by Terry Rogers
A summer thunderstorm that passed through Milford on September 3 caused major power outages and flooding in the town. This is not the first time a September storm has caused widespread damage, however. In 1935, the Labor Day Hurricane caused extensive flooding and property damage in the town.
The Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, which was formally known as Hurricane Three since storms were not given actual names at that time, was an intense storm with winds of 185 miles per hour when it made landfall near Long Key in Florida on September 2 and a second landfall on September 4. The storm then travelled along the western coast of Florida, weakening as it moved toward the mid-Atlantic coast. By the time it arrived on Delmarva, it had been downgraded but still carried heavy rains.
Milford and the surrounding area dealt with four days of rain totaling almost six inches, leaving three people dead and thousands of dollars of damage. Corn and tomato crops were destroyed as many fields were completely submerged in water. Factories were forced to stop canning tomatoes because the fruit was too soft for packing. Brakeley’s Canners reported losses of $15,000, over $238,000 in today’s dollars.
The storm began Thursday, September 5, 1935, dumping significant amounts of rain in the area. That evening, the Mispillion River overflowed its banks. Mills opened floodgates at their dams, connecting a series of ponds at the head of the river on Friday, September 6, changing the course of the river by about 20 feet and guiding the water along West Front Street. The Walnut Street Bridge was threatened and, because it was in the heart of the business section of town, it was roped off to prevent traffic from crossing.
Water at the bridge at Haven Lake covered the railroad and began washing away the bank. Photos show flooding on Causey Avenue in front of Hearn’s Lumberyard and the office of L.D. Caulk. Sipple’s Marble Yard, which was then located on Southwest Front Street, Milford Auto Body Works, Brakeley’s Cannery and C.E. Varney’s coal yard all suffered heavy flood losses from the storm.
Just nine years later, on September 14, 1944, another hurricane, sometimes called the Great Atlantic Hurricane, caused significant damage in Delaware. Officially known as Hurricane Seven, it was the deadliest storm of the 1944 season. It became a Category 4 hurricane with winds of 145 miles per hour on September 13 and travelled along the East Coast before making landfall in Long Island.
Coastal areas suffered the most devastation. A freighter broke in half in Rehoboth Beach and the boardwalk heavily damaged. Estimates were that the Rehoboth boardwalk suffered $30,000 in damage, almost $442,000 in today’s dollars. Reports say that every tree in the town was stripped of its leaves. Power outages in the resort town were so extensive, every candle was sold in the day after the storm. Dolle’s and the theatre in Rehoboth were destroyed.
At the height of the storm, a freighter known as the “Thomas Tracy” crashed on the beach in front of Delaware Avenue. The freighter had been headed to Norfolk from New York and was trying to make the Delaware Breakwater to anchor when the storm struck. Huge waves buffeted the ship requiring the Coast Guard to lash the vessel to sections of the boardwalk in Rehoboth to prevent it from breaking apart. The crew, all of whom were uninjured, were removed and taken to the summer home of H. Rodney Sharp. The vessel eventually broke in half, but the halves did not separate.
Fearing fire, Lewes officials ordered all electric shut down in the town. The William E. Walsh warehouse in Lewes lost the front of its building and a number of summer cottages lost roofs. In Bethany, the north end of the boardwalk was damaged as was the Seaside Inn. Several beach cottages in Bethany were also destroyed.
Despite being inland, Milford was not spared the wrath of the hurricane. The town dealt with 70-mile an hour sustained winds, leading to streets blocked with fallen trees and broken branches. Roads were also covered in broken window glass and blocked by stalled automobiles. Crews from the Municipal Light Company worked all night to repair electric wires and clear streets.
The home of Howard Hudson and his family was destroyed when a large tree fell across it and the home of A.E. Paquette caught fire due to a short circuit caused by rain. The homes of former Senator I.D. Short and Arthur Sockrider were damaged by falling trees. The roof of the Witt Apartments was torn off in the storm as well as the roof over the kiln at the C.V. Wilson brickyard. The Fallen Soldier Memorial in what was then known as Plaza Square was blown down and carried across the street.
A bus carrying students from the Milford High School stalled, keeping the children at school until 7:30 PM. Then Mayor Edward Evans requested the assistance of the Civilian Defense workers who responded to duty at a City control center.
Only one death occurred in Delaware as a result of the storm. Robert Ewing, a summer resident of Bethany Beach, died of a heart attack while outside during the storm.