85 years since the Flood of ‘36

Fewer and fewer people remain who have a first-hand recollection of the most destructive flood seen in this area in the last century.

The 1936 flood changed the landscape and infrastructure of towns all along the Potomac River and its tributaries, removing bridges that connected towns, economies and families.

Even local residents who were too young to recall specific scenes from that flood remember the stories told afterwards – from rescues to destruction.

Vivian Graham of Berkeley Springs said her family was moving to Hancock at the time of the flood. Waters were high, but her father, William Ernest, who owned a feed store, had a tall truck and was able to shuttle furniture to their new residence on High Street.

Glorious Sagle was five years old when the flood happened. She remembers her mother telling her the bridge between Hancock and Berkeley Springs had been washed away with the floodwaters.

Others from Paw Paw and Great Cacapon have snippets of memories of buildings – from dog houses to sheds and homes – washing down the Potomac River on high water.

A view of Berkeley Springs State Park during the 1936 flood.
Photo from the West Virginia & Regional History Center.

Weather archivists with the National Weather Service explain that snow melt wasn’t to blame for the incredible destruction that would come with the 1936 event.

“Oftentimes, a flood event occurring in this time of year might be at least partially caused by snowmelt.  In fact, February 1936 was cold, with lows below zero several times in the mountains of West Virginia, and a fairly persistent (though not major) snowpack. Conditions changed toward the end of February, though, with a substantial warmup melting much of the snowpack in a gradual manner.

“March was quite a warm month, with highs in the 60s fairly common, and only short-lived light snow events. But the weather pattern was unsettled. By mid-month, Baltimore, Washington, and many other areas had already seen nearly the entire normal rainfall for the month of March.

“Much of that fell on March 11th, as a storm that had developed in the Gulf of Mexico swung northward along the coast, then moved from the Outer Banks right up the Chesapeake Bay, intensifying as it moved north.  Rain totals of 2 to 3 inches were common, generally not enough to cause flooding but certainly enough to elevate streams in advance of what was to come,” National Weather Service historians wrote.

“As the name implies, the storm took shape on Saint Patrick’s Day (March 17th) 1936, with a deepening low pressure in the Carolinas and strong clash of warm and cold air right through the mid-Atlantic region.  Deep, strong southeasterly winds pumped Atlantic moisture into the region, with morning temperatures around 60 degrees. The heaviest rains (and some wraparound snow at the end) fell along and west of the Blue Ridge Mountains.”

In two days, 6.29 of rain fell on Romney, Wardensville got 5.68 inches and Hancock got 5.18 inches of rain. Higher elevations in the Shenandoah Valley received upwards of seven inches of rain in those two days.

“Post-analysis from the United States Geological Survey showed that almost all of this rain turned to runoff and immediately went into the streams, with very little soaking into the ground west of the Blue Ridge. This led to the substantial flooding which occurred,” said weather historians.

Impacts from the flooding hit from Cumberland eastward to Washington, D.C.

Morgan County and the Town of Hancock were especially damaged by the storm.

“Almost every bridge in Morgan County was washed out by the flood, even those on tributaries of the Potomac. Berkeley Springs was totally inundated by Warm Springs Run, with a scope of flooding that was not even approached again until 2012.

“The Cacapon River set a record which still stands today, cresting above 30 feet, more than 20 feet above flood stage, and six feet higher than the Great Flood of 1889.  The river was reported to stretch “from mountain to mountain.” The Potomac was twenty feet over its banks. Around a dozen buildings in Paw Paw were swept downriver. People went from house to house by boat searching for stranded persons,” records show.

A historic photo of Hancock during the 1936 March flood. Photo was reproduced in a Hancock Historical Society calendar half a century later.

Hancock Main Street.
Photo courtesy of Vivian Graham

“The town of Hancock suffered substantial damage. A record flood of 47.6 feet – more than 17 feet above flood stage – swept through the town, breaking buildings apart, damaging roadways, and causing buildings and homes to float downstream. An emergency center was set up in the Hancock Fire Hall for the 150 people left homeless by the flood. The entire town was without electricity.

“One resident told The Hancock News, “we could have reached out from the boat and touched the electric wires” because the water was so high. The depth of the water along Main Street in Hancock was reported to be as much as 15 feet in spots.”

The Hancock News reported “…we are surrounded by oceans of water, in fact we are working to get out this issue with at least 12 feet of water under our plant.”

The bridge connecting the eastern and western shores of the Potomac near Hancock saw its middle span wash away.