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25 years ago, Agnes reigned

June 18, 1997

By LAURA ERNDE

Staff Writer

Lettie Shores has lost count of the number of times the Potomac River has come knocking on her door.

After 89 years of living on the waterfront in Point of Rocks, Md., Shores can tell just by looking when the river is going to overflow its banks.

"I can tell about when it's going to get the house, depending on how fast it's racing," she said.

Each time, Shores packs up her furniture and other belongings and retreats to higher ground.

Floodwaters twice have swept her wooden homes off their foundations.

The first time was the infamous Flood of 1936, which set high water records that have not been broken.

The second time was 25 years ago this week, when Tropical Storm Agnes roared through the Mid-Atlantic states.

Agnes was blamed for 48 deaths in Pennsylvania and 19 deaths in Maryland. None occurred in the seven-county Tri-State area.

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Still, the five-day storm, which started out as a hurricane, devastated the area, dumping an average of 6 to 10 inches of rain. High waters wreaked havoc on buildings along the Potomac River and Antietam and Conococheague creeks.

Rain began falling on June 19, and floodwaters peaked on June 22-23. When the worst was over, Shores told a Herald-Mail reporter she was going to buy a trailer so when the next flood came she could simply drive away.

Shores did end up living in a borrowed trailer for several months. But only until her new house was built.

She didn't like trailer living and constructed a sturdy concrete block and brick structure, which has weathered the test of time. It stayed put during two floods in 1996.

Shores never left the area because it was her home. She and her husband also made a living from the river, renting fishing boats and campsites between the canal and the river.

In Washington County, rain from Agnes swelled the Conococheague Creek, inundating Hagerstown Raceway and Conococheague Park on U.S. 40.

Williamsport Manufacturing Co., which made women's clothing, was a total loss in the flood.

The Victor Cushwa & Sons building in Williamsport sustained $4,000 damage.

Water came up almost to the second floor of the Old Mill Inn, more recently known as Kemps Mill Inn. Today, the brown shingled building sits vacant and dilapidated.

Charles Blank, 59, rented a cottage that was swept away by the Conococheague and was never rebuilt.

Blank was able to remove most of his belongings before the flood. Today, he lives on Prospect Street in Hagerstown and works in the office of the Maryland Symphony Orchestra.

The Conococheague's rise also devastated Chambersburg, Pa., to the north.

Running through the center of town, the creek swelled and forced 2,000 people out of their homes in the Commerce Street area. National Guard troops kept people from entering or leaving the borough.

J. William Stover said the flooding was the biggest crisis he faced as mayor of the borough from 1970 to 1980.

"It was a pretty horrendous thing. I had my hands full, but it was very easy for me because I had a very good town council and excellent working crew," he said. "Everybody pulled together, including many of the citizens."

Stover was affected personally by the flood when 13 feet of water filled the basement of his West King Street laundry business, destroying washers and dryers.

Stover, 72, had to leave that crisis to his wife while he spent a day and a half at the borough office building, then located across Second Street in what is now the Chamber of Commerce building, coordinating disaster relief.

"The biggest crisis, really, was the town was cut in two," said Julio Lecuona, the recently retired borough manager who was utilities manager then.

When Lecuona realized what was about to happen, he stationed utility workers on both east and west sides of the flood.

The sewer plant off Hollywell Avenue was out of service because the pumping station was under water. The station has since been rebuilt on higher ground, he said.

"We learned what a 200-year flood is. It doesn't mean it happens once every 200 years. It means that you have one chance in 200 of it happening every year," he said.

Other highlights of the Agnes flood, according to newspaper stories of the time:

  • A dam on Conococheague Creek near Fannettsburg, Pa., threatened to break. Nearby families were evacuated. The dam held.
  • n A 2,700-pound troop carrier stationed at Letterkenny Army Depot was swept downstream and lodged against a bridge on Pa. 997.

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