Fact Friday 97 – The Great Flood
Happy Friday everyone!
When 22 inches of rain hit the North Carolina mountains in mid July (July 16) 1916, something was bound to happen below. A fierce storm with high winds blew in from the Atlantic near Charleston. The tropical hurricane hit Charlotte with 50 mile an hour winds, blowing away roots and snapping off and up turning trees. “The next morning the city look like a cyclone head hit,” wrote W. M. Bell of Charlotte. The Washington weather bureau warned that Charleston was in the storms direct path, but it veered inland, with Piedmont and western North Carolina in its direct path, and then hurtled west without warning toward Asheville. In hours, every stream became a raging river plunging toward the Piedmont like an unending flood. Whole towns and factories disappeared into the torrent.
All the people could do after they fled to safety was watch their homes and towns wash away.
A river claimed the remaining railroad span in Asheville shortly after this photo was taken in 1916.
The Greensboro daily news reported that one man standing on his porch above Reddies River saw nine of his neighbors’ homes move and float downriver:
In all the valleys and coves the loss is clean, nothing of vegetation or buildings is left, and one familiar with this mountain country knows that most of the houses are pitched in the valleys and streams… for the convenience of the springs… In places acres have moved down the mountains, uprooting trees and clearing all growth… In Hickory, the three year-old child of W.M. Clark was swept from his father’s arms and drowned.
Landslides left this railroad track suspended in mid-air, but these daring men still stood on the rails for a photo.
In Belmont, a mill village just west of Charlotte, 18 people perished when the Catawba River took the trestle. At one crossing, officials parked a train engine in the middle of the river bridge hoping that it’s wait would hold it but it was swept away. A 5000 spindle mill at Monbo, near Rock Hill, was never seen again. After three days of rain, not a bridge or trestle was left crossing the Catawba. The flood crested 55 feet above the rivers normal height. The receding Catawba revealed 350 bales of ruined long-staple cotton valued at $30,000 piled in a ravine near the Manbo Mills, north of Charlotte. “Buck” Duke and engineer William S. Lee stood in the rain at Great Falls, watching helplessly as brown water covered huge generators. Only after several days did the plant dry out enough to work again.
The remains of the railroad trestle at Nations Ford near Rock Hill, S.C. Following the flood, the trestle, constructed in 1852, was rebuilt on the original stone pillars shown here.
- The 22.22 inches that drenched Altapass, a community in the mountains of Mitchell County, beginning July 15, 1916, was the heaviest 24-hour rainfall ever recorded in the U.S. at that time. It is still the state record.
- Back-to-back hurricanes, which triggered the 1916 flood, soaked the N.C. mountains again in 2004. Hurricane Frances dropped 18.1 inches in Linville Falls, in Burke County. Nine days later, Ivan rained 17 inches on Cruso, west of Asheville. Eleven people died in the storms, which left nearly $200 million in damage.
- Farmers were hit hardest by flooding. “It not only put many farmers out of business for that year but for many years, because it washed away so much topsoil,” said Michael Hill, historical research supervisor for the N.C. Office of Archives and History.
- Conservationists blamed intensive logging for increased flooding. Their pressure on Congress resulted in the Weeks Act, passed in 1911, which gave the federal government authority to protect forests in the East. The first acreage to be bought under the act, in 1916, became the 500,000-acre Pisgah National Forest in western North Carolina.
- The flood left scarcely a mile of railroad track between Statesville and Asheville undamaged. Out-of-work farmers, mill workers and laborers flocked to construction camps set up by Southern Railway, which paid room, board and $1.50 a day. Most lines were operating again by September.
- When the flood knocked out a Southern Power Co. hydroelectric power plant in Great Falls, S.C., Charlotte and cotton mills far up the Catawba lost electricity. Within hours, the company that would become Duke Energy rerouted power from 600 miles away in Tallulah Falls, Ga.
- By August 1916, Southern Power was working west of Morganton on a solution to control future floods: Three massive dams across the headwaters of the Catawba. The dams created Lake James.
- Congress appropriated $540,000 for states affected by flooding, and a state relief committee collected $75,000 in donations. Across the region, towns held fund-raising concerts, movies and picnics. Banks, groceries and hardware stores offered discounts to help their customers recover.
Until next week!
Email me at chris@704Shop.com if you have interesting Charlotte facts you’d like to share or just to provide feedback!
Information taken from:
Charlotte North Carolina: A Brief History, Mary Kratt, 2009
8 Things to Know About North Carolina’s Great Flood of 1916, Bruce Henderson, CharlotteObserver.com, 7/15/2016.
Hell and High Water: The Flood of 1916, Heidi Coryell Williams, OurState.com
“We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and the future.” – Frederick Douglass