On June 1st, 1889 the Potomac River crested at 39.2 feet at Shepherdstown, establishing the record high-water mark to that date. The 1889 flood washed the Shepherdstown bridge away, and when the directors of the Virginia & Maryland Bridge Company decided to re-build, they prudently determined first to build back an iron bridge not wooden bridge, and second they decided to raise the new bridge five feet above the top of the existing bridge piers. The second was done hoping that the 39.2-foot record would hold.
Unfortunately for bridge owners, floods were not the only challenge to bridges. Heavy loads also posed a danger. In the early 20th century, steam engines were gradually being integrated into farming operations. These massive steam engines supplied the power to operate a variety of machines designed to make farming more efficient. Most farmers did not own a steam engine, so a local entrepreneur would purchase a steam engine and advertise its availability to area farmers. Once a deal was struck and a schedule established, the engine and necessary machinery would be hauled from one job to the next. Keedysville operator Charles Moats owned a thirty horse power portable engine which weighed approximately seven tons. O. O. Moser had a contract to “convert a tract of timber into lumber” on Ernest McDonald’s property near Darkesville. Moser contacted Moats, a deal was struck, and on April 10, 1914 Moats loaded his steam engine onto a wagon pulled by a team of six horses and set out for Darkesville. A week later, the Shepherdstown Register reported that “one of the heaviest loads of its kind to ever pass over the roads of this section in years, and certainly with a draft of only six horses, passed through Shepherdstown.” Moats approached Shepherdstown from the Maryland side of the bridge, and the toll keeper was in his house on the Shepherdstown side. The first time the unnamed toll keeper saw the heavy load, it had crossed the bridge and was at his doorstep. Bridge officials were quoted as saying that, “it was brought over without his knowledge until it was too late.” Fortunately, the bridge wasn’t damaged, but Editor Snyder opined that, “it is believed to have been a very great risk the men took in crossing the bridge with this great weight.”
The 1889 flood was the beginning point for data collection on the Potomac River. Flood stage at Shepherdstown was established at 15 feet, and thankfully, for the next thirty-five years, the Potomac River there behaved itself and did not crest above flood level. However, following an especially heavy spring rain in May 1924, the Potomac started to rise. Although official US weather observer John Curtin Newcomer, Cashier of the Bank of Harpers Ferry, reported that “a total of 5.1 inches of rain fell at Harper’s Ferry within 36 hours,” that rainfall was headed downriver from Harpers Ferry. It was the rainfall upriver that both Shepherdstown and Harpers Ferry had to worry about. Rain exceeding 5.1 inches fell in both the Potomac’s South Branch Valley and Western Maryland and all of it was headed downriver. The Register reported that ““all day Sunday [May 11] was one of thrilling interest. Many hundreds of persons gathered at the river to watch the scene. Visitors came from Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania, and the bridge [Shepherdstown Bridge] was lined with people all day long.” Two days later, on May 13, the river crested at Shepherdstown at 29.8 feet, well beneath both the 1889 record and, more importantly, the bottom of the Shepherdstown bridge. Harpers Ferry was not as lucky. Three spans of the Bollman bridge on the Maryland side which carried Route 340 across the Potomac were washed away. The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal was so irreparably damaged that what was initially a temporary closure permanently ended the canal’s operation just four years shy of a century of service.
Floods are categorized as minor, moderate, and major. In one year, 1929, the Potomac River at Shepherdstown hit the crest trifecta: 15.49 feet on Thursday, March 7, a minor flood; 19.83 feet on Wednesday, October 23, a moderate flood; and 25.53 feet on Wednesday, April 17, a major flood. Fortunately, each of these mid-week floods did not endanger the Shepherdstown bridge. 1929 literally opened the flood gate. In back-to-back years, 1932 and 1933, spring rains brought high water to Shepherdstown. On the weekend of May 14, 1932, the Potomac crested 14 feet below the 1889 record of 39.2 feet, and one year later, on Friday, April 21, 1933, the Potomac River recorded a moderate flood cresting at 19.1 feet. The Granddaddy of them all was just three years away.
