The WPA and Natural Disaster Projects in Maryland
(See Photos Below!)
The WPA was frequently called upon to respond to natural disasters. For example, see my exhibit AA-33 for a video of a powerful hurricane that hit New England in 1938, and the WPA's response. And see my Tragedy at New Madrid exhibit to see the names of 26 WPA men who died in Missouri in 1937, trying to protect life and property from rising river waters.
When western Maryland was struck by an enormous flood in March of 1936 the WPA was ready to help save lives, clean up flood debris, and repair damage (with respect to the latter, see my Bridges exhibit). The flood--called the St. Patrick's Day Flood of 1936--caused immense damage and left people fighting for their lives. An article in the Baltimore Sun on March 19, 1936 reported on the rescue efforts in Cumberland: "By 2 P.M. Wills Creek, which joins the Potomac nearly in the heart of the city, had become dangerously high, and word reached National Guard headquarters that families were being cut off by flood waters in the Locust Grove section. A rescue party composed of guardsmen and WPA workers met the La Vale Fire Company on the railroad bridge over Wills Creek and went on across to Locust Grove, wading through waist-deep water." Lieutenant Colonel George Henderson, head of the guardsmen (and a former Mayor of Cumberland) explained: "When we reached the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad tracks, already partially submerged, we could see people waving from the second floors of their homes between Wills Creek and the tracks." The article goes on to describe various rescue efforts made with ropes and canoes, but this particular rescue effort was not successful until the following day. ("Troops Act To Avert Looting In Flood Torn Cumberland," p. 1)
The WPA photograph collection at the University of Maryland College Park Archives shows that many flood walls were built by the WPA in Allegany County after the St. Patrick's Day Flood of 1936. This would seem to indicate that local officials saw the WPA as a timely opportunity to both employ the jobless and fortify (or repair) their defenses against future floods.
Photo credits: Unless otherwise noted, all black and white
photos were taken by the WPA, are in the public domain, and provided
courtesy of the University of Maryland College Park Archives. All color
photos--unless otherwise noted--were taken by Brent McKee. Click here for more information on photo credits, permission to use, and exhibit descriptions.
Above: Cleaning up North Mechanic Street, after the St. Patrick's Day Flood of 1936, was part of WPA project #496. (Photographed March 25, 1936)
Above: This flood wall in Midland (Allegany County) was WPA project #577-3120. The description card for this photo reads, "Looking west completed flood walls along Miller's run." (Photographed October 1937)
Above: These WPA workers are working in Midland (Allegany County). This photograph is interesting for two reasons. First, it appears that the men have put a WPA work sign on a clump of ground protruding from the creek, amidst the rushing waters. This shows how important it was, to the WPA, to advertise their work. The WPA was frequently criticized and thus, understandably, went out of its way to show its good work. The second reason this photograph is interesting is because of what is written on the description card: "Cleaning out creek channel of fill caused by flood of 4-26-37." It seems that the St. Patrick's Day Flood of 1936 was not the only flood to harass Allegany County during this time period. (Maryland WPA project #3120, April 1937)
Above: A power shovel repairing flood damage in George's Creek in Westernport (Allegany County). (Maryland WPA project #3171, September 1937)
Above: Preparing George's Creek for a new flood wall, after debris has been cleared out (see previous photo). (Maryland WPA project #3171, October 1937)
Above: A flood wall along George's Creek, in the town of Barton (Allegany County). Note the small pointed stones along the top of the floodwall. This design--or ornamentation--was often used on WPA stonework in Maryland. (Maryland WPA project #3217, April 1938)
Above: The flood wall in Barton, as it was being constructed (see previous photo). (Maryland WPA project #3217, February 1938)
Above: This flood wall in Lonaconing (Allegany County) was Maryland WPA project #3037. (Photographed March 1937)
Above: This bridge in Hancock (Washington County) was a victim of the St. Patrick's Day Flood of 1936. The WPA made temporary repairs to this bridge--enough to allow traffic to cross--as part of Maryland WPA project #516. (Photographed April 20, 1936)
Above: Another view of the flood-damaged bridge in Hancock (see previous photo).
Above: A WPA crew clearing snow from sidewalks in Baltimore County or Baltimore City in February 1936 (exact location and project # unknown). Not all snowstorms are disasters of course, but when heavy snow does fall, how beneficial would it be to have a WPA-type program to respond? Baltimore City had difficulty responding to snow storms in early 2010 because the city was simply not used to so much snow. Snow removal crews were overwhelmed, and it took days for them to reach some locations. One angry resident (there were many), wrote to the Baltimore Sun, "Baltimore City dropped the ball for its citizens. If this is any indication of disaster preparedness, our city is done for. Please find out who is responsible for the abysmal snow removal in Baltimore..." We can also remember the problems governments had responding to hurricane Katrina. Yet, during the Great Depression, the WPA and CCC were frequently praised for their response to disasters, e.g., in averting the disaster, mitigating the disaster, or cleaning up after the disaster.
Above: In the early part of the 20th century, towers were often used to visually patrol for fires. Maryland WPA project #193 was the construction of this fire tower in Pleasant Hill (Cecil County). (Photographed September 1935). For a picture of a fire tower built (or rebuilt) by the CCC, that still exists today, see my Lost River State Park exhibit.