Great Flood Of 1916
Nations Ford bridge after flood of 1916
In July of 1916, two Category 4 hurricanes converged over western North Carolina causing more than three days of downpours and the worst flood in history of the Catawba River. The first storm arrived early in the month from the Gulf of Mexico with the second storm coming from the Atlantic in mid-July. This storm dropped over 13 inches of rain in one 24 hour period and the Catawba River rose to 47 feet above flood stage. The flood water was nearly twice as deep as that of any previously recorded flood. In addition to destroying the Lake Wylie dam, the flood of 1916 washed out every bridge across the Catawba except for one. All rail, telephone and telegraph connections were severed. Mills along the waterways throughout the Catawba basin were destroyed and many dams were destroyed or damaged. At least 13 people died when a double-track railroad bridge over the river between Charlotte and Gastonia gave way. A few survivors were rescued from treetops the following morning.

Worst Ever To Hit Unifour Area
 This section, in which Hickory is located, has been singularly blessed by not having had, what is termed, a major disaster; such as we read of other people having in other localities when the Federal Government, the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, and other agencies are called upon for aid.

However, some of the older people here are still talking about the nearest thing to a major disaster which has ever struck us.

In July, of 1916, after several days and nights of continuous downpouring rain, in cloudburst proportions, the Catawba and Yadkin rivers, and all of the contributary streams, rose to such heights that the phenomenon is remembered as the "1916 Flood."

The Catawba River, which had not been dammed as it is now, made a clean sweep of all railroad and highway bridges which crossed it. Hickory was cut off from outside communication for about thirty-six hours after the waters receded.[1]

What caused the disastrous 1916 flood?

It was caused by a freak combination of disastrous weather events. And it was the worst flood ever experienced In the Catawba River valley. There was another flood In 1910. But most old timers will say that it was "insignificant" compared to the 1916 flood. During July 8, 9, and 10 of 1916, a large hurricane swept northeastward from the Gulf of Mexico and passed directly along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

During the three-day period, the ridges of the Catawba Valley were completely saturated by torrential rains. The water table was raised to a dangerous level.

The rain caused severe flooding on the Catawba River. The rain set in motion the stage for the disaster which was to follow.

On July 13, a massive South Atlantic hurricane swept inward in a northwesterly direction crossing the South Carolina coastline Just north of Charleston. A large stationary high pressure area just east of Norfolk, prevented this hurricane from turning to the northeast, a common pattern for hurricane movements.

Instead the hurricane swept directly to- ward the upper Catawba Valley, cutting the eastern slopes of the Blue Ridge mountains on July 14. Its advancement to the northeast was abruptly and completely halted. by a large stationary high pressure mass of cold air located in Tennessee.

On July 14, 15 and 16 the heaviest rains ever recorded in the Catawba Valley occurred.
The United States rain gauge in an apple orchard at Alta Pass--which is still an official station, and can be viewed from the Blue Ridge Parkway--recorded the largest rainfall during a single day ever recorded at any point in the United States.

The three-day rain made the downpour of a few days seem like a drizzle. But, because of the complete ground saturation from the earlier rain, it is estimated that 90 per cent of the water resulted from the second hurricane ran off.

Every bridge on the Catawba River, both rail and highway, washed away except for one railroad bridge near Marion. The approaches to the bridge, however, for one mile in each direction were destroyed.

All telephone and telegraph lines crossing the Catawba River in both North and South Carolina were swept away.

Catawba County was completely isolated from points across the Catawba River. All rail, highway, telephone and telegraph connections were severed.

At that time most of the food stuff and supplies used in the county arrived by Southern Railroad, which was cut by the flood. Two passenger trains were stranded in Marion. One of these trains carried 225 passengers.

To dramatize the gigantic force of the flood the U.S. Government record established that the Catawba River crested west of Charlotte at 47 feet above flood level. Crests like that were reached all along the river.

