The Flood of 1916 was the worst natural disaster in the history of Henderson County.
Rain began July 3, 1916, and it rained for 10 days. On July 15, 10 inches of rain fell in less than 12 hours.
Normal summer rains began July 3, 1916, and continued until July 5.
On July 5-6, a category 3 hurricane hit the Gulf Coast of Alabama and Florida. This was the earliest major hurricane to make landfall in U.S. history until 1957. A few days later, July 7 and 8, the weakened storm dropped heavy rainfall over the foothills and mountains of North Carolina.
Normal rains continued every day from July 9 to July 14. On July 14, a category 2 hurricane made landfall along South Carolina’s coast, passing over the Charleston area. On July 15 and 16, this system reached the North Carolina mountains as a tropical storm.
It had now been raining for 10 days.
On July 15, in Henderson County, 10 inches of rain fell in less than 12 hours.
Rivers were already at flood stage from the Gulf hurricane and the constant summer rains. The French Broad had already overflowed its banks.
When the tropical storm from the South Carolina hurricane passed over the mountains, about 80 to 90 percent of the rainfall became run-off.
With such an enormous amount of water never entering the ground and immediately flowing to the already full mountain waterways, the streams and rivers rose rapidly. The results were devastating.
The French Broad River crested at an estimated 21 feet, some 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 in North Carolina, the Catawba rose almost 23 feet beyond previous high-water marks.
Early Sunday morning, July 16, almost every dam in Western North Carolina burst. The No. 2 Dam on the Big Hungry River in Henderson County was one of only a very few left standing. The Rocky Broad River, Green River, Mills River, Big Hungry River and French Broad, with all their tributaries, overflowed their banks in a torrent of raging water throughout the county.
Houses washed away. Mountain slides engulfed houses and people. All bridges and train trestles were washed away. All communication between Henderson County and the outside world was cut off.
Central Henderson County, the “swamp” or bog, turned into a huge lake. The town of Hendersonville was an island surrounded by water on all sides. People in town had no way in or out.
The blowing of the whistles at the textile mills, the ringing of the fire bells in Hendersonville, the ringing of church bells throughout the county, awakened those people who were not already awakened by the landslides and noise of rushing water.
One telegraph station at Asheville was working. Here is the teletype:
“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.”
From Dr. Lucious Morse at 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.”
From an area newspaper: “Huge rocks weighing over a ton were tossed about in the Broad River like rubber balls. People in the Hickory Nut Gorge had to flee for high ground with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Some did not make it.”
“Not in another hundred years could a like disaster happen to the Bat Cave region, no matter how heavy the rains,” said W.S. Fallis, chief engineer of the state highway commission in Asheville, after walking 25 miles through the heart of the Blue Ridge devastated by the flood.
“The greater part of the damage was caused by the mountain slides. I suppose I saw the effects of more than 300 of these slides. They appeared to have started close to the top of the mountains. For a distance of possibly from seventy-five to 200 feet in which they removed everything clear and clean in their paths. It would be quite impossible to convey any idea of the terrific force of these slides. Everything movable in their path was swept to the river below. Trees were denuded absolutely of every vestige of bark. Rocks were ground smooth. Buildings were carried away in the irresistible rush. Nature had been long preparing the mountains for the catastrophe, and not for a hundred years could such another disaster happen to the mountains there, no matter how hard or how long it might rain.”
For long stretches, said Mr. Fallis, the river gorge is not more than one-eighth of a mile in width, with many sheer walls 1,200 feet and more high.
“During the storm from this narrow gorge an inferno of noises escaped to the starless sky above — and men who never before have known fear felt its cold hand clutch their hearts that night. For nature once more reveled in all her ancient and elemental strength. The outcry of the river’s torrent; the indescribably heart-shaking crashes of the mountain slides, one after the other; the steady and never ceasing downpour of rain, were segments of a symphony of the gods enraged — and the theme of that elemental symphony was death and destruction.”
In another instance, says Mr. Fallis, the torrent excavated all the dirt from around an 18-foot well, leaving the well high and dry above the surrounding ground with its stone walls still intact. Instead of a well it is now a column of stone set in the midst of a boulder-strewn field.
In Transylvania County, a 60-foot long boulder weighing 900-tons slid off the mountain and was transported along the Toxaway River for more than half a mile.
From a Charlotte newspaper: “Highway 74 (Charlotte Highway) had just been completed. The road and all its bridges were totally washed away, as were the Gerton, Bearwallow, Bat Cave and Chimney Rock Post Offices. Middle Fork, between Gerton and Bat Cave, was one of the areas most affected by the flood. The sides of the mountains gave way; one farmer could only stand by and watch as the mountain collapsed and swept away his house. The farmer’s wife and all his children were killed. At least two who died in the flood are buried in Middle Fork Cemetery. Many other bodies were never found, and many people who lost everything could not afford to mark their loved ones’ graves.”
There was no means of communication between towns in Western North Carolina and the rest of the state except by foot.
The total number of casualties is unknown. At least eight people died in Bat Cave alone. People moved out of several areas of the county, such as Gerton and Middle Fork, and along sections of the Green River near and in Polk and Henderson counties, which were most severely impacted by the flood. All the topsoil washed away along the Green River in the Cove and along Bright’s Creek. It has never returned and the cove was never again a major agricultural area.
In Western North Carolina, it is estimated that at least 80 people were killed. Bridges, houses, factories, railroad lines, and other man-made structures were destroyed.
A contemporary report by the federal government stated that property damage was approximately $22,000,000 at the time. Adjusted for inflation, this total would be approximately $430,000,000 in 2007.
From a Raleigh newspaper: “The people of North Carolina will not soon forget the Southern Railway Company’s magnificent work in speedily restoring its lines of traffic which were badly damaged in many sections by the recent flood. But longer than this will they remember the action of the Southern in agreeing to carry free of charge all shipments of supplies from the State Relief Committee to the people of the flood-stricken districts. Although the Southern has been one of the heaviest losers in the flood, the manner in which it has met disaster and its generosity in helping to relieve those who are in distress have won for that company a warm place in the hearts of the people which will bring rich material returns in the end.”
From a noted geologist today: “Floods are never a one-time event. What was flooded once will eventually be flooded again. The area’s population is three times larger than it was in 1916. The next 1916-type flood could produce 10 times more death and destruction than the first one.”
Details of this catastrophe are contained in three books: Bell, W.M., “The North Carolina Flood;” Southern Railway, “The Floods of July 1916;” and Greene, Ivery C., “A Disastrous Flood.” Several historic photos, most of Asheville, can be seen on various Web sites.
The Flood of 1916 was the worst natural disaster in the history of Henderson County.