8 things to know about North Carolina’s Great Flood of 1916

The French Broad River in Asheville, July 1916.
The French Broad River in Asheville, July 1916. NOAA

Streams and rivers, already full from previous rains, surged across low ground with startling speed in mid-July of 1916. Dead horses and chickens, hogsheads of tobacco and bales of cottons, moonshine stills and whole houses sailed down the Catawba, Yadkin and French Broad rivers.

Eight facts about the Great Flood:

▪ The 22.22 inches that drenched Altapass, a community in the mountains of Mitchell County, beginning July 15, 1916, was the heaviest 24-hour rainfall ever recorded in the U.S. at that time. It is still the state record.

▪ Back-to-back hurricanes, which triggered the 1916 flood, soaked the N.C. mountains again in 2004. Hurricane Frances dropped 18.1 inches in Linville Falls, in Burke County. Nine days later, Ivan rained 17 inches on Cruso, west of Asheville. Eleven people died in the storms, which left nearly $200 million in damage.

▪ Farmers were hit hardest by flooding. “It not only put many farmers out of business for that year but for many years, because it washed away so much topsoil,” said Michael Hill, historical research supervisor for the N.C. Office of Archives and History.

▪ Conservationists blamed intensive logging for increased flooding. Their pressure on Congress resulted in the Weeks Act, passed in 1911, which gave the federal government authority to protect forests in the East. The first acreage to be bought under the act, in 1916, became the 500,000-acre Pisgah National Forest in western North Carolina.

▪ The flood left scarcely a mile of railroad track between Statesville and Asheville undamaged. Out-of-work farmers, mill workers and laborers flocked to construction camps set up by Southern Railway, which paid room, board and $1.50 a day. Most lines were operating again by September.

▪ When the flood knocked out a Southern Power Co. hydroelectric power plant in Great Falls, S.C., Charlotte and cotton mills far up the Catawba lost electricity. Within hours, the company that would become Duke Energy rerouted power from 600 miles away in Tallulah Falls, Ga.

▪ By August 1916, Southern Power was working west of Morganton on a solution to control future floods: Three massive dams across the headwaters of the Catawba. The dams created Lake James.

▪ Congress appropriated $540,000 for states affected by flooding, and a state relief committee collected $75,000 in donations. Across the region, towns held fund-raising concerts, movies and picnics. Banks, groceries and hardware stores offered discounts to help their customers recover.

Bruce Henderson