over and it was bitter cold but at 16 years of age no problem. Skated from the B&O trussle to the yacht basin and back then up to the quarry. We cut a hole in the ice by the route 40 bridge with an ax to go fishing and caught yellow perch the ice was at least a foot thick. We didn’t trust the center of the river so we stayed on the Harford county side. 1978/79 was snowy with at least a foot of snow in one of the snow falls. Made a lot of money that year shoveling at 10$ a driveway. Had plenty of smoke that winter.

  37. elizabeth sroka December 31, 2017 at 4:34 pm - Reply

    I would like to know who took this photo. I have seen it many times over the years. Was it originally published in the Capitol-Gazette Newspaper. This is definitely a favorite photo. It was taken the winter I married. 1976-77.

    • Secrets of the Eastern Shore December 31, 2017 at 4:48 pm - Reply

      Elizabeth, I believe that this photo was taken by Bob Greiser when he was on staff at the now defunct Washington Star newspaper, though it might have been the now-defunct Baltimore News American too. The picture has since appeared pretty much everywhere, including here …. Later in life, Bob moved to California and continued as a photojournalist out there. He passed away early in 2017. May he rest in peace.

  38. Jon January 12, 2018 at 12:53 am - Reply

    I grew up in Lanham, Md. and remember the frozen Bay very well. My Dad took me to the Bay Bridge and we skated underneath it.
    Quite a phenomenon! I also remember being in Annapolis later that same year when the ice melted and saw many boats being crushed by the melting ice.

  39. MikeMitchell February 21, 2018 at 8:51 pm - Reply

    The Sunday after New Years 2018 we went out 200yrds off Kentisland ice was 10” thick I have pictures to prove it

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