When winter was truly winter and frozen, 38 years ago

When the Chesapeake Bay froze in 1977, crowds of people went out onto the ice near the Bay Bridge. Others, playing a game of "ice roulette," drove their cars and pickup trucks onto the ice. Three of the cars fell in, but everyone was rescued.

When the Chesapeake Bay froze in 1977, crowds of people went out onto the ice near the Bay Bridge. Others, playing a game of “ice roulette,” drove their cars and pickup trucks onto the ice. Three of the cars fell in, but everyone was rescued.

Thirty-eight years ago this week, Wicomico County was facing a crisis that still gets talked about whenever winter truly feels like winter.

Much of the Chesapeake Bay was frozen over. Daily temperatures hadn’t risen above 30 in three week; nighttime lows were consistently in the teens.

The Wicomico River was frozen hard, with ice a foot thick in places. No tug boats or barges or watercraft of any kind had been up or down the river in two weeks.

The waterways were frozen thicker than they had been since 1918.

The Delmarva Water Transport Committee held an emergency meeting that week and concluded that supplies of kerosene, home heating oil and gasoline at terminals in Salisbury and Seaford were dwindling, with some storage tanks reported to be “bone dry.”

Three large barges, transporting nearly 1 million gallons of needed fuel, were trapped at the mouths of the Nanticoke and Wicomico rivers, southeast of Waterview. Baltimore’s port director had radioed the tugs and barges to return to Baltimore; local officials were hoping to reverse that directive and keep the barges positioned to bring relief with the aid of Coast Guard icebreakers.

The long-range weather forecast predicted at least a month of the same sub-freezing conditions. The Coast Guard said it couldn’t do much to break ice in the narrow rivers, as ice pushing back from the river banks deterred the cutters’ momentum and made their job nearly impossible.

Officials were reaching out to the U.S. Navy to deploy its larger icebreakers to assist. The word “rationing” was being used locally for the first time since World War II.

Oil barges couldn’t get to the Vienna Power Plant, so Delmarva Power & Light officials were working on plans to obtain power from alternate plants. U.S. Sen. Paul Sarbanes was set to convene a meeting with federal officials, advocating that a convoy of barges and tanker trucks be dispatched to refuel the Lower Shore.

It was Christmas Week when the bay first began to freeze over. Smith Islanders were the first to be frozen in, and youngsters weren’t able to get across the sound on the school boat when schools reopened after New Year’s.

Smith Island students were the only ones who missed school — some fuel-oil dependant Wicomico schools ultimately shut down for several days to preserve oil supplies.

With watermen unable to dredge or tong, oyster prices surged to $10 per bushel.

Crowds of people went out onto the ice near the Bay Bridge. Others, playing a game of “ice roulette,” drove their cars and pickup trucks onto the ice. Three of the cars fell in, but everyone was rescued.

It would be four full weeks — mid-February — until a thaw took hold and things returned to a winter normal.

Contact Greg Bassett at gbassett@newszap.com.

Greg Bassett is editor and general manager of Salisbury Independent. Reach him at gbassett@newszap.com

As your community newspaper, we are committed to making Salisbury a better place. You can help support our mission by making a voluntary contribution to the newspaper.

You are encouraged to leave relevant comments but engaging in personal attacks, threats, online bullying or commercial spam will not be allowed. All comments should remain within the bounds of fair play and civility. (You can disagree with others courteously, without being disagreeable.) Feel free to express yourself but keep an open mind toward finding value in what others say. To report abuse or spam, click the X in the upper right corner of the comment box.

Facebook Comment