Whether it was called the “Record Flood of 1936,” the “Great Potomac Flood,” or the “Saint Patrick’s Day Flood of 1936,” the result was the same: river levels not seen either before or since. March 1936 was unusually warm with temperatures occasionally in the 60s. The weather was unsettled, gradually warming the ground and melting the snowpack. By March 11, our region had already received more rainfall than the average for the month. A storm developed along the east coast off the Carolinas and slowly worked its way north. When it settled over the mid-Atlantic, rain totals in excess of five inches fell in the region drained by the Potomac River. The ground was relatively saturated which meant that the rain that fell was more likely to run-off, formulating a recipe for disaster.
Early on March 18, 1936, floodwaters reached the deck of the Shepherdstown bridge, and the Shepherdstown Register provided a blow-by-blow account of what happened:
One of the heaviest losses Shepherdstown has had in many years came on Wednesday [March 18, 1936] when the bridge of the Virginia and Maryland Bridge Company across the Potomac river was entirely carried away by the record-breaking flood that swept down out of the headwaters of the river. The first span to go out was the one near the West Virginia shore. Just about 5:30 [PM] a big log came swiftly down on the swirling waters and struck the piled-up drift, and for a few seconds twisted and turned in the water, then with a crash and a grind the span of iron toppled over into the raging river. A great crowd of people at the foot of the river hill, and those who were at the edge of the water said that as the twisted mass of iron fell, the friction of the rubbing braces and girders sent forth showers of sparks.
The second span from this side went out shortly after six o’clock [PM]. The pressure of the water became so great that it too was twisted from its foundations and swung down the river and settled below the surface of the flood. The third span stood until about eight o’clock [PM], and the last span on the Maryland side went out about 1:45 [AM] Thursday [March 19, 1936] morning. Thursday morning there was not a vestige of the bridge in sight, for the river had risen during the night until the level of the water was up to the second floor of the old toll house, and the piers of the bridge were entirely covered by the water.
The loss of the bridge will have a huge impact on the area. The bridge for many years proved to be a very poor investment, but as automobile travel increased, the bridge was used more and more, and brought larger and larger returns to the company. The bridge company officials are already talking of rebuilding, and the work may start within a month. There is a possibility that a ferry boat will be operated as a temporary means of transportation.
Shepherdstown’s Historian Laureate, Betty Snyder Lowe, recently related her memories of Wednesday, March 18, 1936. Six-year-old Betty, her younger brother, John McGarry “Mac” Snyder, Jr., and her mother, Sarah Folk Snyder, joined the throng of on-lookers from the vantage point of the Rumsey Monument. The monument grounds were packed because Betty’s father, Deputy Sheriff John McGarry Snyder, Sr., was posted at the top of the hill on Princess Street and was barring the curious from walking down the hill to get a closer look at the bridge and the rising flood water. When she arrived, the bridge was still intact, and although she could see the bridge’s iron superstructure, she “couldn’t see the deck because it was covered by flood water.” As it was nearing supper time, Betty’s mother decided that they should head back home. Just as they were approaching her father’s post at the top of the Princess Street hill, she “heard a crash” and immediately knew that they had seen the flood, but had missed seeing the bridge wash away.
Twice, directors of the Virginia and Maryland Bridge Company had replaced the bridge at the bottom of Princess Street. One day after losing the bridge, company directors again vowed to rebuild the bridge a third time. State and federal officials had other ideas, and in deciding both who would build the bridge and where it would be located, eliminating tolls and safety concerns for the drivers of the ever-increasing number of automobiles took precedence. Once that decision was made, the project to build a new bridge moved ahead rapidly, and in June 1936 plans for a new bridge at Shepherdstown were sent to the Federal Bureau of Roads for its approval. On November 11, 1936, R. E. Toms, chief of design for the federal Roads Bureau, announced that he had reached agreement with Nathan Smith, Maryland’s chief engineer, and Burr Simpson, from the West Virginia Road Commission, to move the bridge to a new location at Shepherdstown, and it was hoped that bids would be let “by the first of the coming year.” Although a group of Shepherdstown residents submitted a petition which protested moving the bridge, the new location was planned some 200 yards upriver from the old bridge site with an estimated cost of “$350,000, half to be borne by the Federal government, and the rest divided between West Virginia and Maryland.” This announcement brought to an end eighty-seven years of private ownership of the bridge at the bottom of Princess Street. The ferry was another matter.
