James Dawson - June 2008

Our Capricious Weather
James Dawson

   Everybody talks about the weather, so let’s talk about our weather. Here in Maryland, midway between the equator and the North Pole, we get a Whitman’s Sampler of almost every kind of weather there is: heat, cold, drought, flood. But we shouldn’t complain; weather-wise (and otherwise) we’ve had it pretty lucky here. The extremes seldom last very long, nor are they as bad as in other parts of the country. Our climate is changeable, though, and it has been said that if you don’t like Eastern Shore weather, just wait a minute and we’ll get something else.
    In 1671, John Ogilby wrote in his New Description of Mary-Land:

   “The Climate is very healthful, and agreeable with English Constitutions...
    In Summer, the heats are equal to those of Spain, but qualifi’d daily about Noon, at that time of the Year, either with some gentle Breezes, or small Showres of Rain. In Winter there is Frost and Snow, and sometimes it is extremely cold, insomuch, that the Rivers and the Northerly part of the Bay of Chesapeack are Frozen, but it seldom lasts long; and some Winters are so warm, that People have gone in half Shirts and Drawers only at Christmas. But in the Spring and Autumn, (viz) in March, April, and May, September, October and November, there is generally most pleasant temperate weather. The Winds there are variable, from the South comes Heat, Gusts, and Thunder; from the North or North-West, cold Weather; and in Winter, Frost and Snow; from the East and South-East, Rain.”

   We’ve had mild weather around Christmas, too. And if we didn’t dress in half Shirts and Drawers, we have worn Short-Sleeve Shirts and Shorts.
    But for contrast, Henry Callister, writing from Oxford in 1741, painted a somewhat less idealized, but just as accurate, view of things. “We are swarming with Bugs, Musketoes, worms of every sort both Land & water, Spiders, Snakes, hornets, wasps, Sea nettles, Ticks, Gnats, Thunder & Lightening, excessive heat, excessive Cold – irregularities in abundance.” We can have all that, too. The recipe for Maryland weather is a mild stew sprinkled with occasional hot spices and ice cubes.
    What follows are highlights of some of our meteorological irregularities. Remember that unusually high tide, or particular snow storm, or the time it rained frogs, but aren’t sure of the date? Hopefully you can find it here.

   Hurricanes and Major Storms: Fortunately Maryland has never had an extremely severe hurricane (knock on wood!). We’ve had some bad ones over the centuries, but there are many more years when we haven’t had any. The first one recorded was off Roanoke, Va., in 1586, which certainly hit Maryland also. It was notable in that it produced hail the size of hen’s eggs.
    The first bad storm with damage specific to Maryland was noted by Henry Norwood in January 1649, which cut many inlets through along the coast, including probably the one at Fenwick, Del. Long before hurricanes were given people’s names, we had the Dreadful Hurry Cane of 1667, which flattened an enormous number of trees both in Md. and Va., the Great Gust of 1724, the Great Rain and Horrible Gale of 1727, and the Great Gale of 1729.
    The storm of October 1743 was tracked up the coast by Ben Franklin, who proved that storms moved. In Oct. 1749, a huge offshore hurricane flooded the Bay. A hurricane in 1769 caused much damage to Bay areas, as did the Independence Hurricane of 1775 and the storm of September 1785, which was called “the most tremendous gale known” in that century.
    And proceeding into the nineteenth century: in 1812, a violent storm off the coast was thought to have prevented a British attack on Worcester Coounty. On September 3, 1821, a hurricane passed directly over Norfolk, Va., causing much damage to the lower Bay areas, as did the “dreadful storm” of June 1825. The Great Hurricane of 1846 caused much destruction, and a southeastwind drove water into the Bay causing much flooding. On August 24-25, 1851, the Appalachicola Storm hit the upper Bay, while the Expedition Hurricane of 1861 struck the lower Bay, causing havoc there.
   Storms play no favorites. Oops, almost forgot the Horrible Gale of ‘54, which was very destructive. The hurricane of September 28-29, 1874, which hit the mouth of the Bay, was the first hurricane ever shown on a weather map. The Centennial Storm of September 1876 had such high winds and rain, tides were 7.9 feet above normal in some areas. Sharps Island was cut in two, and many vessels were lost in the Bay. Then came The Gale of ‘78, followed by the Sea Islands Hurricane of August 1893, which pounded and drowned the lower Bay. Our coast has always been vulnerable.
