The worst floods in WNC history
by Robert Neufeld
Last week’s story revealed a woman’s horrifying survival account, in which the Great Flood of 1916 made the Swannanoa River rise ten feet in one hour, sweeping her father into its raging current.
The rivers in this region are capable of swelling and thrashing with monstrous force about ten times a century, yet sometimes only a few days apart. Methods of survival and damage prevention vary.
Here are some of the worst floods in the history of the region.
17th century, Qualla Boundary
According to Cherokee oral tradition, the Tuckaseegee River had reached the incredible height of 50 feet above its normal height, “covering all the flat lands.”
April, 1791, Swannanoa
Bee Tree and Azalea elders interviewed in 1916 said that their grandfathers had described a flood, in 1791, that had risen six feet higher than one they’d just experienced.
May, 1840, Bryson City
It was called the “May Fresh.” Settlers were just coming into Swain County, and the legendary flood left high water marks along the Tuckaseegee.
May, 1845, Biltmore
Joe Cheeseborough, born in 1876 along the Swannanoa River, had said that “an old Negro slave who was born in 1798 described the flood, “spreading from hill to hill.”
June 17, 1876, Murphy
It was called the “June Freshet.” A Charlotte salesman visiting the town reported, “The jail went away on the bosom of the troubled waters, and had a good deal of company.” Elsewhere in the region, the French Broad River rose steadily for two days, reaching “two feet higher than ever before,” residents recalled.
Feb. 28, 1902, Marshall
Buildings, horses and carriages, trains, and personal belongings were swept away by the flood
Nov. 19, 1906, Murphy
The Hiwassee River grew 40,000 cubic feet per second to a height of about 20 inches. It destroyed train trestles all the way to Topton. A waterspout on Fain Mountain washed away a house, carrying away a mother and her ten-year-old son.
July 16, 1916, all over
The Great Flood of 1916 caused record damage and loss of life.
Aug. 15, 1928, Canton
Two tropical storms converged on the upper Pigeon River. “The crest was some four feet lower than the record flood of August 30, 1940,” the Tennessee Valley Authority reported, “but the flood is notable in that it was the first flood to cause appreciable damage and inconvenience” since Champion built its big paper plant in 1906.
Aug. 13 and Aug. 30, 1940, Canton
On Aug. 13, 1940, a West Indian hurricane stormed in, slowed down, and hung around for three days, dropping 17 inches of rain; at times, one inch an hour. The Southern Railway put heavy coal cars on its bridge to protect it from crashing water and debris. Backyards and homes were rinsed away, particularly in the Champion mill town, Fibreville.
Just as the town cleaned up, a worse flood came, unpredictably; it had no tropical origin. Rain fell at the rate of 2½ inches per hour. Many bad mountain slides occurred above Lake Logan, including one that carried away the Reverend and Mrs. Bill Hampton while they slept. Property damage was great because business owners moved their stock to above the Aug. 13 flood level, only to see that height exceeded.
Bryson City also experienced disastrous slides and waterspouts on the Tuckaseegee.
Sept. 30 and Oct. 4, 1964, Rosman
Four inches of rain fell the night of Sept. 29, and then after the river receded, another storm topped it, causing the fastest-rising water people had ever seen, with no time to save carpets and furniture. Farmlands were submerged for several days.
Four days later, more rain came, raising the upper French Broad River higher than its 1916 level. The flood washed through homes that people had just finished cleaning and waxing. It made Gloucester Lumber Yard’s stacks scatter like bowling pins. It covered a drive-in movie theater in North Brevard above the speakers.
Hendersonville experienced the same storm as the most damaging in its history. Mud Creek swelled to form a l,200-foot lake on U.S. 25, which for a while big trucks crossed, sending waves into roadside businesses.
May 28, 1973, Skyland
Lesser storms can have absolutely worst effects because of dam breaks.
David Wayne Woody rushed his two young daughters out of his home in Fowler’s Trailer Park to seek a neighbor’s brick home when waters began rising. He saw a four-foot high tidal wave heading toward him, and took refuge in another trailer, which the water then tumbled and shoved for a mile, splitting it in half; and killing the inhabitants. Woody’s own trailer remained unmoved.
Sept. 6-7 and 16, 2004, Canton
Hurricane Ivan followed Hurricane Hilda, a Florida Killer, by nine days, deluging a saturated water table. In Canton, there was a 500-year flood, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, while along the Swannanoa River, a two-to-five-year storm.
In Macon County, Ivan caused a torrent of mud, water, trees, and rocks, which killed five, including a man whom kayakers found 17 days later on the Cullasaja River.
“It took about 10 seconds for me to get swept down the river,” Kathy Rion a Black Mountain resident who worked in Mars Hill told Asheville Citizen-Times reporter John Boyle. Her car had been run off the road into a flow of mud; and she’d climbed out a window and gotten swept into her “miracle tree.” Three rescue attempts ended with fireman heroics. Afterward, as a famous survivor who appeared on the Jane Pauley Show, she helped people by talking about her own PTSD. She died in 2010.
Agencies instituted new flood prevention measures, involving floodplain maps, development regulations, and flood mitigation.
Hurricane Ivan floods Asheville’s River Arts District, 2004.
A key part of the 1940 flood on the Tuckasegee River in Bryson City was that a dam burst upstream. Waters reached the porch of my grandparents' home, with the porch being seven or eight feet high, perhaps 20 feet above normal river level, and at least 50 yards from the normal river bank.