Eighty years have passed since the storm of a generation carved its way through Ocean City and left an indelible mark on the town
In the warmth of August 17, 1933, boardwalk hotels were full. Vacationers speckled the beach, playing in the Atlantic surf. Sinepuxent Bay clammers trolled the backwaters of the bays on that glorious sunny afternoon.
Pound fishermen rolled long, horse-pulled wooden boats on round timbers across Ocean City’s low-lying sand out to sea. They returned, crafts laden with fish. The catches were packed in barrels, loaded on the train and sent off to the big cities of Philadelphia and New York.
By all accounts, it was a typically idyllic late-summer day for a picturesque seaside town.
Then it started to rain.
Tourists went scampering after 10 inches of rain a day drenched the town for four consecutive days. By Tuesday night, August 22, a gale blew in, driving the still-pouring rain in powerful horizontal sheets. The streets were flooded.
But the worst was yet to happen.
A northeastern rain raged in on top of the gale. For three more days, winds were so high that waves pounded the boardwalk, destroying many of the hotels and homes that had lined it. There were no practical ways to measure wind velocity at that time, but it quickly became clear that Ocean City was in the middle of a hurricane.
The peaceful back-bay creeks were bulging from the incoming tides and rain. Sinepuxent Bay waters were as high as anyone had ever seen them. Having already breached the banks of their every tributary, while ferociously lapping the bayside of town, the Assawoman and Sinepuxent Bays had nowhere to go. Ocean surf pulverized the boardwalk. Whitecaps were breaking in the Atlantic Hotel’s parking lot. At high tide, the bays and Atlantic covered Ocean City, leaving it with no way out.
Bay water swamped the railroad bridge, trapping still-fleeing tourists. The only other viable escape was the Route 707 auto bridge, already undermined by the swelling tide. Even that route became crippled to the point that townsfolk resorted to a makeshift “ferry system,” pulling two small boats back and forth with long ropes stretched across the bay, allowing the brave the safety of higher ground in West Ocean City.
In the midst of terror and darkness came the event that would change Ocean City forever.
With ocean water rolling over the peninsula into the bay, and engorged bays searching for a runoff that wasn’t there, the perfect storm simply burst. To many in town, it was the end of their world. The unforgiving bay did what nature intended: It sought the lowest land possible. In one violent burst, the Sinepuxent roared through the fish camps at the south end and crashed into the turbulent sea. With it went the vital pound-fishing grounds and all its buildings, boats, working dray horses and futures. Three entire streets crumbled into the wake. Houses, railway cars, mountains of debris were sucked into the breach. For four eerie days, there was only an ebb tide flowing out to sea.
Ocean City had a brand new inlet, whether it wanted it or not.
The Baltimore Sun called the hurricane and its aftermath “The most disastrous storm in Maryland’s history.” By Friday the 25th, under a bright and beautiful sun, the new inlet measured 50 feet wide and four feet deep. One day later, it had grown to a depth of eight feet by 250 feet wide. Pound fishermen were devastated by the vast expanse of water still gushing over what just days before was an industry that brought in half of the town’s income and employed 60% of its population.
Sadness and hopelessness turned to curiosity and acceptance. Then came a gradual realization of what Mother Nature had bequeathed to Ocean City.
In the summer of 1934, a boat chartered by tourists for a day’s fishing landed the first white marlin in Ocean City’s history. Work had already begun on the secluded West Ocean City harbor, giving trawlers and clamming boats both shelter and quick access to the ocean. By late 1934, Martin Fish Company was founded on the south side of the harbor. Davis & Lynch and the C.P. Cropper Fish Company followed, anchoring the north side.
By the late 1930s, the word was out on the big-game fishing to be had off the coast of this once-provincial town. Over 1,500 landings of white marlin were recorded in 1940 alone.
Today, 80 years after Ocean City suffered its historic alteration, we still bask in its transformation. Without those bays bursting, much of what we see now wouldn’t be there. The northern slope of Assateague Island wouldn’t exist because it was connected to the packed lowland sand that once housed those first pound-fishing camps. Sunset Marina wouldn’t have their musical afternoons. Harborside wouldn’t even be on the harbor. Bayside condominiums would have hardly mattered. None of us would be able to slowly savor the simple serenity of watching colorful boats glide by.
Nobody would live in Martha’s Landing or give a hoot about how close they built to Stinky Beach.
And Ocean City wouldn’t be “the White Marlin Capital of the World.”
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