    Moving into the twentieth century: the September 1903 hurricane was said to have been the worst to hit Ocean City in forty years, and at Old Point Comfort, Va., hundreds of dead birds, stripped of their feathers, fell from the sky. Then in February 1920, a terrific coastal storm battered Ocean City. Tides were 6.5 feet above normal, and an inlet was cut through at Assateague. The hurricane of August 23, 1933 cut the inlet through at Ocean City and effectively opened it up for tourism. This was likely the most profitable storm damage in state history, but it also left thirteen dead.
    In 1954, Maryland was hit by three hurricanes in one year: Carol, Edna and Hazel. These were the days when hurricanes were only given women’s names. Hazel was one of the few hurricanes to plow its way inland almost parallel to the Bay. With winds of over 100 mph, it was one of our most intense storms and caused millions of dollars in damage in the county (and that’s in 1954 dollars).
    In 1960 came Donna, but on March 6-7, 1962, the Storm of the Century was probably the most destructive ever to hit our coast, devastating Ocean City and cutting two inlets through at Assateague. “SEA SWEEPS OVER OCEAN CITY; RESIDENTS FLEE; DAMAGE HIGH. Homes Float Away; Chincoteague Isle Homes Break Up.” [The Evening Sun, Baltimore, March 7, 1962].
    At least three illustrated booklets were published about the disaster. The one by the Eastern Shore Times Press in Berlin, Md., was titled The Tides of March. Agnes drowned eleven people in 1972. And then into more socially enlightened times, when hurricanes were named for men and women, we had Bob in 1985, Gloria in 1988 and in 1992 Danielle made landfall at the mouth of the Bay.
    When the Super Storm came on March 13, 1993, it was an extremely powerful storm like no other, and barometric pressures plunged to the lowest ever recorded for the Bay: 28.51 in Baltimore and 28.34 at the mouth. Thunder snow was observed in Talbot Coounty. That is a rare phenomenon when it thunders and snows at the same time (it probably needs a special name; I propose either a snunderstorm or a thizzard.)
    On September 16, 1999, Hurricane Floyd nearly swamped us with excessive rain, and on September 19, 2003, Hurricane Isabel caused flooding as bad, or worse than the storm of 1933.
    Cold Weather: In 1756 the Bay froze, and certainly not for the first time. The winter of 1779-1780 was so cold that the Bay froze over down to the mouth of the Potomac and ice was so thick that carts and carriages crossed the Bay from Annapolis to Poplar Island. In 1784, Baltimore Harbor was closed until March 19 due to ice. In February 1805 Haddaway’s ferry was trapped in the ice off Poplar Island and passengers walked to shore. In 1852, the Susquehanna River froze so hard that railroad tracks were laid across the ice at Havre de Grace and used for over a month. In February 1881, ice sheared Sharps Island lighthouse from its foundations and carried it five miles with the terrified keepers trapped inside. They later made it safely to shore.
    In February 1899, a severe cold wave hit the state. Temperatures ranged from -4º in Ocean City to -26º in Garrett County and ice was ten inches thick in the Bay. The winter of 1918 was so cold that the battleship Ohio was used as an icebreaker to keep the Bay open for wartime shipping.
    The Bay also froze in 1936 and 1945, and more recently, the winter of 1977 was so severe that ice pushed Sharp’s Island light from the vertical, oysters were tonged from holes cut in the ice and there were ice boat races in St. Michaels on the Miles River.
    The winter of 2003 was said to be the worst to ever hit the state. That said, there have been many more years when the Bay didn’t freeze at all.
    Lighthouses were particularly vulnerable and many suffered ice damage in 1872, 1877, 1879, 1881, 1882, 1884, 1893, 1894, 1899, 1904, 1918, 1935 and 1936.
    The coldest temperature ever recorded in Maryland was -40º in Oakland (Garrett County) on Jan. 13, 1912, and the coldest temperature in Talbot Co. was probably -15º in Feruary. 1899.
    Ice Storms: There are two notable ones. On January 10-11, 1805, St. Michaels was hit by an ice storm that felled many trees. Roads were almost impassible either on foot or by horseback.
    And who can forget the ice storm 189 years and one month later on Feb.ruary 11, 1994 which moved across Southern Maryland to slam into the Eastern Shore like a glacier. St. Michaels and all of Talbot County were hit particularly hard, roads were treacherous, many trees were downed and power was out for a week or more in some places, a problem no one had in 1805.
