Past Times

Great flood nearly wiped out Asheville 100 years ago – Past Times

All lines of communication were wiped out by the 1916 floods in Asheville and surrounding areas.
All lines of communication were wiped out by the 1916 floods in Asheville and surrounding areas. Courtesy of the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration

It was 100 years ago this week that Western North Carolina experienced one of its worst natural disasters with the flooding of Asheville and Hendersonville. Following days of rain, the 22 inches that fell in a 24-hour period set the record for the most rainfall in a single day in the United States. Flooding spread to Charlotte and even into South Carolina. In 1986, Associated Press writer Tom Minehart talked to Milton Ready, chairman of the history department at UNC-Asheville, about the devastation the flood brought to the city of Asheville.

The Asheville Citizen, using a borrowed gasoline engine to run its presses, described the devastation in its July 17, 1916, editions.

“Exacting an unknown toll of death, with a property loss exceeding three million dollars, Asheville today is absolutely isolated from the outside world, is a city of darkness void of ordinary transportation facilities, and finds herself helpless in the grasp of the most terrible flood conditions ever known here.”

By the time the flood waters receded into the French Broad and Swannanoa rivers several days later, 29 people were dead, along with a bustling riverfront industrial district. The tobacco warehouses, lumber mills, railroad facilities, steel mills, mica processing plants and textile mills never returned to the edge of the river. …

The rains began July 8, 1916, and didn’t stop for a week. At 4:10 a.m. Sunday morning, July 16, the Swannanoa River jumped its banks and spread out toward the Biltmore Village neighborhood and the French Broad River.

Hours later, earthen dams broke at Kanuga and Osceola Lakes in Henderson County, launching the wall of water that smashed into Asheville’s riverfront. Water in the streets was 15 feet deep and the French Broad was more than a mile wide.

Electric generators short-circuited and power would not be restored until August. The black-out forced The Asheville Citizen and the afternoon Asheville Times to operate presses on borrowed gasoline engines and use gasoline to melt the lead type. …

All bridges over the two rivers from Black Mountain to Marshall were washed away, telegraph lines were down and railroad tracks were destroyed. The city was isolated for two weeks.

There were acts of heroism. Citizens, stores and churches raised money to feed and shelter the newly homeless.

At the once regal Glen Rock Hotel, two men – one black and one white – worked to pass provisions through a window to guests trapped inside. Both men were later found drowned, and the papers said their boat may have overturned when they tried to save a baby.

At the Vanderbilts’ Biltmore Estate, employee John Lipe grabbed his daughter Kathleen and climbed a large oak tree. Three women joined them at the top as the waters rose around them.

The women were swept away, even after Lipe tied one of them to the tree with his coat. As the waters rose to his shoulders, he lifted his daughter to the only remaining limb and tied her to it.

The next morning, rescuers pulled Kathleen from the tree, but her father had disappeared. Ready said local residents later called the oak “the death tree” and refused to walk under it or cut it down. The N&O July 18, 1986

Here’s how The News & Observer reported the events at the time.

A rainfall of from six to eight inches throughout the French Broad Valley during the last week was the primary cause of the floods which reached their highest point shortly after daybreak this morning. These conditions were further aggravated when the dams holding back the waters of the Lake Osceola at Hendersonville and Kanuga Lake at Kanuga, were carried away, the tides thus liberated sweeping down through the French Broad Valley, though Henderson County, past Asheville and into the adjoining county of Madison. Communication with the latter section by either telephone or telegraph had not been established early tonight.

It is feared serious damage has been done at Marshall.

Early tonight fears were entertained for the big dam at Lake Toxaway, the bursting of which, it is said, would send the waters sweeping through South Carolina.

Hundreds of men, women and children from the cotton mill sections whose homes had been swept away early this morning crowded the city hall this afternoon seeking food and shelter. Hastily formed relief committees set to work to care for them.

Almost all of the town of Biltmore, laid out 25 years ago by the late George W. Vanderbilt, is under water ranging in depth from three to five feet. The town is cut off from Asheville by water a mile wide.

It was here that the first deaths occurred. The Lipe home was swept off its foundation and Capt. Lipe and his two daughters attempted to escape in a boat. They were unable to make headway, however, and Nellie Lipe is reported to have taken refuge in a tree.

For some time rescuers tried to get to her, but the rapidly rising water finally won the fight. Three women residing in a house across the street from the Lipe home got into trees and were saved this afternoon.

Three men marooned on a two-story house that was being rushed along in the swirling waters frantically beckoned for aid which could not be sent. When the house reached the Biltmore road they leaped into the water and were saved by men in boats. Two minutes later the house was dashed to pieces against a concrete pier of the Biltmore bridge, itself under water. The N&O July 17, 1916

Read more stories from local and state history and send us your own stories on the blog Past Times, newsobserver.com/past-times.

Leonard: 919-829-4866 or tleonard@newsobserver.com

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