Heroes of NC’s Great Flood of 1916: A tale of 2 men and their daring rescue

A century ago this weekend the Great Flood of 1916 surged out of the North Carolina mountains toward Charlotte.

Back-to-back hurricanes saturated soil and filled rivers, triggering the flood and hundreds of landslides. Water poured down mountain slopes stripped bare by lumber companies. Farms were ruined, cotton mills wiped out. Bridges, railroad tracks and telegraph lines swayed and fell.

Flooding caused damage estimated at up to $550 million in today’s dollars. At least 50 people would die.

The worst disaster happened 9 miles west of Charlotte, when a railway trestle collapsed in Belmont, hurling 19 men into the Catawba. Out of the tragedy came a story of two men who risked their lives in a daring rescue.

The Charlotte Observer would call their efforts “a courage which sends a man into apparent suicide for men whom he knows only by the appealing echo of their calls for aid.”

The rescue became a tale of pride and inspiration for one family, passed down through generations.

Long before the Stowe family of Gaston County began regular reunions in 1969, said family historian Jean Stowe Humphrey, “we had this story of Uncle Peter, who saved these people’s lives.”

‘The bridge is cracking’

As the Catawba surged toward Charlotte, it reached an estimated stage at Mount Holly of 45.5 feet, about twice as high as ever before. It simply swept away the five-story Armon Manufacturing mills and 1,000 bales of cotton on nearby Mountain Island.

Downstream, a steam-powered crane sat on the steel Southern Railway trestle that crossed the Catawba between Belmont and Charlotte. Workers used the crane to lift away logs that had washed down the river and could topple the structure.

Mill worker General Lee Robinson, 18, and four friends from Belmont stepped onto the trestle to gawk. What happened next, at 5:35 p.m., is passed down by his son Max Robinson, now 84.

“Daddy said, I heard the crane operator holler to the men on the trestle, ‘Hey, I hear the bridge cracking … When I blow my whistle, I’m coming off this bridge.’ 

The operator wheeled the crane off the trestle.

Robinson, the last man off the structure on the Gaston side, “turned around and saw the trestle when it went under and the crew was under it.”

Cries for help

Nineteen men plunged into the surging Catawba River, grasping for brush and logs to hang onto. Ten died, and volunteers rescued three other men that night. It’s unclear what happened to two others who had been on the trestle.

The other four of the workers clung to a poplar tree protruding from the water 2 miles downstream of the collapsed trestle and 300 yards from the Mecklenburg County side.

Night fell too soon for a rescue attempt. Hundreds of people gathered on both banks of the river and could only listen to the stranded men’s cries for help through the night.

“I never thought that I would see the time when I would hear a man call upon me in the name of God for help and not give it, if it was in my power,” said former Charlotte police and fire chief W.S. Orr, who was in charge of the rescue. “Tonight it would be suicide, but you can’t expect that poor fellow to realize it.”

Failed attempts

At first light Monday, about 14 hours after the trestle collapsed, two volunteers set off in a rescue boat. They locked their arms around the poplar tree and hauled aboard one of the stranded men. Then the boat capsized and the three men aboard thrashed their way back to the tree. Six men now awaited rescue.

“Then followed several hours of abandoned plans and half-formed schemes for rescue which were stifled in infancy,” the Observer wrote.

Railroad carpenters threw together a boat and caulked it with cotton. It leaked.

Rescuers built a raft, then they found they didn’t have enough rope to guide it to the tree.

Some men tried to shoot a line to the stranded men with rifles and shotguns. Gunpowder burned the line.

A 16-foot motorboat carrying two men from Belmont puttered into view. A “mighty shout of exultation” erupted from the crowd on the bank and volunteers stepped forward to make a rescue attempt. The Observer reported that the boat’s engine coughed weakly.

Then, attention turned to two men paddling a flat-bottomed boat down the river.

Rowing to rescue

Peter Monroe Stowe, 48, and Alphonse Leroy Ross, 43, later would say they had been recruited for a rescue attempt by men in Belmont who had built a boat.

From the banks, onlookers pointed to the poplar where the six survivors huddled. Stowe and Ross rowed toward the tree.

As they moved rapidly down the river, one of the two men in the boat reached out and grabbed a limb, the impact nearly lifting him off his feet. The other grasped more branches and they were able to stop the boat. Within minutes, three of the stranded men were aboard.

Five minutes later, a “stampede of those upon the east banks” the Observer would report, welcomed three survivors ashore.

Stowe and Ross accepted swigs of water, then they set out again.

Bloodied, bruised

As they returned to the poplar for the rest of the survivors, the boat capsized, throwing Stowe backward into the river. But he lunged out of the water, grabbing the flat-bottomed boat and locking his legs around the tree.

