Oxford Vignettes: Hurricane Hazel

By Cathy Schmidt

Bill and Sara Benson were close cousins of my family who lived up the street. Throughout their lives they enriched those who surrounded them with their community involvement, faith, grace, and generous neighborly manners. Sara kept a journal every year of her life in Oxford and Captain Bill kept a daily weather book throughout his time as ferry Captain of the Oxford-Bellevue Ferry. They were anchors in the town of Oxford, steadfast and kind, they were a pleasure to know.

The Benson family has graciously decided to share some of these journal entries with the readers of Attraction. Smartly titled “Oxford Vignettes” by Susan Benson, I invite you to enjoy reading these daily snippets of life in Oxford in their day.

In this undated photograph, Sara and Bill Benson sit on their front porch in Oxford.

William Lindale Benson was born in Bellevue on October 20, 1908. Sara Valliant Newnam was born on August 10, 1913, and grew up in the Grapevine House in Oxford. They married on Christmas Day in 1936 at the home of Joseph Newnam, her brother. After living in apartment above the “Towne Shoppe” in Oxford they moved to 315 North Morris Street in 1943, the year their son Dale Jr. was born. At their new home, Sara could watch Captain Bill and the ferry from her sink window and front porch. Captain Benson took over operations of the Oxford-Bellevue Ferry in 1938. His summer schedule ran 80-105 hours per week. Only winter ice kept the ferry from running, and the only day he took off was Christmas Day which was also his anniversary. He retired in 1974.

Hurricane Hazel

“Puffs of wind in Oxford registered up to 103 miles per hour.”

Friday, October 15, 1954 – Bellevue Wharf sidetracked. “Hurricane Hazel” got us! Grapevine down. When we got up this morning, we knew the storm was to hit us today. We were warned it would be plenty bad and it sure was! Started raining during the night, it let up and was off and on during the morning, fairly warm. By noon, tide had really started to come in and the wind began to pick up in real force. Wind was from the east at first working its way around to the southwest. We had little rain in the afternoon not knowing what was ahead of us. I went to the store after breakfast and did our shopping. I spent part of the morning over with Bobby Valliant. From noon on people were busy moving boats and trying to make things secure. I took our porch swing down, turned the porch chairs over and put them close to the house. Blowing so hard and waves so high Bill had to stop running the ferry about 3 p.m. From then until 10 p.m. Bill worked hard taking care of the ferry, his other small boats and Bill Newnam’s boat. He was trying to move some of his things ahead of the high tide coming in. Peak of the windstorm hit here about 6 p.m. It was terrible, trees and limbs falling everywhere. A limb dented Mrs. B.M. Bate’s car, tin roof blown off of Forest’s house. A hole was punched in the side of his workboat at Pier Street and sunk. Mr. and Mrs. White’s boat was left high and dry by Roth’s Crab House. Bill didn’t come home to eat but took milk and fruit to the ferry with him. Earlier I tried to get mother to come down with us for the night but all electric was off. Just before the phones cut out she called and said she’d come. I took a flashlight and went up for her. Big relief for us to have her here. River is 18 inches deep over the ferry wharf and all up in Bill’s little house, most of the things there got wet because Bill couldn’t get them high enough. Water up in Mrs. Lizzie Fluharty’s house and Francis Sard’s. Poor Edith Mathews, it just about ruined her. It came up high enough to get in the bottom drawers of their furniture, wicking into her bed covers. They had just had their floors sanded in the spring, and the Oxford phone equipment was in one room of their house. The telephone company started putting sandbags around her house to keep the water out but the tide came in too fast for them. Thousands of dollars of equipment, ruined. Having Potomac tied at the Ferry Wharf was wonderful for Bill as the whole town was in darkness, but the men on the Potomac kept their big lights on to light up the waterfront. When Bill had to go out on the wharf to check his lines they’d follow him with a search light – great danger of being washed or blown overboard. About 7 p.m. Dale and I took flashlights and walked to shore. Dale helped Bill pull some things to higher ground – water up around large tree at front of our street.

