The Great Flood

Photo from Our State Magazine

The Great Flood of 1916, as it was often called, was the worst flooding in recorded history to hit Asheville and western North Carolina.

It all began with a Category 3 hurricane that made landfall in the Gulf between Biloxi and Mobile, Alabama during the night on July 5-6. By July 7th and 8th, it was a tropical storm centered over central Alabama but it's rain was already beginning to affect western North Carolina which had already had a wetter than normal summer. It had started raining on July 5th and didn't stop for 6 days. The water table was full but the Appalachia's were used to flooding. This was substantial but not disastrous. So far.

Most of the heavier rain had stayed to the south, primarily over South Carolina and Georgia, although Rock House and Highlands, just outside of the French Broad River Watershed, recorded 16.93 inches and 15.37 inches of rain, respectively. July 12th and 13th saw a Category 3 hurricane sitting just off the coast of Charleston, S.C. It made landfall on the 14th and then weakened to a tropical storm and moved through Columbia and on towards Greenville, S.C. By the time the storm reached Fontana Lake in the Smoky Mountains west of Asheville on the 15th, it had become a weak low pressure system. While the French Broad River at Asheville had received little rain in the last 4 days, it had receded back to exactly flood stage at 4 feet.

That afternoon, the heavy rains began. Within 24 hours, Grandfather Mountain reported 22.22 inches, 14.7 inches at Brevard, 12.32 inches at Hendersonville, and a mere 2.98 inches in Asheville. On July 16th, dams broke on the French Broad River, sending a flash flood down the river and causing it to rise rapidly in Asheville. At 8 a.m., it was at 13.5 feet. At 9 a.m., it was 18.6 feet and by 10 a.m., the river gauge had washed away, along with the bridge to which it was mounted. It eventually crested at 23.1 feet. The Swannanoa River joins the French Broad near the entrance to the Biltmore Estate and it crested at 20.7 feet.

Asheville was marooned for weeks. Bridges were washed out, people were stranded in trees, houses floated away, and more than 80 people drowned. And the water was heading to the east.

The Catawba River, along which many cotton mills were located, was rising throughout the day on Sunday, the 16th. Hundreds of cotton bales clogged the river, along with houses, sheds, chicken coops and even an entire warehouse from the Rhodhiss Manufacturing Company. At Mount Holly, the river crested at an estimated 45.5 feet. North of Belmont, railroad workers worked diligently to remove debris from the bridge so the freight trains could continue carrying produce northward. Around 5:30 p.m., just after a load of peaches had passed, 19 men were on the bridge when it collapsed and they were all swept into the river. Some were crushed by the falling steel and others drowned. By the end, 10 had died.

Many miles of railroad track were either washed away or made impassable by landslides. Most bridges were too low for the debris being swept down the river and all bridges across the Catawba River, except one railroad bridge near Marion, were washed away. The flood even destroyed the Lake Wylie dam and the Lookout dam. Most of the cotton mills were flooded to some extent or another. The bridge below Laboratory was washed away and there was 3 feet of water in the lower level of the Laboratory Mill. Many dams and mills were damaged or destroyed.

Stories of Interest:

Two stories from an Article called "Asheville, Biltmore and Nearby Points" by Helen C. Blankenship, printed in The North Carolina Flood:
Rescue Work at Biltmore"P.A. Miller, mayor of South Biltmore, was an eye-witness to the entire scene. Here is his story:' My little boy woke me about 6 o-clock,' he said, 'saying that the river was up and Captain Lipe's family in danger. I went right out there. Captain Lipe was up in a tree near his house, holding his youngest daughter, Miss Katherine Lipe, above him. Miss Charlotte Walker, and Miss Foister, nurses from Biltmore hospital, and Miss Louise Walker, Miss Walker's sister, were standing at the foot of the tree in water up to their necks. They were holding to the tree and at times tried to climb up into it.'Everyone of the Lipe family, and the nurses, had once gotten out of the house at 5 o-clock in the morning in water up to their ankles. They did not believe the water would rise any more and went back after their belongings. The water caught them so suddenly that they could not get away. 'One by one the victims gave way, let go their hold and sank immediately. A young man was swimming to the last of the young ladies with a rope when she turned loose and sank. Captain Lipe was the last to turn loose. He had bee in that cold water for six or eight hours, with the river lashing his back and beating him against the tree, when he gave way and fell into the water. He was seen to go ten feet, to sink, come up, go under again and was never seen any more.'He left his daughter, Miss Kathleen still clinging to the tree. She stayed like that some two hours when a young man swam to her and went up the tree. Another young man swam out and took her a rope. They tied her up in the tree, well above the water, so that her weight was suspended by the rope under her arms, before they got a boat to her."

