When the Storm of '62 Devastated Dewey Beach

Once again, the gloom and doom predictions didn’t come true, and Delaware averted the worst of the big blizzard of 2016, especially downstate. There was beach erosion and some property damage, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as we were led to believe it would be by weather people, both nationally and locally.

t600-null_55-BW-OceanMettheBay.NormanRossiter

Dewey Beach flooded ~ Cape Gazette


That pre-blizzard hype included some breathless comparisons to what we in Delaware simply call the Storm of ’62, when a Nor’easter roared down the Atlantic Coast in 1962 and did incredible damage to beach property all along the Eastern Seaboard. It was devastating and everything that’s happened since – including Hurricane Sandy and the recent blizzard – pales in comparison.

Of course, like so many things, it’s all a matter of perspective. And what was a nightmare for an adult back in 1962-63 was a dream come true for a 9- or 10-year-old kid, which I was at the time.

Our family has had a place in Dewey Beach since the late 1920s. My grandparents were among the first to build in what was then known as Rehoboth by the Sea and we’re one of the few survivors from that pioneer era who still have a place in Dewey. When my siblings, cousins and I were growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, we were fortunate to spend every summer at Dewey Beach, although we certainly weren’t rich – we just got there first. And our cottage on New Orleans Street was and is a humble abode. It has two apartments, upstairs and downstairs, and we shared the place with our Moore cousins. Both apartments had just two bedrooms (we had seven people in our family and the Moores had six) with no washers or dryers or dishwashers or air conditioners or televisions or even potable water – we had to haul water from the Lewes Dairy once or twice a week in big glass bottles.

Anyhow, Dewey Beach was just a sleepy little town back then and hardly anybody even knew it existed. Normally, when I’d tell somebody about our summer place I’d get a blank stare until I added “Oh, it’s about a mile south of Rehoboth Beach,’’ and then they had at least an idea.

It was idyllic — and then the Storm of ’62 hit. We were very fortunate, as our place was relatively untouched, with just a thin layer of sand on the bottom apartment floor. At the time, hardly anybody lived in Dewey year-round, but one person who did was the famous (or infamous) Duke Duggan, who, along with his mother, Mary Duggan, built and operated the Starboard Restaurant, which was just a nice, quiet family place at the time. Duke later told us that a huge wall of water hit the house in front of ours and did a ton of damage, but that forced the water to circle around our place, with almost no damage.

rehoboth-ash

Henlopen Hotel ~ The Washington Post

We were lucky, but others weren’t so fortunate. The Noonan and Moore families drove down to Dewey Beach as soon as we were allowed in and we still have some grainy home movies we took with the ancient equipment we had then. I was too young to really understand the destruction I saw that day, but two memories stick out.

One of them was a familiar beachfront house on New Orleans Street that had completely vanished – the waves washed it out to sea and all that remained were some cinder blocks from the foundation and a few pipes sticking out of the ground. And the other happened on the other side of New Orleans Street, where the Royal Swan Motel was also heavily hit. One entire side of the building had been torn away, but what made it so memorable was that along one of the surviving walls was a shelf with fine china still displayed like company was coming over for dinner that evening.

But what I mostly remember is that even though the storm and the damage it caused was hell for the grown-ups, for the next couple of summers it was paradise for the kids. All of those wrecked houses became our clubhouses, and we climbed through and explored every one we could. That included one house where the sand had built up so much against one wall that we could climb up it and break in through a second-story window.

Our main clubhouse was a three-story place that stood right between two sections of the Royal Surf Motel on Read Street. We entered through a trap door in the floor and set up our headquarters there, a place that our parents knew nothing about and a place where we could smoke the cigarettes we stole from them without fear of getting caught.

By the way, there was no drug use back then and we didn’t need it anyhow – we’d take a couple of drags on one of my mother’s unfiltered Chesterfields and we’d practically hallucinate.

Anyhow, eventually somebody saw us breaking into the place and called the police and I had my first run-in with the law. Of course, the police officer knew we were just kids having fun and he simply tried to scare us by making us sit in his police car while he took down our personal information. But I don’t think he did anything about it, and as far as I know my parents never found out about my criminal activity.

Gradually, people rebuilt their cottages and stores and life returned to normal in Dewey Beach. Once again it became a sleepy little beach town that nobody knew about, and how I wish it still was.

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4 Comments

  • Great walk down memory lane Kevin. My aunt and uncle, the Vignolas owned the Rainbow Cove motel and a couple other properties in the old Dewey Beach. We spent many weeks there in the 50’s and 60’s often sleeping in the little cottages at the motel. From the beach patrols to sports and other activities at Rehoboth H. S. the Vignolas were a prominent name in the area. The two oldest sons played on the Gold squad in the first.two Delaware H.S. AllStar football games. I remember the large jugs of water, the open sewers and even using an outhouse at one of the cottages. But mostly I remember catching lots of crabs – they were thick everywhere in the bay. I also remember going up to see the devastation that wrecked the Rehoboth boardwalk sometime after the storm, but don’t remember much about the impact on the Vignola properties.

  • My grandparents lived on the Indian River! I spent my summers at the beach too. What a wonderful place it was and is. I too remember the storm of 1962. My grandfather was a photographer for All American. He took movies and stills of the devastation. Great piece and a delightful walk down memory lane!

  • John Riley … I remember the Vignolas well, as well as the Peaks and O’Hagens and many others. Did you ever hang out at the Texaco gas station across the street from the Bottle & Cork?

  • Our O’Hagan/Peak houses were a mess. Our bathtub was in the kitchen area, sand very deep all over first floor. Statue of Mary still on fireplace mantel with a chip in it. Someone still has it. I have a scar on my foot from stepping on the metal bands that hold lumber in bundles. I was 6.