50 Years Later, Residents May Share Stories Again
It has been 50 years since Chincoteague and Assateague Islands went under water from the now famous Ash Wednesday Storm of ’62.
The stories of survival and evacuation have been told and retold down through the years. Island residents and visitors are invited to share their stories once again at a commemorative program. The event, co-sponsored by the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge and the Museum of Chincoteague Island, will be held in the refuge’s Bateman Center auditorium on Saturday, March 3, at 1 p.m.
In the storm the island’s chicken industry was ruined. Boats, cars trailers and campers were lost. More than 100 wild ponies died from drowning or exposure. The storm changed the character of the islands forever.
Across Chincoteague Bay the damage in Greenbackville was just as bad. Homes and businesses along the waterfront were destroyed and the town’s sister city, Franklin City, never recovered.
People are encouraged to bring their own storm photos and survival stories to share with others. Admission is free. Seating is limited. For additional information, call the museum at 757-336-6117.
Chincoteague Residents Share Memories of the Ash Wednesday Storm in 2009 Program
Originally Posted on April 23, 2009
By Tammy Rickman
When the people of Chincoteague Island went to bed on March 6, 1962 it started out the same as any other night. But in the early hours of the next morning people awoke to find that the surrounding waters were invading their homes.
Much of the Island, whose residents depended on the salty bay waters for their livelihood, was now being engulfed.
On March 21, 2009, 47 years later, a theater full of residents gathered at the Herbert H. Bateman Educational and Administrative Center on Assateague Island to share their memories. Few have forgotten the details. The occasion was sponsored by the Chincoteague Island Library Oral History Project and the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service. John Jester, vice mayor of Chincoteague and board member of the library, was moderator. Violent nor’easter storms are a part of life along the Eastern Shore but this time no nor’easter had been forecast. According to Roy Jones, who lived on South Main Street at the time, the storm was literally one
Cecil Watson shares her memories while husband Frank waits his turn.
in a million. Those are the odds that were given for the events to transpire which created the March 1962 Ash Wednesday Storm, Mr. Jones recalled.
In a clear voice, Mr. Jones now in his late 80′s, told how three low pressure systems from different parts of the country merged into one large system. As he told it, a stationary front formed off the coast stalling movement for three days. These conditions along with a full moon and high winds pushed the already high tides even higher and kept the water from receding.
Mr. Jones said that at sundown the water was just beginning to come across Main Street; nothing he hadn’t seen many times before. “This time, the water didn’t stop,” he said.
As Mr. Jones recalled the events of those days he said the water spared their house and never came inside. With a big grin he said one of the things he did recall was looking out the back door to find a Maltese cat “riding the waves.” He said he brought the cat into the laundry room and put it in a cabinet drawer. His mother asked him what he was doing with the cat, and he told her the cat was going to drown. She promptly told him there were plenty of places for that cat to go. Laughing he said he told her, there were plenty places alright but there was ocean every place you looked.
One by one the survivors and descendants recounted harrowing, heartbreaking stories. What came from those stories was not the bitter remembrance of hard times or “poor me” stories of how everything was lost and life wasn’t fair. Instead, it was a time to remember what makes Chincoteague the place so many love. Islanders came together. They found comfort in neighbor’s homes and in the strength of friends and family. As one resident said, “Chincoteaguers will talk about you, but they’ll help you too.”
One granddaughter, who was two at the time, didn’t remember the storm. However, she said that through the stories she was told by her grandparents she came to know that there is a deep kinship even today.
Bob Conklin, who ran a small photo service business at the time, said he received a call from the Virginian Pilot on Tuesday night at about nine. When he answered the phone the caller told him they thought the causeway was flooding and some cars had been washed off the road.
The causeway is a five mile stretch of road that is the only land access between Chincoteague and the mainland.
Mr. Conklin chuckled as he repeated what he told the person on the other end of the telephone. He said, “I told them it’s just raining and the wind is blowing a little.” He said they told him all right and he went to bed.
With a chuckle he said he got up the next morning and looked out the window. At that point he said he told his wife Nancy she wasn’t going to believe it but they were under water. He said he began taking pictures thinking that if he sold the pictures for three dollars each he was going to be rich. The problem was, there were so many other people from various organizations taking pictures from the land and the sky that he never sold a single picture. He jokingly told the crowd he still had the pictures if anyone was interested. Mr. Jester asked if the price of three dollars was still the same.
Mr. Conklin’s wife, Nancy, spoke after him. She told what Mr. Jester called “The rest of the story.” She said he hadn’t mentioned the most exciting story. Their boat floated off the trailer and Bob brought it up to the back door. She and the two children, who were four and 18 months, got into the boat, but Bob could not get the motor to start. Bob had to jump into the water and pull the boat with the rope. The wind gusts during the storm were very strong, and as he pulled the wind pushed him and the boat over into the bushes which were full of thorns.