    Tornados: On November 9, 1926, Maryland’s deadliest tornado hit the small town of La Plata in Charles County causing seventeen deaths. A school house with sixty children inside was carried 50 feet and some children were carried up to 500 feet away. Incredibly, La Plata was devastated by another F4 tornado on April 28, 2002, which caused four deaths. Debris was carried across the Bay and dropped in Talbot and Dorchester Counties.
    Another F4 tornado hit Frostburg (Alleghany County) on June 2, 1998. Locally, in September 1876 a “terrible cyclone” hit Easton and on July 17, 1944, what was said to be a tornado hit Talbot County knocking many trees down in Easton and seriously damaging two buildings in Trappe, where hail was seen three inches in diameter .
    Pollution: On July 6, 2002, smoke from huge forest fires in Quebec was seen and smelled in Talbot County and as far south as Virginia.
    Weird Precipitation: It was said to have rained frogs (or rather tadpoles) in Trappe on September 2, 1928.
    Snow: The famous Blizzard of 1888 paralyzed the East Coast, including Maryland, which was hit by about 10 inches of snow and high winds. The Easton Star Democrat for March 20, 1888 reported: “Last Sunday week in the evening, it burst upon us, and waked things up generally, raining, hailing, blowing, snowing, keeping up the racket, tearing down fences, upsetting telegraph poles, piling up snow banks, destroying life and property, stopping all kinds of travel through Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday... Here the trains that started on the railroad Monday morning failed to reach Clayton [Del.] until Wednesday afternoon...” It was the worst blizzard in memory, but the northeast U.S. got it far worse than we did.
    Much worse here was the Blizzard of 1899, which, after a severe cold wave, dumped up to 21.4 inches of snow on the state. This was said to be the worst snowstorm to hit Easton in the nineteenth century, and one of the worst snowstorms we ever had. Snow fell uninterruptedly for sixty hours straight and Talbot Co. was snowbound for days. The Easton Gazette for February 18, 1899 headlined, “THEY HAD NO FOOD, NO FIRE AND NO MONEY. Distressing Condition of the Poor, Caused by the Cold and Snow Storm, Most Probably Without A Parallel For Intense Severity... Such is the condition of a number of suffering families right here in our midst. If you have an ounce of charitable blood in your veins attend a meeting at 2 o’clock to-day at John Mason’s Furniture Store, to help devise some efficient plan for relief.” The monthly snowfall for Easton that February was 50.3 inches, and for the winter was 65.5 inches. It wasn’t easy to find firewood under all that snow.
    The all-time record was the winter of 1901-1902, when a total of 174.9 inches of snow fell in Deer Park also in Garrett County. That’s 14.5 feet of snow.
    Other significant snows occurred in 1906, when Easton had a winter total for snow of 43.3 inches and January 27, 1922, when the Knickerbocker Storm dumped up to 26.5 inches in parts of the state. The total snow for Easton that winter was 38.7 inches. It was snowy in 1940, but on March 29, 1942 the Palm Sunday Snowstorm dumped 31 inches of snow in Clear Spring in Washington County - a state record for a 24 hour period.
    Other significant snows fell in 1947 and 1954, while February 21, 1958 saw the worst snow since 1942. Talbot County schools were closed for so long that students had to go half days on Saturdays in June to make up the time (this writer has never forgiven the Board of Education for that).
    More big snows on January 30-31, 1966, which was said to have dumped up to 25 inches in Talbot County, then February 6-7, 1978 and February 11, 1983. January 6-7, 1996 was said to be the worst since 1899, but it wasn’t as bad as 2003.
    Records for snowfall were broken in 2003. On February 15-17, 49 inches of snow fell on Keyser’s Ridge (Garrett County) the most snowfall in the state for a single storm. February 19 saw the most snow ever to fall in Baltimore City and the month of   February was the snowiest month in state history, when 81.5 inches fell on Eagle Rock (Garrett County).
    Drought: 1930 was the worst drought in state history. The statewide average for rainfall is 44 inches, in 1930 it was 23.8 inches and Picardy in Alleghany County registered only 17.76 inches of rain; 1869 and 1965 were also dry, but the drought of 2002 was nearly as bad as that of 1930.
    Rain: Maryland holds some impressive records for rainfall. On July 4, 1956, 1.23 inches of rain fell in one minute in Unionville in Worcester County which remains the world’s record for one minute of rainfall.