Southern Railway had placed fully loaded boxcars on its mammoth double track bridge across the Catawba River on the main line between Charlotte and Gastonia. Both the bridge and the boxcars were swept downstream, while the river was still some 20 feet below its ultimate crest.
Thirteen persons were killed when the bridge gave way.[2]

What is believed to have been the tail-end of an Atlantic coast storm, becoming central over Western North Carolina on July 14, 1916--the eve of St. Swithin's Day--triggered the most. disastrous flood this section has ever known.

The rain began falling in Hickory at 7 p.m. on Friday and 48 hours later or 7 p.m. Saturday, the measurement was 13.39 inches, the heaviest rain ever to fall in the State in that length of time. The resulting flood took an immense toll in damage, almost impossible to estimate accurately. Probably more than two million dollars worth of property in this immediate section was carried away by the flood waters, not counting damage to crops and buildings.

On that Saturday, the swollen Catawba was reported 45 feet above low water level, and the force of the flooding water made a huge crack in Lookout Dam, washing away 400 feet of earth and a concrete abutment on one side and causing $500,000 worth of damage. The damage was caused entirely by the force of rain, wind and floods, for it was reported, “Fortunately there (were) no electric flashes accompanying it.”

"Mr. Walker Lyerly, who has large property interests at Bridgewater, heard indirectly ... the railroad bridge was still standing, while the county iron bridge had been washed away. Many feet of railroad track were under water or washed away." Mr. Lyerly later reported huge losses in corn crops and his building supply business.

Bridges along the length of the Catawba River were washed away, leaving only the concrete abutments. On Sunday the railroad depot nailed up a sign saying "No Trains Today"-- trestles across the river were completely demolished, and rail beds were flooded, cutting off rail service east and west.

Tragedy hit the area. "John Pope, a young man about 20 years old, was drowned in Jacobs Fork river in the Baker's Mountain section, Sunday afternoon about three o'clock. He and some other young men, it was learned, were wading in the stream, when the current carried him to deep water and carried him away... He hollered that he was cold, and went under. Scores of men on the bank were unable to render him assistance." [3]

Every river bridge but one in the county, including the historic old Horseford bridge was washed away by the waters of the flood. The exception was Simpson's bridge over the South Fork river near the R. L. Shuford place.

The Southern Railway's trestle at Catawba tumbled into the river on Sunday afternoon. Eighteen freight cars had been run onto the trestle, but when it was seen they could not possibly hold the bridge down, they were run back. Then the giant bridge plunged downward, rebounded, turned upside down and disappeared with a mighty splash.

At least one person in the Hickory area died as the result of the flood. John Pope, about 20 years old, was drowned in Jacobs Fork river in the Baker Mountain community.

Water poured through the streets of Hickory during the night and the following day, and reports from the county stated that streams were booming. Many hundreds of acres of fine corn and other crops were inundated. Trees and limbs were blown down all over the city.

Telephone and telegraph lines were grounded, train service disrupted and until service was partially restored, the following week, Hickory was without mail and freight.

The Catawba river, which on Saturday afternoon was reported as 30 feet higher than low water, was reported as being 35 feet above low water, and 12 feet above the previous high water record. This was in 1901 when the old toll bridge between Catawba and Caldwell and scores of other bridges were swept away.

The roaring waters Saturday night and Sunday left nothing in their path. The water began receding late Sunday afternoon; and the decline was rapid.

Hundreds of Hickory people visited the banks of the Catawba river Sunday and watched the wreckage rush by. Over 200 bales of cotton, the property of the Rhodhiss Manufacturing Company, swept by, and scores of haystacks, chicken coops, sheds and a few houses were borne down the current. The warehouse of the Rhodhiss company was swept away. [4]

For several days the Record had to be set by hand, and the press run by a gasoline motor. National news was not available until Wednesday, July 19, when J.L. Cilley lent his automobile for going after Associated Press releases. One of these handset issues reported that "damage estimated at more than $2,000,000 was wrought in this section Saturday and Sunday by the greatest flood known in western North Carolina ... Hickory businessmen, cut off from the rest of the state by washouts and demolished bridges and trestles, were making arrangements to put ferry boats on the rivers around this city in order to carry on business."