Although directors of the Virginia and Maryland Bridge Company expressed a desire to rebuild the bridge, they apparently had no interest in operating a ferry. Recognizing the need to provide ferry service for automobile traffic, in March 1937, Paul C. Williams and E. F. Staub, both of Romney, announced plans to operate a “ferry across the Potomac until the bridge destroyed by the 1936 flood is replaced.” In April, Williams and Staub made application to the Jefferson County Court for approval to operate the ferry, and by early May headlines reported “RIVER FERRY PLENTY BUSY – Scores Of Machines Being Transported Daily At Shepherdstown” and that “scores of cars are reported using the newly constructed ferry boat at Shepherdstown daily.” The ferry’s efficiency was put to the test on Friday, September 17, 1937, when officials at Antietam National Battlefield commemorated the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Battle of Sharpsburg. The Daily Mail reported that “the Shepherdstown ferry on the day of President Roosevelt’s visit to Sharpsburg handled 800 automobiles without a slip.”
From the spring of 1937 until July 1939, the Staub-Williams ferry, twenty-four feet wide and seventy-five feet long and capable of transporting six cars on each trip, made innumerable trips back and forth from the Ferry Landing in Shepherdstown to the Potomac shore at Bridgeport. For the most part, things went smoothly. On October 29, 1937, the Potomac flooded, and river levels reached 26.8 feet, well below the Flood of 1936 but still enough to disrupt ferry service. In December 1937, Shepherdstown resident W. H. Knode lodged a complaint with the Maryland Public Service Commission claiming that the Shepherdstown Ferry Company was guilty of charging an excessive rate for pedestrians crossing by ferry. Knode noted that initially cars were charged twenty-five cents and pedestrians five cents per trip. Knode’s complaint was lodged due to a rate increase which took effect on November 15. Cars were still charged twenty-five cents, but were levied an additional 5 cents per passenger if more than two were aboard. Pedestrians were charged the same toll as cars, twenty-five cents.
In 1937 the average annual salary for a US worker was $975, so every nickel counted. When the ferry toll jumped from a nickel to a quarter, that meant that pedestrians who lived in Bridgeport and worked in Shepherdstown were levied fifty cents daily to ride the ferry back and forth. To avoid paying a quarter, many workers would wait for a car headed to Shepherdstown, hop aboard, and pay the extra five-cent toll, saving twenty-cents. But they had to await a car’s arrival which often made them late for work, and although Knode was protesting the toll increase, he may have been motivated by employees who were late to work “because they had to wait for a car.” The commission heard Knode’s complaint and set the pedestrian rate at ten cents per day and provided an option to purchase a book of tickets which offered a reduction in the rate. Otherwise, until July 15, 1939, Staub-Williams ferry conveyed traffic, both on foot and in motor vehicles, safely across the Potomac River.
The last gasp for the Virginia and Maryland Bridge Company occurred in February 1938. The previous December, the Maryland State Roads Commission moved to condemn “66/100 of an acre of land” which belonged to the bridge company, and which the Commission claimed they needed to proceed with the construction of the new bridge. The Commission wanted to pay just the cost of the 66/100 acre, but the bridge company wanted compensation for not only the land, but also compensation for the loss of their “franchise rights” for operation of the old Potomac River bridge. “WAY IS PAVED FOR ACTION ON BRIDGE” is how the Hagerstown Morning Herald announced the conclusion. On Saturday, February 19, 1938, Washington County Circuit Judge Frank G. Wagaman ordered that the “rights and lands of the Virginia and Maryland Bridge Company at Shepherdstown will be condemned on March 8.” The press release also noted that the Virginia and Maryland Bridge Company, perhaps recognizing the futility of their request, “failed to file an answer to the petition of last December of the Maryland Roads Commission asking the right to condemn.” This decision marked the end of the road for the Virginia and Maryland Bridge Company and concluded one hundred eighty-one years of “great service to travellers” at the bottom of Princess Street. It also cleared the way for the construction of a new bridge to be named for “Shepherdstown’s Genius,” but that is a story for another day.
Doug Perks, a retired history teacher and Shepherdstown resident who serves as the historian at the Jefferson County Museum in Charles Town, is a contributor to the Spirit of Jefferson