Flood of 1916 : How did Asheville Survive?

When were you last disconnected from civilization? I think most of us feel disconnected if we lose cell phone connection for five minutes.

Imagine today if the city of Asheville and surrounding mountain communities in North Carolina became disconnected from the outside world. This is bad, right? This happened 100 years ago. When I mean disconnected I mean disconnected as in whole sections of railroad lines, telegraph lines, bridges, even tunnel entrances connecting Asheville with outside world were gone. Poof.

The Birth of the Flood

Every flood is born from a different womb. This flood began as a hurricane that made landfall in Mobile, AL on July 5, 1906. The remnants of the hurricane brought several inches of rain to western North Carolina for over a week. As rains tapered off, another hurricane made landfall on July 14, 1916 near Charleston, SC and made its way to to the Blue Ridge Mountains. This storm stalled over the NC mountains dumping record setting rain on an already saturated landscape. A flood was born.

Altapass, east of Asheville, measured more than 22 inches of rain in 24 hours. This remains the record for the most rain ever recorded in a 24-hour period anywhere in North Carolina.

Precipitation Totals
Precipitation Totals

Swollen Rivers

The French Broad River flows through the Appalachian Mountains and the city of Asheville on its trek to Tennessee. A streamflow gauge along the French Broad reached a stage of 21 feet on July 16. This is 10.4 feet above the record flood at that time. The city of Asheville reported flood waters reached the height of nine feet at the gate of the Biltmore Estate.

The French Broad’s neighbor to its east, the Catawba River, also had record floods. In some locations, the Catawba River rose almost 23 feet beyond previous high-water marks. A streamflow gauge in Mount Holly reached an estimated stage of 45.5 feet (almost double the record set in 1901).


Get Up and Get Out

80 people died but many reports say that was just an estimate. Stories of the survivors still live on.

“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 been 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.” -W.M. Bell.

“Hendersonville was surrounded by water. You could look out over the Southside where the stores are now and there was nothing but an ocean. I would go down to the railroad trestle and watch the water almost cover the tracks. I saw dead cattle, sheep, pigs and even dogs wash through there up against the trestle.” -R.R. Freeman.

Reconnecting to the Outside World

686 miles of the Southern Railway in the Carolinas and Tennessee were out of service. The flood buried railroad tracks up to 28 feet in some places. Southern Railway reported the total loss to the Company at about about $1 million dollar which is about $27 million in today’s dollars. They purchased 6,350,000 feet of lumber, equal to framing lumber for 400 houses today, which had to be shipped on 525 railroad cars from throughout the Southeast.

It took 38 days of heroic emergency work by the Southern Railway crews to reconnect Asheville to the outside world.

We often blame floods on the unusual or rare weather that created the flood. But this no ordinary blame. This is a name it, so I can blame it, and then forget about it blame. Yet floods just like this one will continue to be born. They remind us that we can’t control everything. And we are still connected to our rivers and our watersheds.