Hickory grocers, expecting a food shortage, especially of meat and, sugar, refused to fill large orders. Water supplies were affected by the flood as well. Swollen rivers and freshets flowing down from the mountains carried with them dangerous refuse and the possibility of typhus and other diseases. In an open letter to the people of Hickory, Dr. Charles L. Hunsucker, a physician, warned that all water supplies must be boiled, including those from wells and springs.

Hickory began its recovery from the flood toll with its customary high spirits and get-down-to-work attitude. Work began immediately on restoring damaged business and homes--one firm offered $10 a bale for cotton washed down the river. Electric power, the most sorely missed commodity, was restored on an emergency basis by Wednesday. [5]

The Monbo Cotton Mill. of which Osborne Brown was principal owner, was swept by the flood at Long Island and Long Island Mill, a newer plant was overwhelmed with water.
Between here and Rhodhiss on the Catawba the Hickory Brick Company and Bud Poovey's brick yard were destroyed, entailing considerable loss.

The Southern Power Company's big dam cracked. The stone dam of the Henry River Manufacturing Company at Henry River, was swept away Saturday night. The flood cost at least $50,000 to the Brookford Manufacturing Company.

One of the local businesses hardest hit by the flood was the Hickory Daily Record. With its linotype idle for want of power, the newspaper, however, came out as usual on Monday afternoon following the heavy rains, although it was uncertain whether the paper would carry any telegraphic service. The business force was busy getting power, and a gasoline engine was borrowed from Lloyd Whitener and installed to pull the big press. All the printers who could stick type hit the cases and the reporters were kept busy supplying the demand.
In the meantime The Record had sent its volunteers after telegraphic news. J. L. Cilley lent the use of his automobile and R. H. Shuford, a bright young lawyer, volunteered to take all dispatches at Lincolnton for the paper. Frank Johnston, Jr., acted as chauffeur.

No news had been received from the outside world since The Record's leased telephone wire closed Saturday afternoon. The Western Union held open a while Saturday night, but its lines were down Sunday. J.M. Stephens, manager of the Southern Public Utilities Company here, worked hard to prevent a break in the service before the power was paralyzed. The Hickory Electric Company's telephone wires were up only as far as Shelby.

Hickory business men, cut off from the rest of the State by washouts, demolished bridges. and trestles, made arrangements to put ferry boats on the river around this cry in order to carry on business with their neighbors.

A motor boat purchased a few months previous by A.A. Shuford, Bascom Blackwelder, Hugh S. D'Anna and George Lyerly to operate on the lake at Granite Falls, had it transferred to the Catawba river for use in ferrying passengers across the river above the Rhodhiss dam. G. S. Watson and associates were named to inaugurate a through service between Hickory and Lenoir, using automobiles and the motor boat to get passengers to and from both places. G. H. Geitner and associates started work on putting a ferry boat across the river near the old covered bridge.

Damages estimated at from one to four million dollars--almost unbelievable sums--were said to have been sustained by the Southern Railway system between Salisbury and Asheville. Scores of miles of tracks were washed away and bridges gone. Slides occurred on the mountains. Also suffering considerable loss was the Watauga and Yadkin river operating from North Wilkesboro to Grandin.

Persons walking in to Lenoir from Edgemont and Collettsville brought reports of great property loss in that area due to the flood. At Edgemont, the Northern terminal of the Carolina and Northwestern Railway, several houses were washed away and a landslide, beginning at the top, covered the railroad shops and tracks in from 20 to 30 feet of dirt, A least one life was lost at Collettsville--an infant--and it was reported that a landslide above Collettsville killed an entire family. Blowing Rock turnpike was washed completely away. Both dams at Patterson were destroyed.

During the following week the Southern Railway was operating passenger and freight-service between Catawba and Morganton and the Carolina and Northwestern was running between Hickory and Lincolnton. Western Union wires were working and telephone service was restored. By July 20 the Hickory Daily Record was again receiving Associated Press telephone news.

With the outside communications again in service belated flood reports came in from different areas. The storm was not confined to the Hickory area alone, and death and destruction were wide-spread.

