Agnes’ impact still haunts parts of the Chesapeake 40 years later
Tom Horton called this March in his effort to reach out to those who still remember Tropical Storm Agnes and who “still had at least some of their marbles.”
“This was,” he said, “the first Chesapeake article I’d written for the Baltimore Sun.” I wrote him this letter, and we agreed that it should be this month’s “Past as Prologue.”
Has it been 40 years, Tom? Can’t be that long, but then my arthritis this foggy Chesapeake morning has stiffened my back, knees and neck so I truly feel my advancing age.
It was a different time then, you know, back in 1972. Gas — marine gas at the boat yards, no less — was 36.9 cents a gallon not $3.69, or $3.74 as it is today, and I filled my old boat for $6.06 that spring. My Volkswagen cost me $1,500. Rent was $150 a month and our household bill for food and incidentals was $28 a week.
Sea nettles, “disturbing numbers” my logbook said, had started early — by May 27 — that spring. The Navy was still bombing and burning Bloodsworth Island and on the Honga River there were still old abandoned shipwrecks one could climb aboard —with some danger — and chase out an osprey nesting in the deck house. Skipjacks, as many as a dozen, were laid up for the summer at Haines Point and Wenona on Deal Island.
Up a creek in Solomons on the Western Shore, a 60-foot, five-log Brogan, with pointed stern lay in mostly submerged ruins. Its mast stump was 16 inches in diameter. Cedar Point Light off the Patuxent was still in place, abandoned. With some agility — I had plenty in those days — one could climb up and roam its rooms, with their floors were covered with owl pellets and bat and bird dung. The old structure’s vacant windows offered a 360-degree view of the Chesapeake.
On June 3, we had gone sailing, anchored and swam ashore to climb the 1883 Drum Point Lighthouse, abandoned but then still sentinel to the Patuxent bight. In the cupola on top, two baby birds were peeping in a nest down inside the pivot hole for the long-removed revolving Fresnel light mechanism.
My logbook for the day recorded: “We could see shoals to the east running up to the (Little Cove Point) cliffs; the water clear, a bright sand bottom with small eelgrass (Zostera marina) patches, very attractive.”
(On our next visit, some idiot had dropped a can of beer down the pivot hole and crushed the tiny chicks, their flattened and dried bones testimony to one person demonstrating his or her dominance over nature).
The spring seemed normal, with its thunder squalls of 40 knots, and a dry gale blowing from the northwest that turned Flag Harbor inlet into a welter of breaking waves. We were not anticipating what was to come in June. Sure, the hurricane season starts in June, but you never really saw one until…
We had invited a couple aboard the boat for a weekend but on the Saturday, June 17, my logbook records “scratched plans for a weekend of sailing,” and subsequently we tried to work on the boat and sneak in a swim. The log continued, “wretched weekend, little done with heavy rain squalls filling the afternoon.”
The remains of Hurricane Agnes (a tropical storm by the time it reached the Chesapeake) also ruined our midweek plans. It had come ashore on the Florida Panhandle on the 18th, moved across Georgia and crossed the coast on the 20th. My log noted for the 19th: air 78 degrees F, barometer 29.56 and falling to 28.96.” She hit Florida yesterday and by dusk the great cloud disc had half-covered the sky at Port Tobacco (on the Potomac). Scud (clouds) blew in all night and today but the wind not until noon and only now at 4 p.m. light rain squalls.”
Winds by the 22nd were reducing and it was calm in the harbors, but still nasty and extraordinarily humid out on the Bay. That day, the media said, Agnes’ rain had set a 20-year record. My 8-foot dinghy, lying alongside in Solomons, had 50 gallons in it. Aboard my boat CEMBA, rain had driven through even the smallest cracks around foredeck hatches and wet the bunk mattresses below. Rain came down the stovepipe making “soup” of ashes in the little iron heating stove.
In my 34 years, I’d never seen this much rain and wondered about the 20-year claim. The winds, heavy all night until the 22nd, turned into the north-northwest and blew 20 to 30 knots. The barometer rose again.
The 23-foot workboat Amphora that I’d just bought for my employer, the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia —my laboratory was at Benedict on the Patuxent — collected 300 gallons of rain while docked along the Potomac. On the 23rd, my crew and I moved it down the Potomac and around to Solomons Island, a trip of 72 nautical miles, still in rain and choppy waves.
