Oxford Vignettes: Hurricane Hazel, Part II

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.

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

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.

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 an 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.

 Last month we began the story of Hurricane Hazel that hit the Chesapeake Bay on October 15, 1954, as told by Sara Benson.

Hurricane Hazel

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

Monday, October 18, 1954 – Mr. and Mrs. C.A. Anderson’s 48th birthday. Mr. Herbert Collins died. I spent the afternoon cleaning the downstairs. Hal Hallock got Bill to take him to Bellevue this morning to look the wharf situation over. Hal feels if given the chance he could do the job of getting the wharf back on the pilings in short time.

Tuesday, October 19, 1954 – Street lights were on for the first time since the hurricane hit on Friday. Cold, rainy day. Before 7 a.m. people started coming to our house on business. Captain Milbourne was the first to come. He paid Bill the money he owed him. Bill took Dale to school and did some errands around town. He came home at 9:30 and said that Hal Hallock had told him he thought he ought to go to the County Commissioners and tell them about Hal and if Bill phoned him, he’d come on in and talk to the commissioners about replacing the wharf. Bill left here in time to talk to the commissioners at 11. I packed Dale’s lunch and left it at school on my way out of town. When Bill saw the commissioners and told them they wanted Bill to phone Hal to come on in. He told the Commissioners he could start the job tomorrow and would promise the job wouldn’t cost over $4,000. Mr. Rach, the state road man was also there he said his men could do the work but not for a couple of weeks. Mr. John Bailey said he wouldn’t be able to touch it until December. Bill and I feel very encouraged that the work may start on the wharf soon. Bill picked up Dale from school and they walked the shorelines to see the extent of the damage. In back of Adkins, Dale stepped in something like quicksand, trying to get out of it, he fell back in the water and his boot came off. Bill went to help him and almost got caught too. Dale had to change every piece of clothing. Took mother to church and bible class tonight. Ironed clothes.

Wednesday October 20, 1954 – Bill Benson’s 46th birthday! Aunt Mary’s birthday. Bill spent the morning finishing cleaning up his diesel engine at Crocketts (it was flooded with salt water during the hurricane). Dale walked home from school today. Mr. Hallock got the O.K. from the county commissioners yesterday to rebuild Bellevue wharf for $4,000 in 28 working days and he is going to restart building at once. I baked a coconut cake for Bill this morning. Dale spent the afternoon in Bellevue with Bill. They went over on The Maryland, with A.B.Harris. William Valliant took them down to old Ernest Townsend’s farm to see Henry Crumlick to get permission from him to fix up the place to land passengers on his property (Uncle Will’s old oyster house). He told Bill as soon as Bill could give him something in writing from an insurance company Bill could fix a landing for passengers. Bill has been so involved cleaning up the town and his own troubles that he forgot about his birthday until he came home tonight found the dining room table all fixed up. He had 46 candles on his cake and blew them out with one big puff. Bill went to commissioners meeting tonight.

Thursday, October 21, 1954 – Bill went to Easton this morning to get a letter from Howard Garment to take to Mr. Crumlick saying he wouldn’t be responsible if anyone was hurt on his property while Bill is landing passengers there. After lunch Bill went right on down to the shore and started getting lumber and material ready to take to Bellevue to fix the landing. He towed AB Harris’ scow over with the ferry for Hal Hallock to use.

Friday, October 22, 1954 – Restoration of Bellevue Wharf started. At 6:45 am Bill took Hal Hallock’s men over on the ferry to start work on the Bellevue wharf. Nine men are working on the job, Chuck Willey is one of them. Bill also took one of Hallock’s large trucks over and men unloaded it on the wharf. Bill then brought the truck back and he brought oyster shuckers over and then Joe Valliant back across to go to school, he also took Uncle Howard across. Bill took the oyster shuckers back this evening.

Saturday October 23, 1954 – Bill on the job extra early this morning, at 5:45 he took Hallock’s men to Bellevue to continue their wharf work. They asked Bill to give them some assistance with the ferry this afternoon and Bill got aground and alongside the wharf and had right much trouble getting the ferry free. Pat Willey and Mary Hanks were on board with him at the time. They had ridden over with him to take a look at the situation. Except for cooking meals and doing hand laundry I spent the entire day out in the yard raking leaves and cleaning up from “Hurricane Hazel.” I just hadn’t been able to get to it before and the place sure was a mess. I put everything into bushel baskets and Dale hauled them down to the shore to be burned.

Monday October 25, 1954 – Aunt Ida and Uncle Howard’s 55th Wedding Anniversary. Bill took men over at 5:45 a.m. Tide was low so it was a good time to work on the wharf. Bill Crumlick has given Bill permission to fix a place to land passengers on his property in Bellevue. Bill will fix a landing tomorrow.

Work continued on the Bellevue Wharf, interrupted by rain off and on for another week. Then on November 3, Hallock’s new crane came. The progress was fast and steady, and the wharf was fully repaired by November 15, 1954, ahead of schedule.

In case you were wondering…

Aunt Ida and Uncle Howard are this writer’s great grandparents that lived in Oxford. They were married for 68 years.

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