Mr. Conklin finally managed to get them over to her mother and father’s house. Her parents owned a chicken house with about 5,000 chickens. In those days, according to Nancy, the houses had coal stoves to keep the chickens warm. The chickens in the house at the time were older so the protective covers that kept the chicks from falling in had been removed and placed outside. With a playful laugh, she said that Bob couldn’t see the holes beneath the water so he kept stepping in them, falling under the water, and coming back up again. She said that was the scariest part of the trip. They finally made it to her parent’s home. Bob was wet, cold, and a bit scratched from the bushes, but she said they rode the storm out all right because the water stayed out.
Cecil Watson who was 19 at the time had two small children and was expecting her third. She and the kids spent the night in the living room under blankets due to a loss of heat. The next morning, she said, she took the kids into the kitchen and used the oven to keep them warm while fixing them breakfast.
As she fixed breakfast the kids noticed that the water was beginning to come into the kitchen. Watson said she moved the kids and put them on top of the table where she then fed them. Amid a room full of giggles Watson said, “Kids always got to go to the bathroom so they just peed in the floor with the water.” She recalled how much fun her kids had after they moved to the upstairs floor going to the top stars to “pee” in the water near the bottom of the stairs. Watson said eventually the water was near 18 inches deep, and when the boat came to evacuate them it sailed right into the living room.
Cecil’s husband Frank told how his vehicle went off the side of the causeway and sank. He said he stood on the left side of the road waiting for a telephone pole to float past so he could try to make it across the bridge. Problem was, the pole never moved.
The power company came along and gave Frank a ride over to the Island where he spent the night at the firehouse. In a voice that was rich and steady he told the gathered crowd about how boats came loose and floated through the backs of stores. His face spoke more than his words as he described those who got into outboards and used crab nets to gather the merchandise that floated out. He said the boats were sailing right over the tops of cars as they went. Mr. Watson paused for a moment before saying that a rooftop came floating down the street with a doll-baby on top of it. He sat silently for a moment as if he could see the scene unfolding before him. At last, he said, “We made out all right.”
Jay Cherrix, who was12 at the time of the storm, brought several awards that belonged to his father. His father coordinated the helicopter evacuation and received the Policeman of the Year award that year. Mr. Cherrix recalled how one of the last helicopters to leave Chincoteague was for his family. He read a poem that he had written for his dad called, “The Man in Blue.” The admiration in Mr. Cherrix’s voice rang out loud and clear as he read the poem about how his dad helped neighbors because, as his poem said, “that is what men do who wear blue.” Mr. Cherrix’s father died in the fall of that same year two weeks shy of his 40th birthday. After the storm was over, heavy equipment had to be brought in to help with the cleanup. Dead cattle and ponies were loaded into dump trucks and then hauled to containers at the high school. Donald Leonard, who owned a large stock of the famous ponies, lost most of his herd to the storm. Likewise, the fire department’s herd of wild ponies on Assateague Island was seriously depleted. To rebuild the herd, ponies were sought from owners who had purchased ponies at previous Pony Penning auctions.
Nearly every business on the island was damaged, particularly those along and near Main Street. Boats swept from anchor in Chincoteague Channel and rammed into the back of stores on the western side of Main Street.
As many as 350,000 chickens drowned, and every oyster shucking house on the western side of the island was damaged, those on the East Side less so. Oyster boats were damaged, and, because of fear that sewage had contaminated the Island’s oyster beds, oyster harvesting was prohibited by health officials for weeks. By the time the oyster houses could be cleaned up and reopened, buyers had located other sources.
The storm tested the island but didn’t defeat it. That following Sunday the famous Misty, who had ridden out the storm in Ralph Beebe’s kitchen, gave birth at a veterinarian’s home in Pocomoke City to her third foal, Stormy. In that same enduring character, the July carnival and Pony Penning went on as scheduled.
The herds of both the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department and Donald Leonard thrive still today; another testimonial to the strength and fortitude of the Island inhabitants.
In the lobby of the visitors center tables were set up where copies of news clippings and photos were displayed. In one photo a small boy stood on the hearth of a fireplace with several pieces of furniture. The water in the house lapped at the hearth about an inch below the top. That five year old child was Kelly Conklin, son of Bob and Nancy Conklin. When handed the microphone he grinned and said, “What do you want to know?” Mr. Jester laughed and replied, “What was it like for a boy of five to go through this?”
Kelly said it was pretty scary. He said as a child he got up expecting to go to his grandmother’s like they did every morning. Only difference was he didn’t realize that on this morning he’d be going by boat. He remembered looking at the water from the window. He also remembered his dad pulling the boat to his grandparent’s house. Kelly said he missed the helicopter ride so many other children remember from the storm because they were able to ride things out without having to be evacuated.
These are just a few of the stories recounted . Some were told amid laughter and others with chocked voices as people fought emotions and tears. Whatever the mood, they were all told with a sense of togetherness. Anyone who has been here knows that this is a place of strength, beauty, community and family. The rare natural beauty that abounds on the Islands is just another factor in the uniqueness of the place, people and spirit that resides here.