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Day the ocean stood still

(Jan. 17, 2014) Imagine a lunar landscape speckled with house-sized blocks of ice and sub-freezing temperatures and you might conjure an image resembling Ocean City during the winter storm of 1979.

Locals still recall the February freeze that year, which led to the pier’s collapse and “freezing” of the ocean.

The Ocean City pier stands collapsed from damage during the ice storm of 1979. It has been replaced several times since, but never to its original T-shape, said Ocean City Life-Saving Station Curator Sandy Hurley. (Photo by Scott Murrell courtesy of The Ocean City Life-Saving Station Museum)

“We had a real bad cold snap,” said Sandy Hurley, curator at the Ocean City Life-Saving Station Museum.

“It was fun,” Hurley said. “Of course, I don’t think we were out very long.”

According to the Feb. 22 edition of the Maryland Coast Press from that year, about 15 inches of snow fell during a multi-day spurt of unusually cold weather.

Locals said temperatures didn’t dip below those brought by last week’s polar vortex, but lasted longer, causing the ocean to freeze.

“You could actually walk out onto the surf,” said Scott Murrell, a realtor at Coldwell Banker who was living on Trimper Avenue at the time. “It was deadly quiet, you know? There was no pounding of the surf or the waves.”

Like many, Murrell and his roommate made the trek on foot — the roads were closed — to see the inlet in its deep freeze.

The notion the ocean froze over is not entirely correct, however. As Hurley explained, the fresh water in the Delaware Bay froze during the cold spell. When it disbanded, the ice drifted to Ocean City and turned the sea into slush “just as for as you could see,” she said.

“You could see it on the horizon —a band of ice in the distance, and the following day it had moved in where the entire ocean was frozen,” Murrel said.

House-sized blocks of ice floating in the saltwater smoothie made their way into the mix, pounding the pilings of the iconic pier until it collapsed into the water, he said.

The winter of ‘79 was not the only year the ocean “froze,” though, said Hurley. She remembers pulling sleds and building snowmen on the bay during the winter of 1961, and the Life-Saving Station Museum holds photos from the same event in 1948 and 1917, she said.

According to the Maryland Coast Press, the Tuesday following the ’79 blizzard and ice storm saw a sunny, 40-degree day, melting much of the ice and snow that coated the city.

“After the storm passed, it was nice,” Hurley said. It was so nice, she and her husband and several friends ventured out to pose with the seven-foot-tall ice blocks that took “awhile” to thaw, she said.

Condo owners from Baltimore and Washington came to the city to see the icescapes and take photos, she said. “It was pretty awesome.”

More than three decades later, the event still marks the minds of those who were here last time the sea stopped in its tracks.

Murrell keeps his photo of the pier collapsing into ice in his desk at work.

On the back, it reads, “The day the ocean froze.”

Clara Vaughn, Ocean City Today
Clara Vaughn, Ocean City Todayhttps://www.oceancity.com/OceanCityToday
Clara discovered journalism as a freelance reporter for her hometown newspaper, the Eastern Shore News, in 2008. She spent her summers reporting from the courtroom to the marsh as a general assignment reporter for the News while finishing her undergraduate degree at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va. In 2011, she earned a Virginia Press Association Award for her health, science and environment writing package. After a stint in press relations, Clara returned to school, earning a Master of Journalism degree from the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism in 2012. She traveled overseas and landed as a reporter and copy editor at Ocean City Today in May of 2013.

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