From Charlotte came the report that 10 men, swept into swirling waters of the Catawba river near Belmont Sunday when a bridge gave way, were still missing. Eleven of the 21 men precipitated into the stream had been rescued. Capt. J. C. Lipe at Biltmore lost his life while trying to rescue three young women who drowned in the house.

Capt. Lipe had succeeded in helping his two daughters to a tree in which they had clung for 14 hours before being rescued.

At least five deaths were reported in and around Linville Falls when water, after soaking the mountains, gushed forth like great geysers. At Bat Cave eight persons were drowned, four were drowned near Brevard and three near Hickory Nut Gap.[6]

Clinard recalls his experiences from that period:

Hickory had one service which was not interrupted, however, and that was the delivery of the morning newspaper from Charlotte.

Three Hickory boys were responsible for that. Bryan Wilfong and his two brothers, Harvey and Donald, who have since passed on, had started a business in 1912 of going to Charlotte on their motorcycles early in the evening and waiting for the papers until they came off the press soon after midnight; then speeding them to Hickory for delivery at the homes.

Bryan says the paper furnished them cots to sleep on until the papers rolled off the presses.
When the flood came, the Wilfong brothers were ferried across the river at Mt. Holly. They also delivered a bundle of papers to Earl Mullins who was the agent at Lincolnton.

Bryan says the Sunday papers were too much for their motorcycles, so Albert L. Deal helped them with his Model "T" Ford with the Sunday editions.

The Wilfong boys continued their job until 1917, Bryan says. Many crops were washed away in the river bottom lands. In another way, it brought good fortune to others by leaving large deposits of sand on their meadows along the river banks at places where it could be hauled out and sold for construction purposes.

I, myself, even had some experiences, never to be forgotten, due to the 1916 flood. At that time, I was a traveling salesman in Virginia and West Virginia. Before the rains started, I had come home for a vacation. My parents were spending that Summer on their farms in "Happy Valley" on the Yadkin river in Caldwell county.

I was with them when it started raining. When the downpour stopped, it was a month before I could get out of there and go back to where I left on my regular rounds. I had to return by way of the Southern railroad to Marion Junction, and from there on the C.C. & O. railroad.
While waiting in the valley for news of a way to get out, I went to the neighboring farm of the Lenoirs. My Cousin, Teddy Lenoir, and I decided to swim the Yadkin, which was still way out of its banks, to see what damage had been wrought to some of their crops on the other side of the river.

We hunted a likely place to swim across. I noticed a place where one of the lower limbs of a large tree was being washed by the high waters. I calculated the swiftness of the stream, and plunged in way above the limb hoping to be washed to where I could pull out on the limb.
I had told Teddy to wait to see how I came out before he started. I miscalculated the power of the water, and was washed below the limb; so Teddy started farther up the stream and made it to the limb all right.

Another day, I went down the river to see some other relatives. Some ladies wanted to cross a swollen creek in a row boat. I volunteered to get them over. I got along fine until I thought we had passed the worst part. Then I tried to show off a little by doing some fancy steps on the prow of the boat.

I fell in. All of my clothing got soaking wet. I had the embarrassment of having to put on women's clothing until my own could be dried. [7]

But Hickory came through with flying colors, making the best, of any situation, as she is wont today.  The following editorial printed in the Hickory Daily Record On the afternoon of July 17, 1916, is typical of local spirit:

"Although the worst flood ever known in Piedmont North Carolina paralyzed industry, swept bridges and mills, did incalculable damage to the farm crops and severed communication with the outside world,. the Hickory spirit was triumphant today. Everybody was appalled at the great amount of damage wrought by the flood,. but nobody was blue. Everywhere men were waiting for tidings of the flood, ready to resume their work, no matter how great the destruction.

"This is the sort of spirit that builds empires. It is what one would expect from the people who have made the Piedmont country the marvel of the industrial South.

"And we will recover from this calamity as we have recovered from small calamities; we will build better than ever before, and we will not let floods or fires stop the forward march."
Even with that bright, optimistic outlook, it is not surprising that to this day, almost a half century later, on the approach of St. Swithin's Day, July 15, those who experienced the 1916 ordeal are likely to say to one another: "Remember the flood of 1916!"

