Frozen solid in the bay


I don't think the Bay Bridge will be there long. Just let the bay ice up the way it used to and that bridge will be mowed down like a blade of grass.

-- Capt. James Corkin, commenting on the opening of the Bay

Bridge, 1952

A FEW weeks back, the week hell seemed to freeze over, some of us were fascinated to watch the Inner Harbor become a sheet of ice before our very eyes. "I've never seen the likes," said one colleague.

But old-timers have seen the likes and much more.

One of those old-timers is John Hess.

On the night of Jan. 26, 1940, Mr. Hess was aboard the ferry Harry W. Nice on what was normally a 40-minute trip from Matapeake on the Eastern Shore to Sandy Point on the Western Shore. But the ferry slowed down and came to a stop.

The improbable had happened: The Harry W. Nice, carrying 50 automobiles and 70 passengers, was icebound in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay.

Mr. Hess, who lived on the Eastern Shore but had family in Baltimore, had been a regular on the ferry crossings since he was a small boy. He was 12 in 1940.

"We had plenty of food," Mr. Hess recalls, "but about 2 in the morning we lost heat. Talk about cold! And it would be daylight before the Coast Guard could get through that ice to cut us free.

"During those hours truck drivers hauling seafood from Crisfield became part of a clubby little group with well-heeled business executives. We knew we were all in this thing together.

"What I heard talked about most was, 'When are they going to build a bridge across the bay?'"

The freeze of 1940 wasn't the only major one on the bay. In the winter of 1917-1918, the ice on the estuary was so thick for so long that it took two Navy battleships -- the Ohio and the Kentucky -- to crash through and create a narrow channel. "All along the way," Edward S. Sell, a sailor aboard the Ohio, recalled, "there were merchant ships locked fast in the ice. They had been trapped so long that the crews had organized skating clubs that competed in races and hockey games. For that matter, you might have thought they were standing on solid land, for the bay was literally sprinkled with skaters and horses and wagons, the wagons delivering food from the shore communities."

Things seemed to be even worse in 1936. "The islands in the bay, Smith and Tangier," a report read, "were isolated from the mainland by a frozen barricade miles in width and treacherous with hidden air holes." So severe was the cold and the isolation that as the next winter approached, state officials saw to it that island inhabitants were provided with two-way radios, extra food and fuel and a full-time nurse for the duration of the cold season.

Needless to say, the deep freeze didn't occur.

Another bad year was 1948. The bay bridge was being built, but there was so much ice on the bay that crews couldn't get to the construction site.

In 1961, 10 ships were frozen hard in foot-thick ice.

In 1977, the freeze was so bad that Sen. Charles McC. Mathias Jr. asked President Carter to declare the Chesapeake a disaster area. He called it "the worst bay freeze in 40 years."

Winters have been relatively mild since then -- a sign of global warming? -- and last month's freeze was relatively harmless. The bay around Smith Island didn't freeze, although there was considerable icing along shorelines, some of which had to be broken up with ice-breakers.

Mr. Hess now lives on this side of the bridge. Of course, he uses the Bay Bridge to reach the Shore. The bridge has survived several deep freezes. Captain Corkin's blade of grass must have been crabgrass.

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