A Short History of Flooding in Cumberland

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Situated in a valley at the confluence of two rivers, Cumberland, Maryland, has had more than its share of floods.

Heavy rains and snows tend to bring some type of flooding to Cumberland, though a flood-control channel has abated that in recent decades. Before that, Cumberland tended to have a bad flood on average of once a decade.

Early Flooding in Cumberland

In one of the earliest recorded floods in the city, several bridges were washed out in town in 1810. The city also had major floods in 1816 and 1828.

Records of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, which runs alongside the Potomac River and terminates in Cumberland, show major flooding during its construction and during its period of operation. In fact, it was a major flood in 1824 that finally put the C&O Canal out of business.

Big floods happened in 1894, 1902, 1903, 1905 and 1907. “Typical of this would be the flood of February 28, 1902, which, although a tremendous flood with a water flow depth in the Cumberland area of fifteen and a half feet, would still be exceeded by the floods of 1889, 1924 and 1936,” Al Feldstein wrote in the forward to The Rain Man.

Flooding Brought Disease

One problem with the floods was that they brought disease in their wake. “After a major flood in the spring of 1853, the City of Cumberland was covered with mud and other types of filth. As a result, we experienced a cholera epidemic that caused fifty-five deaths and had the town virtually empty of people as everyone headed for the hills after the first confirmed cholera death. The 1850 census indicates that the City of Cumberland had a population of 6,067 people at that time,” Feldstein wrote.

Controlling the Flooding

It was the immense damages caused by 1936 St. Patrick’s Day Flood that got the federal government to fund a flood-control project in Cumberland, which was completed in 1959. The project includes levees, retaining walls, channel clearing and deepening along mostly Wills Creek but also the North Branch of the Potomac River near Cumberland.

A concrete channel along Wills Creek allows 50,000 cubic feet of water per second to pass through Cumberland. This is 131 percent of the maximum flow of the St. Patrick’s Day Flood.

The improvements on the North Branch Potomac River allow 93,000 cubic feet per second to pass alongside Cumberland. This is 128 percent of the maximum 1936 flow.

However, even as this project was being planned and built, Cumberland experienced additional floods, particularly in 1957.

Modern Flood Problems

Though the flood-control project stopped the flooding from Wills Creek and the Potomac River in Cumberland, other flooding situations had arisen over the years.

Floods in 1972 were the result of Hurricane Agnes. Flooding in January and September of 1996 led to the area receiving Presidential disaster declarations. There were also major flood in 1985 and 2000.

Western Maryland Flood Task Force

Cumberland and Western Maryland’s problems with flooding brought about the creation of the Western Maryland Flood Task Force. Representatives from Frederick, Washington, Allegany and Garrett counties, all in Maryland, make up the group. Their mission is to recommend and implement ideas to reduce the risks that flooding causes in the region.