1977's 'Deep Freeze'

The Chesapeake Bay turned to ice in the winter of 1977, bringing life for most Marylanders to a freezing halt.

Temperatures plunged all across the eastern United States that winter. Forty-nine cities recorded new lows. Baltimore was one of them.

The bay began to freeze over by Christmas. Smith Island residents were among the first to feel the effects as the only inhabited off-shore island in the bay. Soon, the school boat couldn't make it across, sending nearly 6,000 school children on an extended vacation. They were out of school for a month. But the school boat wasn't the only vessel unable to cross the bay.

Oil barges were unable to make it through the eight-inch-thick ice. Oystermen were out of work, boosting the price of oysters to $10 per bushel. Coast Guard cutter ships were called in to break up the ice. And, in his first week in office, President Carter declared Maryland and Virginia to be disaster areas.

The unemployment rate soared to 8.2 percent in Maryland, due to the 5,000 unemployed watermen and the estimated 15,000 other workers without jobs. The industry lost between $180,000 and $360,000. Bethlehem Steel shut down its outdoor shipyard for a few days. Unemployment insurance payouts due to the freezing weather was later tallied at $4.5 million.

Every waterway in Maryland froze over during the coldest period of the winter of 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.

If a house or building caught on fire, firefighters had to contend with frozen hydrants. Water mains burst, creating an icy mess on the streets. The Automobile Association of America received 4,000 calls for help in a single day -- the most since the organization formed in 1902. Plows ran constantly, and up to 5,000 tons of salt were dumped each day.

The state would have run out of salt if not for a Caribbean freighter that delivered thousands of tons of salt just in time.

The upper bay was hit hard. The Chesapeake and Delaware Canal shut down for the first time since 1829. A large ice mass in the upper bay, compacted by heavy winds and high tides, measured 100 feet long by 40 feet wide and 20 feet high.

The waterways were frozen thicker than they had been since 1918. The Chesapeake remained passable thanks only to the cutter ships. When the three weeks of the "deep freeze" were over, the state thawed out. Desperately needed heating oil was replenished on the Eastern Shore. The cleanup began, and life soon returned to normal.

Information from Sun archives