Almost always there is a light side to every disaster to relieve the tension of. the occasion. This was true in 1916, and The Record reported that fishermen were busy in the shallows of the Catawba river as the flood waters subsided. The recession left hundreds of fish stranded, enabling persons to pick them up without difficulty. Many reports reached The Record of successful hauls, and one man came by the office with a string of small fellows."[8]

The loss of life and property resulting from the 1916 flood was the worst in North Carolina and--comparatively speaking--the worst in the entire United States, was tremendous.

Catawba County will never forget the death-dealing 1916 flood. [9]

The 1916 flood ... finds a good, modern comparison with the tremendous flooding and damage caused by the aftermath of Hurricane Camille in 1969 in large areas of Virginia and West Virginia. Both disasters were caused by Gulf storms from the Caribbean coming through the Biloxi-Westport area of Mississippi, inland from the coast, and unleashing the last of their tremendous force against the mountains of the Appalachian range. Both were accompanied by unusual rainfall across the southeastern United States. [10]

Probably the most poetic description of the awful power of the flood harkens back to the time before the taming of the Catawba.

"Out at the great Look Out dam in this county, is a scene beggaring description. Indian Catawba, held captive by Concrete, river guardian of the Paleface, bided his time like a shorn Sampson, until, gathering his strength from ten thousand sources extending to the crest of the Blue Ridge mountains, he hurled himself with titanic energy, but vainly, against the splendid fortifications that held him in bounds; and finding that futile, turned to his kinsman, Earth, in nominal league with Concrete, and Earth gave him passage. The huge dam 86 feet high stands where the engineers place it, only a fraction broken from the Western end, and you might imagine it saying, 'I did all you told me to do--but the Hill was treacherous.' Down through the Catawba hill the ten miles of impounded water four score feet depth, crushed against the Lookout barrier channel that looks to be 600 feet wide and as deep as the dam at the entrance, down to great bed boulders, making an island of the property owned by the company at the end of the dam, where Mr. York lives, leaving about two acres, and turning into the main channel below the dam. The waves swept far beyond the channel cut and in fact almost reached the Gantt dwelling far upon the hill. The water thundered through a tract of timber and what trees were not uprooted as grass, were cut as with a scythe .... " [11]


[1] J. Weston Clinard, Clinard Looks Back, Hickory Printing Co., 1962, pg.87.
[2] Observer News, 19 Jul 1965; Catawbiana, by Keith Woods, pg 2.
[3] Hickory Daily Record, 16 Jul 1995, pg 12, by Pamela Whitener
     (HDR Editor's note: This abridged account of the flood of 1916 appeared in the
     Record's 1870-1970 Centennial Edition of Saturday, June 6, 1970.

[4] Hickory Daily Record, 16 July 1965, pg 4, by Mabel Miller Rowe.
[5] Ibid., 16 Jul 1995, pg. 12
[6] Ibid., 16 July 1965, pg 4
[7] Clinard, pg. 88
[8] Hickory Daily Record, 16 July 1965, pg 4
[9] Observer News, 19 Jul 1965, pg. 2
[10] Ibid.
[11] Charles J. Preslar, Jr.,  A History of Catawba County,
     pg. 437-440 from Newton Enterprise, 18 July 1916.

The effects of the flood were wide-spread in the Piedmont. Check these other sources:

Western North Carolina
    UNC-Chapel Hill Library - July 1916 -- Western North Carolina Floods

    Digital Heritage - Floods of 1916 and 1940

Buncombe County -
    Asheville Citizen-Times: Rob Neufeld on the harrowing flood of 1916

    Flood of 1916 Changed Biltmore Village and Family Lives Forever
    Western North Carolina Heritage - Asheville Flood of 1916
    UNC-Asheville - The North Carolina Flood

McDowell County
    Oral History:The Flood of 1916


Gaston County
    Recollections of the Flood


Mecklenburg County
    The Flood of 1916 in North Carolina


Watauga County
    A Flood Story for a Rainy Day



Derick S. Hartshorn - (C) 2004
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