It’s hard to believe the great Flood of 1916 that ravaged Western North Carolina took place exactly 100 years ago this week. The Flood still lives on in the hearts and minds of Asheville area citizens, and it is still known as ‘the flood to end all floods’.
The Asheville Citizen, using a borrowed gasoline engine to run its presses, described the devastation caused by The Flood in its July 17, 1916, edition:
“Exacting an unknown toll of death, with a property loss exceeding three million dollars, Asheville today is absolutely isolated from the outside world, is a city of darkness void of ordinary transportation facilities, and finds herself helpless in the grasp of the most terrible flood conditions ever known here.”
The roots of the natural disaster began on July 5, 1916 when the skies opened up, and it rained for six days straight. When the weather cleared, the ground was completely saturated. What was needed was weeks of hot, dry weather. It wasn’t to be.
On July 14, 1916 a hurricane made landfall in Charleston, South Carolina, and by the morning of the 15th the center of the storm had reached WNC. The hurricane dumped as much as 15 – 22 inches of rain in 24 hours in some areas. At the time, it was the greatest 24-hour precipitation total ever recorded in the United States. It was estimated that up to 90% of the rain that fell became runoff. The rains finally stopped, but the trouble for the people of WNC was just beginning as rivers rose and overflowed their banks.
At 4:10 a.m. Sunday morning, July 16, the Swannanoa River jumped its banks and spread out toward the Biltmore Village neighborhood and the French Broad River. Hours later, earthen dams broke at Kanuga and Osceola Lakes in Henderson County, launching a wall of water into Asheville’s riverfront. The French Broad River crested at an estimated 21 feet, 17 feet above flood stage. The average width of the French Broad near Asheville was 381 feet in 1916. During the flood, it was approximately 1,300 feet across. Along the Catawba River, the flooding was similar. In some locations along its path, the Catawba rose almost 23 feet beyond previous high-water marks.
Estimated damage costs over the region exceeded $22 million, which equates to roughly $480 million by today’s standards. It is also estimated that 80 people died as a result of the flood.
It is difficult to grasp the devastation that swept across our area. It is only in reading the quotes from citizens who lived through the flood that one begins to truly understand the impact of Flood of 1916 on the people of Western North Carolina.
Telegraph station at Asheville:
“Asheville and Biltmore are flooded. The water is up to the ceiling in the depot. It is six feet deep in Dr. Elias’ house in Biltmore. It is in All Soul’s church—it is in the hospital—the beds are floating—the patients are drowning! The tannery is washed away—bridges are gone. Captain Lipe and some of the nurses are drowned at Biltmore. Other people are up in trees, surrounded by water, and they cannot get them out of the river. The Swannanoa is a mile wide! Box cars are floating down the French Broad. All the lakes at Hendersonville have broken.”
Mrs. Gurney Franklin, Linville Falls:
“The landslide, it came out of the mountain and knocked their house apart,” Franklin said. “Nobody got killed. But the lady, the man’s wife, came over here with two aprons tied around her. She got out of bed, she was so distraught that she didn’t know what she was doin’ and she came over here with two aprons, one in front and one behind. She was so scared to death.”
Dr. Lucious Morse, Chimney Rock:
“The horrors of that night cannot be told. The rain fell in such solid masses that one seemed to be under a waterfall and it not only undermined houses but actually tore them to pieces. The noise of the rain was like continuous thunder, added to the roar of the river and the shock of the mountain sides literally crashing into the valleys. It was in fact a cataclysm, such as these mountains have probably not experienced in recent geological periods. The forces of nature setting themselves to a gigantic movement simply paralyzed anything that man could do and literally stunned imagination. The people who went through that awful night can never forget the shock of it.”
“Throughout the night there were hours of horror, and when daylight came the worst scene of desolation ever viewed in the mountain became visible. The river began to recede, at times, and then, strange to say, would suddenly rise again, walls of water coming down the river like an ocean tide, with the thunderous noise of waves beating on a rocky coast. The greatest height of the water was reached at between 10 o’clock and midnight Saturday night. Only houses built deep in the mountain sides are standing.”
Information from this article referenced from: