Perhaps 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.
Back 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.”
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.
There 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:
“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.”
• 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.”
• 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 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.