Saturday, October 16, 1954 – Phones still out. A more beautiful day you wouldn’t want to see, cool and sunny. House lights came on about 10:30 last night. It was a stunned Oxford and State that awakened this morning. Bill got up and went over to Bellevue for shipyard workers as usual and was shocked beyond words to find Bellevue Wharf completely sidetracked from end to within 50 yards of shore. That section intact but washed across the road and in the bushes in back of the old factory. All of us were up unusually early. Mother wouldn’t stay for breakfast, as she was anxious to turn her current back on, she pulled the switch last night. Dale covered the whole town on his bike viewing the damage. When Bill came in and told me about the news of the wharf I too was in shock, neither of us dreamed such a thing; wharf was only 16 months old and made out of such heavy material. It has put Bill completely out of business, he can’t even land passengers. Bill and I rode around town and it was a sight to see – trees and limbs down everywhere, broken limbs still hanging in trees, some streets blocked by them. Both sides of Morris Street lined, we could hardly get the car through in some places. The Bill Newnams came down around 8 and we all took the ferry to Bellevue and towed a rowboat over. Bill, Bill N. and Dale went to shore in it. Late yesterday afternoon Mr. Frank Treliase’s sloop broke free of its mooring behind his house (next to Methodist Church) and was smashed to bits on the bulkhead next to the wharf in Bellevue. Treliese was with men from Willey’s Boatyard (now Cutt’s and Case Shipyard) over there trying to salvage some of his personal things scattered over the shore. Bill, Dale and I went to Easton this morning. Bill wanted to see Mr. Rach, the county commissioners or Mr. Bailey to tell them about the wharf, could not find any of them, but left word. Bill spent the afternoon trying to clean up down shore. The Potomac left the wharf about 10 a.m. for Crisfield. Shingles on our roof were blown off and part of Bill’s little house’s roof blew off. Bill’s diesel engine is at Crockett’s boatyard to be overhauled, it got full of salt water. Arbor of mother’s vines in the front yard went down across her walk. Governor McKeldin has asked President Eisenhower for emergency aid for the Eastern Shore, especially Dorchester and Somerset counties. Vamarie Naval Academy yawl went down at its pier in Annapolis yesterday.

Sunday, October 17, 1954 – Easton Baptists worshipped in their church for the first time. Cooler, mostly sunny. Bill carried Sunday papers to Bellevue in a sailboat – using Dale’s outboard motor. Then he fixed signs to put up on Oxford and St. Michaels Road while Mother, Dale and I went Sunday school. Mrs. Grey was away so I played piano. Our phones were still out. Bill and I went to put up signs and stopped and Bill told Mr. Will Marvel about the wharf and he told Bill to get in touch with Mr. Bailey.

Went on down to Tunis Mills to see Mr. Bailey and his sister told us he was at Hooker’s right outside of Oxford. His boat house had twisted and gone down on his cruiser and sunk it. We were fortunate to see Mr. Bailey at Hooker’s. He’s swamped with work but said he would take a look at the wharf as soon as he could. Brothers Joe and Bill Newnam are both without electricity, no way to keep food cold or cook. No lights, no heat. Our phone service was restored this evening.

Tuesday, October 18, 1954 – Through breakfast and dishes before 7. Started right in on laundry – just about 10 when I finished. Bill took Dale to school and then went to Crockett’s shop and started working on taking apart his diesel engine that got full of saltwater during high tide on Friday. Bill brought Dale home for lunch and took him back to school. Then Bill spent the rest of the afternoon working with Marshall Banks replacing singles on our roof on the back of our house – surprising how many the storm took off! They finished the job just before dark. Bill rushed down to the shore to place a cover on the little shed where the tar paper was torn off. At 10 a.m. Jessie picked me up and we rode out to the sale of household furnishings at Howard M. Johnson Farm. We were back a little after 11. I told Jessie that we couldn’t stay long because people have been constantly coming to the house or phoning to find out about the ferry or where Bill was about town cleaning up fallen trees.

So, what did happen to the ferry service?

Who fixed the wharf and how much did it cost?

The story of Hurricane Hazel continues next month in the Oxford Vignettes…

In case you were wondering…

“Vamarie, a ketch-rigged ocean racing yacht designed by Jasper Morgan of Cox and Stevens, Inc., was built in 1933 at Bremen, Germany, by Abeking and Rasmussen, for S. Vadim Makaroff of Oyster Bay, Long Island. With Makaroff at the helm, the yacht participated in nine ocean races between 1934 and 1936, sailing over 30,000 miles. Donated to the Regiment of Midshipmen at the United States Naval Academy on November 11, 1936, Vamarie served as the Navy’s racing yacht in local races in the Chesapeake Bay during the racing season in 1937. The following summer, on June 22, 1938, Vamarie was entered in the race from Newport, Rhode Island, to Bermuda. Four days later, the yacht came in 18th out of 22 vessels in her class and 29th out of the 44 total entries. Under the command of Captain John F. Shafroth, Vamarie’s participation in the race marked the first time a crew of Naval Academy Midshipmen represented the Academy in an ocean yacht race. Vamarie participated in further local races into 1939. On March 8, 1940, she was classified IX-47. The yacht was officially assigned to the Naval Academy on October 22, 1940, and was placed in service on November 10, 1944. She operated under the auspices of the Severn River Naval Command until authorized for disposal on February 24, 1955. Struck from the Navy list on June 22, 1955, Vamarie was broken up in December of the same year.”

Source: United States Naval Academy


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