NC Great Flood of 1916 brought a day of tragedy and heroes as rivers rose

William P. Clark, who received a Carnegie Hero Fund award for his rescue of a Morganton man from the Catawba River.
William P. Clark, who received a Carnegie Hero Fund award for his rescue of a Morganton man from the Catawba River. (Morganton) News Herald

Flood waters continued to rise on Sunday, July 16, the day after record rainfall began to soak North Carolina’s mountains in 1916. In a single day, tragedies unfolded and heroes stepped forward.


In Asheville, Biltmore estate master carpenter James Lipe and his daughter Kathleen, 17, decided to take a closer look at the swollen Swannanoa River surging through Biltmore village. They quickly found themselves in cold, head-high water.

The Lipes managed to reach a tree near the estate’s main gate, where two stranded young nurses and a third woman soon joined them as the river surged around them. A crowd of rescuers and villagers gathered, including Biltmore owner Edith Vanderbilt, who passed out sandwiches and coffee.

A volunteer reached the youngest woman, but she panicked in the churning water and went under. Her sister, a nurse, dropped into the water after her. James Lipe clung to the tree for six hours before finally losing his grip and the river carried him away.

“I heard his familiar ‘Shucks! Shucks!’ as he was swept away,” Kathleen Lipe later recounted.

Eight hours later, only Lipe was rescued from what became known as the Death Tree.


The French Broad River that runs through Marshall, north of Asheville, had covered the railroad tracks and then Main Street. Herman Guthrie, 15, stopped throwing rocks at floating debris and thought of his father in the cafe he owned on the south end of town.

By the time he got there, his father and aunt had moved to the roof of a small kitchen at the cafe’s rear. When Guthrie went inside to fetch his aunt’s handbag, the kitchen floated away. He turned to see his father and aunt still on the roof as it floated down the river.

“Then all of a sudden they jumped into the water – they were going to try to swim ashore. But when they hit the water, the kitchen turned over on them,” he wrote many years later. “We did not see them anymore. Dad was gone. Also my aunt.”

Somebody grabbed the sobbing teenager before he could jump in after them.

It would be three weeks before the next train left Marshall. Guthrie, devastated, was on it, never to live there again.


The Catawba River was rising quickly in the foothills town of Morganton. It would peak at an estimated 41 feet above its normal elevation.

Store owner J.L. Duckworth and his two sons decided they had to get out of their business, which had been 200 yards from the river bank. When son Fons stayed to gather up money and records, floodwater trapped him inside.

Duckworth spent the night on the store’s roof. At daybreak, onlookers raised a reward ‑ $1,200 (worth $26,000 now) – for anyone who would save him.

“The water was angry and dangerous looking,” Morganton’s News-Herald reported. “Duckworth seemed doomed to death and an effort to save him meant a risk of life. Will Clark volunteered to take the chance.”

Clark, 25, took a hastily-built rescue boat upstream, then rode the 20 mph current toward the store. He rescued Duckworth and landed to the cheers of spectators.

Clark refused the reward. He would risk his life for a neighbor, he said, but not for money.

After his service in World War I, in 1920, the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission awarded Clark a bronze medal for the flood rescue and a $1,000 award. He kept it.

Bruce Henderson: 704-358-5051, @bhender