Rescue of a Boy Marooned 48 Hours"Tom McDowell, a 16-year-old boy of West Asheville, was rescued Tuesday morning from the store of J.C. Brice, on the west bank of the French Broad river near the concrete bridge, after having been marooned in the little building, surrounded by the flood waters of the French Broad since early Sunday morning.McDowell had taken refuse from the rapidly rising waters in the little store, and his refuge became his prison. The store floated out into the river, where it jammed against some trees. The water rose to the boy's knees, to his waist, and Tom sought higher ground.He stepped up on the big icebox in the store, and then bethought himself that he might become hungry before he reached dry land again, and wading and splashing about from shelf to counter he filled his pockets with boxes of crackers, with fruit, cheese, and such canned goods as he could open. Thus prepared he regained the ice box and laid the eatables on the nearest shelf within his reach.By this time the water had covered the top of the icebox, and now it began creeping up again, to his ankles, his knees, his waist.Alarmed, the boy looked around and tried to think what he could do if the water rose to the ceiling of the store. An axe hanging on the wall opposite gave him an inspiration. Wading, half swimming, scrambling, splashing, he crossed the little room and took down the axe, and returned with it to the top of the icebox. Holding the axe above his head he chopped a hole through the shingled roof, and as the water reached his armpits he placed a box up on the ice chest, and stood up on this with his head out of the hole in the roof--and the water around his neck.He placed his eatables out on the roof when he chopped the hole, and he coolly made a hearty meal while looking out at the scene of desolation around him. Houses, small and large, lumber, logs, a mule, washed by. Until noon, cramped, cold, faint, he maintained his critical and uncomfortable position; then the waters began to fall.After awhile he could get down on the icebox again, then he could wade about on the floor, but still the water was too deep, the current too swift, for him to venture out. All Sunday, Sunday night, and all day Monday, he was a prisoner in his little island. Tuesday morning rescue parties out in boats heard him calling for help and took him to shore."
Another story printed in The North Carolina Flood, Reprinted from The Charlotte News
A Mountain Tragedy"The highway engineer speaks of one slide, which starting slowly close to the summit of the mountain, carried away the home of E.B. Huntley. In that mountain home were the father, the mother, and their two children. Lights were burning there, for their cheer was needed, and around the hearthstone before a smouldering fire were gathered the little family. From below came the never-ceasing clamor of the infuriate driver hurling unimaginable masses of water and rocks against the mountainside. Outside a world in the making, with not a star in the heavens nor a gleam in of light. The rain came in sheets, beating against doors and windowpanes. Outside utter desolation and things they knew not of. Inside, warmth, light, fancied security. But suddenly above the outcry of the river below was heard a still more terrific tumult above them, on the side of the mountain. It stilled all other noises, and with it came shocks which shook the dwelling and the world upon which it rested. Closer and closer came that crashing horror, and almost before the family knew of its coming it was upon them. The man of the house staggered to the door--opened it--and in some fashion or another, stumbled outside. Before his little family could follow, and they possibly did not understand even then why they should leave that protecting glow of the smouldering fire for the utter blackness of a new world outside the slide had torn their home from where it had rested for many years, and hurled it over and over again much as a child tosses a pebble....The husband and father, clinging desperately to a tree just outside the path of the slide, as helpless to aid or to save as a new born babe, watched with brain reeling his home with the lights still gleaming, go hurtling down the mountain towards and into that torrent of turbulent fury below, whose roar seemed to intensify in anticipation of still more victims.The man lived--is still living--but needless to say that so long as time shall last with him never will he forget that vision of sudden death which deprived him of all that was most dear.The mother was found later, close to the brink of the river. She was hanging, head downwards, with one foot caught in the crotch of a tree. The children were found later, too. Mother and children now rest in a common grave, close by a laurel thicket near where their home once stood."

To be continued...