Museum takes a look at devastating 1916 flood

Staff reports

After a week of rain, "the heavens opened with a deluge" on July 15 and 16, 1916, local resident F. Bascomb Burnette wrote of the devastating 1916 flood in the Aug. 12, 1954 issue of The Black Mountain News.

When two hurricanes collided over WNC in 1916, devastation followed. Here the Butler Bridge in Asheville is covered by the flooding of the French Broad River in July 1916.

"On Sunday morning, the clouds were low and the tempest was raging," Burnette, who was living on Vance Avenue in Black Mountain at the time. "I walked out on the front porch; I heard a snapping sound, and I was a blue flame of fire on the corner of Blue Ridge Road near the Episcopal church. There was a big pond of water a part of it was boiling hot. The twenty-three hundred (electrical) line was down."

In mid-July of that year, the remnants of two hurricanes collided over Western North Carolina, inundating the mountain region and the western Piedmont with historic rainfall. The result was catastrophic.

Landslides wiped out whole families. Currents ripped babies from their parents’ arms. Rivers washed away thousands of jobs. When the water finally receded, at least 50 people were dead. Damages totaled in the millions of dollars, and a thick, black sludge remained where crops once stood. The scope of the devastation was almost inconceivable.

One hundred years later, the storm remains one of the worst ever experienced in the Tar Heel state. To commemorate the event, the North Carolina Office of Archives and History has developed a traveling exhibit that will visit 12 venues throughout the region over the course of the next year.

The exhibit, entitled “So Great the Devastation: The 1916 Flood,” opened at the Swannanoa Valley Museum & History Center on Nov. 1 and will run until the museum closes for the season on Saturday, Dec. 10. The museum, open Tuesday–Saturday from 10 a.m.–5 p.m., is hosting a story that is amazing as it is tragic.

“I put on my fishing boots and went along the railroad bank," Burnette wrote in his newspaper recollection. "Dawn was fast approaching. I heard a cow bawl in George Stepp’s bottom. There were three cows stranded on higher ground, holding their heads up. They were almost covered with water. They stayed there until the water receded.

Black Mountain mayor G.W. Stepp's farm is overrun with water in this photo of the 1916 flood from the Swannanoa Valley Museum & History Center.

“There was an old barn near Bud Owenby’s house; a pony was sticking his head out the window. Some men got a small boat; tore out some planking, and swam it to higher ground.

“The culvert under the railroad at Tomahawk Fill was stopped up and there was a lake a big as the Sea of Galilee! On Monday morning, the 17th, Sam Coggins, Mack Watkins, Frank Many, and I walked on the railroad to Asheville. Communications with the outside world was zero; the old Swannanoa Valley was a sight to behold. Debris was piled up on good farms; three to five feet of top soil was gone; the railroad track was all gone, but the rails were still hanging.

“There were box cars, engines, and other railroad equipment, houses, livestock, and farm equipment piled up.

“The Walker girls were nurses at the Biltmore hospital; also a Mrs. Lipe. They were all drowned in Biltmore Plaza. They climbed trees during the night and became exhausted and fell out, and were drowned.”

The great flood of 1916 is still probably the worst natural disaster in the recorded history of Western North Carolina.