My logbook records: “And on the 10th day, the sky cleared…partially at least…Dock lines got some chafe during the storm and badly need some hose put on them (for protection).” We brought my wife Nancy’s parents aboard CEMBA for a weekend cruise (this was Saturday, June 24) and headed out into the sunny Patuxent, which had yet to reveal any signs of impact from Agnes’ fury.
“A fine afternoon at anchor, I took the Nikonos (my waterproof 35mm camera) and dove underwater to chase schools of silversides (Menidia) a pipefish and Ctenophores (non-stinging jellyfish)…baby toadfish and…two mating horseshoe crabs…Underwater visibility was about 4 feet….” It would be a long time before visibilities like this would be common again.
Bernie Fowler, a local crabber and rowboat liveryman turned county commissioner, would claim these visibilities against wide political derision just a few years later, when he sued upstream jurisdictions for inadequate pollution control and started rolling the ball for the Chesapeake Bay’s restoration.
We sailed out into the Chesapeake and found the Bay quite clear and the first cownose rays of the season appeared “off Drum Point in midriver, which is not yet showing any silt from the hurricane.” We ran back into the river for the night and entering the adjacent creeks found a veritable “wall” of sediment heading for the Bay, as sharp a boundary as if one poured cream into coffee; 4-foot visibility on one side, barely an inch of visibility in the mass of coming sediment. The effects of this would prove profound.
On the 27th, with a couple of scientist colleagues aboard, “We found immense quantities of debris in the Bay with murky waters…White perch (displaced from the creeks) jumped all around us as supper was prepared.”
We had to be very cautious powering through the debris, and there was a lot of the freshwater algae Chara and Nitella floating about this normally half seawater part of the Bay. These rafts of algae had been scoured from the large grass beds off the mouth of the Susquehanna River, for centuries one of the food resources for fall’s arriving migratory waterfowl.
My notes report that “Charlie Moore a fisheries scientist at our lab caught two largemouth bass in the Bay near Flag Harbor (about 100 miles downstream from the Susquehanna)…Thus far…no more rays have been seen.” The salt front in Chesapeake Bay had been driven back scores of miles toward the ocean and the Bay’s surface would remain freshwater for weeks to come.
Richard McLean, who lived along the high Calvert Cliffs facing the Chesapeake and was aboard that day, later said that he had found an oil painting from some ravaged home in Harrisburg, PA, that had been gutted by Agnes’ raging flood waters.
By mid-July, I was trailing off the stern of my boat to cool down out past Cedar Point Light in a Chesapeake “still very fresh but moderately clean.” The marshes on Bloodsworth Island were burning again from Navy bombing.
Thus ended my log entries surrounding the Agnes event. By the first week in July, gas was up to 40 cents per gallon at the boatyard. Tickets for “Jesus Christ Superstar” at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC, were $17 for the two of us. This cost more, I grumbled, than running my boat for a month. (Event parking today for the Kennedy Center is $20.)
Trees, some 50–60 feet long, washed ashore all the next year along Chesapeake shorelines and protruded from the sands as reminders of Agnes for some years. It was reported that most of the oysters in the Potomac River, from where we departed that June with the workboat Amphora, died that June from low salinity, sediment and stress after being hit right as they prepared for reproduction.
The eelgrass we saw in 1972 off Drum Point, and the more extensive beds surrounding much of Solomons Island at least from the 1930s when aerial imagery was first available, have never been seen again.
The spring species of submerged grass horned pondweed (Zannichellia palustris) in the Patuxent’s tributaries recovered somewhat by 1976, and have had some years with abundances rivaling those of the post World War II years. None of the widgeon grass, (Ruppia maritima) ever returned naturally. I planted some experimentally and showed that it could grow well here, but our resident diamondback terrapins (who love it) would graze it to nothing each time it sprouted and it was soon extirpated.
Grass beds throughout the Bay suffered the same or similar fate. Those at the mouth of the Susquehanna were obliterated and took decades to recover to a state which in the past few years has been both remarkable and wonderful.
Bernie Fowler, the crabber, is now a revered and retired Maryland state senator in his mid 80s and still wades into the Patuxent River, on the second Sunday every June, hoping to see and confirm its restoration from centuries of storm and human abuse.
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