The mighty flood of March 1936
(Based on interview of witnesses, conducted in 1976-77)
The winter of 1935-36 was a hard cold one. Twenty-two inches of ice topped
the Cacapon River and, when the ice cracked on the Potomac in February, there was damage to the bridge between Hancock and Morgan County.
After the February thaw, it froze again and there was more snow. There were snow drifts up to 15 feet deep in mountain hollows — drifts that hadn't melted during the warm spell.
In mid-March it started raining — a warm rain that finally melted the drifts.
The frozen ground couldn’t absorb the water. It found
its way to streams that multiplied in size. The streams headed to rivers already overloaded with water from the west.
The rivers started backing into streams and the streams kept flowing harder and finally every water body in the area was out of its banks.
On St. Patrick’s Day — Tuesday, March 17, 1936 — the Potomac and the Cacapon were 20 feet above normal in many places. The streets
of Berkeley Springs swirled with Warm Springs Run overflow while Main Street in Hancock was up to its second stories in the Potomac.
Virtually every bridge in Morgan County was washed away. Roads were impassable. The railroad shut down. Telephone and electric lines were dead. Most water wasn’t safe to drink. Dozens of homes were taken away.
Even those trying to get ready for a flood weren’t expecting anything worse than 1889, the year of the Johnstown Flood. They moved things to higher ground, to the attics, where previous floods didn’t get, but the water kept rising.
Leslie “Sparky” Dawson said it rained for 26 hours: “The hardest rain I ever seen in my life.”
In most places it crested on Wednesday, March 18. By Friday, water levels were returning to normal, though it would be a long time before some people’s lives returned to anything like normal.
Twenty feet over its banks, the Potomac River blasted erratically through Morgan County.
In Paw Paw, about a dozen buildings of various sizes were carried away. Lee Street and the lower part of Winchester Street were heavily hit. Men with lanterns boated from house to house to make sure everyone was out.
The water got to the house below the present post office, reported Boyd Gordon, who saw buildings bang against each other as they floated downstream.
“I heard about a dog box floating down with a dog sitting on chained to it,” said Gordon.
Paw Paw was left in dire need of supplies which were brought from Winchester, said Lloyd Hardy.
Down river in the Paw Paw Bends area, water curved along with the banks in some places, sparing some lower properties while flooding some never damaged before or after.
Charlie Olsen, a Doe Gully resident, is said to have been working on a neighbor’s roof when he announced, “Here comes a house,” He stopped and corrected himself, “Here comes my house.”
The Orleans area was hit on both sides of the river. Paul Zimmerman remembered that a lockhouse on the C&O Canal was just picked up by the water and carried downstream.
Rockwell’s Run came out of Sideling Hill and turned into a raging little river itself. Three houses on the West Virginia side and Mary Bowers’ house on the Maryland side washed away, said Floyd “Tane” Twigg.
Twigg’s father drove a group of officials from Hancock to Greenspring to show the damage and they saw a Hereford literally straddling the telegraph lines.
The railroad didn’t operate for about five days. Number one track by Turkeyfoot Hill “hung over an empty space,” Twigg recalled 40 years later.
Cabins belonging to Knights of Columbus from Cumberland floated downstream as did many of the other cottages and cabins along the river.
Cacapon area cut off.
By the afternoon of March 18, the only way to travel west of Great Cacapon was to go by way of Winchester. Even Fisher’s Bridge had the fill around it washed out.
In Great Cacapon the lower street was underwater.
The railroad bridge held up, though, and when people from Berkeley Springs brought in goods, they parked as close to the bridge as possible and toted things across.
“We were in here for days without bread, flour or anything else,” said “Sparky” Dawson, who lived then, as now, on a farm along the Cacapon River. “It’s good we grew everything we ate.”
The Dawson house stayed dry, but there was six feet of water in the barn and farm equipment floated away. One hundred fifty-five bushels of wheat were carried to the back porch before the storage sheds went. When the fences washed away, three horses, 26 cattle and 42 hogs were loose and on their own without food. Most were eventually recovered.
The Cacapon was about 28 feet above normal and crested on the night of the 18th. Before that, it was river from mountain to mountain and “nothing stuck out.” There were fewer cabins then, but most were taken by the waters or damaged by them. Dawson recognized the structures as they went by.
In 1976, he said, “If we were to get a water like that today, cabins would go down the river popping up against each other. Nothing goes downstream in a whole piece — it’s so rough it destroys everything.”
“I’ve wondered a thousand times,” said Dawson, “how my father had the courage to start up again afterward. The banks had crashed, taking all the money he had. We were just starting to pull out of the Depression. He was a man of the strongest willpower.”
Sir Johns Run
Sir Johns Run flooded when the Potomac backed up into swollen Cold Run. Ernest “Doc” McBee said at least six or seven houses were flooded. Water got up to the first step of the church, which was used as an emergency center.
“It practically ruined the railroad for about a month,” said McBee, who worked for the B&O. The coal tipple was out of action for a week and the railroad tower was washed away. Bill Ditto, the towerman, got out when water was ten feet up it.
Lewis Buzzerd of The Morgan Messenger staff remembered calling James Offett in Sir Johns on the night of the 16th to see how high the water was. At the time, Offett couldn’t tell whether it would flood or not. By the next night, the water was in Offett’s house.
One home in the valley was turned two-thirds of the way around by the water’s force. It was left situated as the flood had left it.
Hancock under water
Past Sir Johns Run, the river played havoc with the railroad complex at Brosius Hill, now known as Hancock, W.Va.
When Lewis Buzzerd drove there to survey the damage on Thursday, he saw, “boxcars on the tracks with water up to their tops.”
Oscar Truax claimed that a rooster on a haystack floated past on the Potomac.
In the town of Hancock, Md. the water was so high that “we could have reached out from the boat and touched the electric wires,” recalled Mary Exline. “I was petrified.”
She and Edna Milburn of Doe Gully also vividly remembered the layer of mud that covered everything when the waters retreated.
Rats and snakes were driven into Hancock from the dump along the river. Wells were unsafe, having been swamped by flood water. Outhouses had been overturned. Sanitation was a serious problem for days.
An emergency center was set up in the Hancock Fire Hall where those left homeless slept on cots. Others stayed with relatives or highland neighbors.
The community of Sleepy Creek was virtually wiped out.
“Our house was washed away and our store and everything we had was washed away,” said Luther Warrenfeltz, who ran one of several stores then in Sleepy Creek. Like others, he’d moved goods into the attic since the 1889 Flood hadn’t gotten that high. But, this time, “the store tipped over in the worse way,” he said, still able to picture it many years later.
Several of the Sleepy Creek stores, the post office and about five houses were taken by the flood. Water was in the Methodist Church and the piano and benches were put up high to save them.
After the flood, Sleepy Creek was never again the same thriving place.
Asked about federal assistance after the flood, both Oscar Truax of Hancock and Boyd Gordon of Paw Paw had the same answer: “Never heard of it.”
The Red Cross gave some aid locally and the National Guard moved into Hancock to stop any looting and help as best it could. Mostly people were left to fend for themselves.
Thinking back, “Sparky” Dawson, who has witnessed several Cacapon River floods, said, “I didn’t see any good come from any of it. I don’t know what those things are for, but they do happen.”