Hurricane of 1933 shaped Ocean City resort
Ocean City is Maryland’s beach town, a place where the population swells to nearly 400,000 on summer weekends. Tourists stroll the boardwalk or splash in the waves. It’s a place for sun, sand and good times.
People craving a bit of salt air and the feel of sand between their toes have been coming to Ocean City for a long time. The first beach-front cottage was built in 1869. Boarding houses and hotels began to appear along the sandy spit between the sea and Sinepuxent Bay as the popularity of the destination grew. Eventually, a “town” was laid out with 250 lots on the land that was once owned by Englishman Thomas Fenwick, the original settler there. By 1875, the Atlantic Hotel opened with 400 rooms. There wasn’t a boardwalk yet, but there was dancing and billiards to keep the guests entertained when they weren’t at the beach.
The oceanfront resort continued to grow, but it was a vastly different town from the one we know today. It was much smaller, of course, without the high rises and development visible today. But one key difference was that it lacked the outlet to the sea that exists today. The resort was located on one long, sandy spit that stretched from Assateague Island to South Bethany and Fenwick Island, Delaware.
That all changed on August 23, 1933, when the “Chesapeake and Potomac Hurricane” roared into the region. The last really big storm to strike the oceanfront was in 1896.
Not that big storms hadn’t struck before. One of the largest seems to have occurred in 1821, when the region was only sparsely populated. From descriptions of the time, the storm was almost certainly a hurricane. It devastated both Assateague and Chincoteague. Here is one contemporary account:
“In the early morning the terrified inhabitants, looking from their windows facing the ocean, saw an awful sight: the waters had receded toward the southward, and where the Atlantic had rolled the night before, miles of sandbars lay bare to the gloomy light, as the bottom of the Red Sea to the Israelites; then how a dull roar came near and nearer, and suddenly a solid mass of wind and rain and salt spray leaped upon the devoted island with a scream. Great pines bent for a moment, and then, groaning and shrieking, were torn from their centuried growth like wisps of straw and hurled one against another; houses were cut from their foundations and thrown headlong …”
The account goes on to note how one man and his grandson were swept six miles inland by the storm surge, but somehow managed to survive.
The storm of 1933 was almost as furious. At Assateague, waves 20 feet high swept in from the sea and over the dunes.
Ocean City’s sandy spit has an elevation of just 7 feet above sea level, and so the barrier island was no match for the fury of the storm. Waves surged over the spit, deluging the town. The churning fury of the storm also carved an inlet between the sea and Sinepuxent Bay.
According to news accounts, the storm was devastating to other areas all around the Chesapeake Bay and Delmarva Peninsula. Six people died on the Eastern Shore as a result of the storm, many homes damaged beyond repair, and roads were destroyed.
The Eastern Shore News reported the following on September 1st, 1933: “Many families were driven from their homes. Some escaped in boats, others swam to safety while others floated on wreckage until rescued. Homes were flooded by salt water and the damage to furniture and household goods will run into many thousands of dollars. In many homes, windows and doors were battered down by the pounding waves. High winds did tremendous damage, felling trees, deroofing buildings, and destroying crops. Thousands of chickens and many horses, cows, sheep, dogs, and other animals were drowned.”
The storm surge completely covered Deale’s Island and many coffins floated out of their graves. Salisbury in Wicomico County was safe from the sea, but heavily damaged by hurricane winds.
Across Maryland, residents were buffeted by high winds. The storm had made landfall in North Carolina, then tracked across Virginia and into central Maryland. More than 7 inches of rain were reported in Baltimore, which set a record. The weather was blamed for a train accident in Bladensburg, near Washington, D.C.
While the Chesapeake and Potomac Hurricane destroyed a great deal of property as it pounded Ocean City, the town’s civic leaders actually were pleased that the storm had brought a gift in the form of the 50-foot wide inlet. For years, they had been calling for just such an outlet to be dug, but there never had been funds to undertake such a huge project. And here the hurricane had done it for them.
In the years the followed, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers widened and developed the inlet by adding a protective jetty. This outlet to the sea has enabled Ocean City to become not only a resort, but also a major sportfishing center.
To the south, Assateague was not cut off from the resort and became an island. In 1965, Assateague became a National Seashore.
In the end, the Great Chesapeake and Potomac Hurricane had given Maryland’s resort town an unintended gift that would help it to grow and become the city by the sea that it is today.
But that knowledge comes with an unsettling side. If the 1933 storm was powerful enough to cut an inlet and change the very character of the barrier island, could it happen again? The experts say a really big hurricane could alter Ocean City’s geography once again. That future remains to be seen, but it’s understandable if Maryland’s oceanfront city pays particular attention to the hurricane forecasts.