    On July 26, 1897, 14.75 inches of rain fell in Jewell (Anne Arundel County)- still the state record for one day. In July 1945, 20.35 inches of rain fell in Leonardtown (St. Mary’s County) the state record for one month. In 1948, 72.59 inches of rain fell in Salisbury, the state record for yearly rainfall. On August 12-13, 1955, 8.35 inches of rain fell in Baltimore City, the city record for a 24-hour period. In September 1999, Hurricane Floyd dumped 10 to 14 inches of rain on Talbot County, which may be the record for one storm here. All records were broken in 2003. The statewide average for yearly rain was 62.79 inches. That’s 19 inches above normal.
    Storm Surge and Tides: A huge offshore hurricane on October 19, 1749 caused tides 15 feet above normal in the Bay. 1876 was also bad, and a coastal storm in 1896 inundated the Bay and did much damage. 1909 saw a high tide, and there was flooding in 1920. The August 23, 1933 hurricane inundated Bay areas with tides 8 feet above normal; however, the storm surge from the March 1936 storm was said to have brought worse flooding to the upper Bay than the hurricane of 1933. 1985 also saw flooding.
    2003’s Hurricane Isabel caused a storm surge with tides that equaled that of the 1933 hurricane and the 1936 storm surge. “BAY BRIDGE CLOSED; OFFICIALS ADVISING EVACUATION OF KENT ISLAND... “ [Star Democrat, September 19, 2003]. Parts of Tilghman Island and Oxford were under 6 feet of water. There was much property damage and anyone living a few feet of sea level suddenly had more waterfront than they bargained for.
    Yes, we can have flooding, but due to the flat terrain and good drainage, there is far less flooding here than one might expect.
    Heat: On July 9, 1805, it was 96º in Easton. This is the earliest temperature known for Easton and it was thought to have been the hottest in anyone’s memory. 1880 was the hottest year on record to date, but serious record keeping had only recently begun. The summer of 1918 was blistering, and the heat wave of July- August 1930 was one of the worst on record, but not as hot as July 10, 1936 when it was 109º in Frederick County, while it was 107.4º in Baltimore City; both remain state and city records.
    July 1952 was a scorcher, but not as bad as August 1954, when it was 101º, certainly the highest official temperature in Talbot County. It also hit 101º here in July 1999, and again on August 8, 2007, when meteorologist John Swaine Jr. reported 101º in Royal Oak. Unofficially, it may have been as high as 103º in other parts of the County. The overnight “low” of 82º at Royal Oak for that day was also a county record. The last several decades have seen records for hot weather almost routinely broken.
    Thunderstorms: Thunderstorms are a normal summertime occurrence and usually not much of a problem, but strong ones can also produce hail. Trappe experienced a bad hailstorm in 1918 and one even worse on August 1, 1976, which knocked down many large trees. Hail the size of silver dollars broke windows, shredded corn and killed hundreds of birds, which were found dead on the ground.
    But thunderstorms need not be intense to do damage. On June 6, 2002, a mild thunderstorm felled the 450-year-old Wye Oak, the largest white oak known and the state tree of Maryland. You can still see what’s left of the stump at Wye Oak State Park in Wye Mills.
    Curious Weather Facts: During the March ‘62 Storm of the Century, the famous pony Misty of Chincoteague gave birth to a foal who was appropriately named Stormy.
    On average Maryland is hit by a severe freeze about once a century: 1780, 1899 and 1977. In the last century or so, the Eastern Shore has been hit by a major snowstorm about once a decade.
    Maryland weather can change dramatically from year to year and extremes often go hand in hand here. In 1635, it was reported that “this last winter was the coldest that has been knowne in many yeeres: but the yeere before, there was scarce any signe of Winter, onely that the leaves fell from the trees, in all other things it appeared to be Summer.” And 300 years later, the winters of 1934 and ‘35 were very cold, the summer of 1936 saw record breaking heat, while the winter of 1936 was severely cold.    In 1918, the Bay froze in January, yet that August it was 105º in Baltimore City, then the record. 2002 nearly matched the driest year on record while 2003 was the wettest.
    To sum this all up, if it is not literally true that if you don’t like our weather all you have to do is wait a minute, if you can hang on for a little bit, it will change. We have no shortage of interesting weather to talk about around here.
    If I have missed any of our irregularities, please contact me at unicornbookshop@verizon.net.