A survivor's tale from the '33 hurricane
Our story in Friday's Sun marking the 75th anniversary of the Great Hurricane of 1933 stirred up some memories for at least one survivor of that storm.
I got a call this afternoon from Michelle Dase, who told me her father, William R. Howard, Jr., was aboard the SS Chatham, steaming down the Chesapeake when that storm struck. So I gave him a call at his home in Towson, and we chatted about his adventure.
"I was a kid, only 9 years old," he told me. That makes him 84 now, retired for 23 yrs from the Equitable Trust Co., where he was a vice president.
"We lived in Hagerstown at that time," he continued. "I had grandparents down in Florida, and I had an uncle in Massachusetts." His mother and father were taking them to see their relatives, but Howard can't quite recall which way they were headed - Florida or New England. But he does remember sailing from the piers at Pratt and Light streets on what was a beautiful day.
"My daughter asked me, 'Didn't they know a hurricane was coming?' But no one said anything to me about it."
The family had boarded the SS Chatham, of the old Merchants and Miners Line. The ship, according to online records, was built in 1926. It was a 5,649-ton passenger steamer, a sister ship to the more famous SS Dorchester. Both came to violent ends.
Both the Chatham and the Dorchester were requisitioned by the U.S. government in 1941 for service as troop ships.
The Chatham was torpedoed and sunk in 1942 in the Belle Isle Straits, between Newfoundland and Labrador. The Dorchester, too, was sunk in 1942, in the Atlantic, by a German torpedo, with the loss of 675 lives. Among the dead were four U.S. Army chaplains, who gave their lives so others could live. But that's another story.
The Howard family's voyage at least began well.
"It was a large steamer. We got on it and we had dinner. It was beautiful going down the bay," he recalled. "We got I don't know how far down when the hurricane hit. We bounced all over the place. The ship rocked from side to side. When the bow went up and down the propellers came out of the water and made the whole ship vibrate."
This was no longer a pleasure trip.
"My mother got so sick, she wanted to get off the ship." She spent most of the voyage in their cabin, Howard recalled. "My father and I were the only two who went down to dinner that night. Most everybody else was sick. I think I was too young to know what was going on."
Somehow, he said, he and young friend he made on board managed to play ping pong during the storm. "We lost I don't know how many balls."
The ship was not exactly watertight, he remembers. "The water kept leaking in through the portholes, and we had about a foot of water. The boat would tip and the water would run to one side. Then it would tip and run the other way."
After a while, the ship anchored to wait out the storm. The hurricane was wreaking havoc with shipping in the region. The Evening Sun reported that the steamer Annapolis left its pier in Baltimore, headed for Tolchester, but had to turn back after getting as far as North Point. Other trips were canceled.
A ferry called the Philadelphia , bound from Baltimore to Love Point on Kent Island, turned back at North Point after the deck - normally six feet above the waves - began dipping small fish, according to its captain. The steamer City of Norfolk went aground near Pocomoke Sound, and passengers had to be rescued. Baltimore's harbor also sustained damage. (photo above)
Like the Chatham, the steamer Berkshire, also of the Merchants and Miners Line, halted its voyage from Baltimore and anchored near the Virginia capes.
That was a smart move. The coastal steamer Madison had run aground off the capes with 100 people on board. They radioed for help after waves swept away part of the superstructure. Two Coast Guard vessels responded.
Twelve hours after the Chatham anchored to ride out the storm, the wind and waves calmed. The passengers were put ashore in Norfolk, which had been badly battered by the hurricane.
"Norfolk was under water," Howard said. "They built up planks for us to walk on in the dock area. All the lights were out. I remember a lot of lanterns around, and candles. The only place we had to stay was a hotel down there. We had to walk up seven flights of stairs 'cause there were no elevators. It took a while for the family to lose their sea legs. "It seemed like the building was swaying all night long," he said.
That was the end of the voyage for the Howards. Mrs. Howard was not about to go on board the Chatham or any other ship. Her husband had worried about her the whole time, and agreed. So they took a bus to Washington for some sightseeing, and eventually back home to Hagerstown.
But Howard was 9. "It was all an adventure for me. People didn't get around as much back in those days as we do now," he said.