Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2011 was not a good day to be appointed Port Deposit's town administrator. The town was about to be evacuated in anticipation of the worst flooding in decades.
But Rodney Hines, 64, took the challenge in stride, even though the newcomer from Illinois couldn't pronounce "Conowingo," the name of the dam about to unleash the Susquehanna's muddy waters on the town that had just named him its caretaker.
Fortunately for Hines, Port Deposit has had at least two centuries of practice dealing with floods. He says the town's flood management of Lee's storm waters, from the evacuation to the cleanup, has gone like clockwork.
"I have been in the emergency services business for the better part of 30 years," said Hines, who was a career firefighter and a former mayor of Canton, Ill., "and this was almost done like it was scripted."
Until the Conowingo Dam was completed in 1928, Port Deposit suffered flooding nearly every spring. The townspeople called it a "freshet," when the river thawed and pushed water and ice chunks above the banks. There were at least five major floods in the second half of the 19th Century.
"The situation in Port Deposit today has been simply appalling," an article said in The Baltimore Sun on March 5, 1885. "It is impossible to describe the situation to anyone who has not been an eye witness to one of these floods. The destruction to property has been as great as any previous year."
And the ruin from floods was great in earlier years. Port Deposit saw "one of the most awful floods in the Susquehanna [R]iver ever known, even to the oldest resident," in March 1846: "There is not a particle of fencing or a single 'small' house standing from Rock [R]un to the still house — it is one scene of destruction from one end of the corporation to the other."
In 1857, at least one person died and the lower part of the town was nearly annihilated. A reporter for The Baltimore Sun, chronicling that year's flood, explicitly wondered why anyone would live there. Port Deposit's role as a trade hub made the floods worth it for residents, he concluded.
It was recorded in January 1873 that the waters of the Susquehanna "savagely" entered the town and submerged several buildings, including one that contained the corpse of a Mrs. Drake, who died just before the deluge. The townspeople rescued her body and conducted her funeral in rowboats.
In 1887 and 1888, the town used dynamite on the river to prevent ice chunks from jamming and causing a flood, but the remedy caused its own problems: "When the explosion [of 1887] took place, all the glass was blown out of the watch house on the bridge and the men on the bridge were nearly blown off and terribly frightened. To this day [about a year after the fact] they have never forgiven the dynamiters."
In 1889, the town had to be evacuated again after dead livestock floating by the town's banks served as a forewarning. The final major flood of the 19th century came four years later.
The first big flood of the 20th century arrived January 1910, when a rush of water swept the railroad station and several warehouse off their foundations. Ice piled up to rooftops, pneumonia gripped the town and residents nearly ran out of coal for heat. Two months earlier, The Baltimore Sun had run an article praising the town's role as an industrial center, in spite of being "a target for the ice."
Ten year later, in 1920, military aviators dropped 4,000 pounds of TNT on the iced-over Susquehanna to alleviate flood fears but basements were soaked anyway.
Even after construction of the dam, which helped regulate the flow of the river, high water continued to cause problems. Some of the most severe flooding in the town's history has occurred since the dam was erected.
The first major flood following the dam's completion was in 1936 and residents openly expressed their fears that the dam, even with all 50 of its gates open, would give way. Several homes were under water to the second floor.
A substantial flood was reported in 1946, that drove "rats from the city dump and from the cellars. They were hunted down by small boys with clubs and air rifles during the day."
In 1972, Tropical Storm Agnes brought the highest waters recorded in Port Deposit's history. Silt in the river became thick layers of mud inside homes. A captain in the Army Corps of Engineers told The Baltimore Sun on July 10, "The mud in this town was worse than some of the stuff I've seen in Vietnam. But we've managed to get most of it out of the way."
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