With help from the three remaining stranded men, Stowe and Ross pulled the boat out of the water by its rope, emptied it, and they all climbed in. Minutes later, when the boat reached shore, “A mighty shout went up from hundreds that lined the banks and occupied points of vantage on the hills,” the paper said.

The bloodied and bruised trestle survivors broke down in tears and were reported to ramble incoherently. They had spent 19 hours in the water.

“Praise for heroic Negroes who saved six white men’s lives,” read a headline the next day in the Observer.

A celebration

The day after the Catawba River rescue, on July 18, hundreds of black people drove or walked to a Belmont brickyard, where Ross worked, to salute the heroes. Ross credited several Belmont men for quickly building the rescue boat.

“But when they asked us, me and Stowe, if we would go down there and try to get the men off trees we said we would, and we were right glad of the chance to show that there’s brave men among the colored race.

“Yes, sir, it was hard work pulling against that awful current and we had all we could do to make it across, but we had good strong paddles and strong arms and didn’t fear about the result.”

The Observer began a campaign to reward the men, raising $550.

Asked what the two would do with the money, Ross said, “Well, I reckon we might put it to good use for our families in buying a little land.”

Southern Railway, grateful its men had been saved, awarded Ross a house and job, according to “Between Two Rivers,” a book marking Belmont’s 1995 centennial.

“Southern Railway made sure that people knew,” said Max Robinson, a lifelong Belmont resident. “They were termed as heroes, there’s no doubt about that, and they were heroes because they risked their lives and they made more than one trip.”

Family pride

It was only through relatives that Peter Stowe’s youngest daughter heard the story of the flood, before her father’s death in 1956.

“The Lord kept him from blood, hurt and danger,” said Beulah Stowe Carey, now 92 and living in Suffolk, Va. “He never talked about it himself.

“He was a big man, I guess 6 feet, I’m sure, and some inches over, and very true to his family. He didn’t play around and joke; he was always about a serious business.”

Humphrey, the family historian, says she’s not surprised her great-great-uncle never talked about his heroics. That, she said, sounds like a Stowe.

“It would have been the right thing to do,” she said, “and based on what I know about the men in my family, my (own) father would not have hesitated to do the right thing. It’s just what you do if God gifted you with the courage to do something like that.”

Peter Stowe, the seventh child of slaves, left Belmont in 1924, a few years after his wife died of typhoid fever. He worked as a night watchman at a leather factory in Virginia for $12 a week, living in a three-room house across the railroad tracks. He loved to sing and grew vegetables, supplying families in the community.

His daughter Beulah lived with different families in their Portsmouth, Va., community but said her father always made sure she was well cared for. When she married at 17, he bought two lots where she and her husband built their house. She had five children of her own, graduated from Norfolk State University and taught in elementary schools for 26 years.

The Stowe family is deeply spiritual and proud of its name. The way family members carry themselves and the things they achieve, Humphrey said, “is something we absolutely hang our hat on.”

Her father, Grier Stowe, worked to integrate Belmont High School during the 1960s. Humphrey says she was the first African American to work in TV sales in Charlotte. One of Peter Stowe’s great-grandsons, Clifford Brown, is a district court judge in Austin, Texas. Grandson James Count Stowe served on the city council of New Rochelle, N.Y.

By the 1960s, Stowe descendants were scattered across the country. In 1969, with elders aging, relatives mounted the first of the reunions that now are held every other year in late July. The ongoing theme of the family’s reunions is. “We’ve come this far by faith.”

The story of Peter Stowe’s courage in the 1916 flood is retold at those gatherings.

“That kind of response is borne out of something that is in you,” said Stowe’s great-grandson and namesake, Peter Brown, 53, who is facilities director of Stonewall Jackson Youth Development Center in Concord. “For him to respond that way to his peers – his white peers – speaks volumes. It shows that this was the man he was, the man reflected in his actions.”

Researcher Maria David contributed to this story.

Bruce Henderson: 704-358-5051, @bhender

Flood centennial events

The Mount Holly Historical Society will stage a festival from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday marking the city’s recovery from the Great Flood of 1916.

The Mount Holly group created an exhibit about the flood. A program starting at 11 a.m. Saturday will include a ringing of the bell that once hung in a textile mill on Mountain Island that the flood destroyed. The historical society and its museum are at 131 S. Main St.

In Belmont, a state historical marker to honor 10 men who died in the Catawba River will be dedicated at 1 p.m. Sunday on U.S. 29/74 at Catawba Street. A traveling exhibit on the flood, “So Great the Devastation,” will go on display Sunday at the Belmont Historical Society, 40 E. Catawba St., through August.

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