In mid-July, 1916, the Swannanoa River would leave a lasting legacy of death and destruction in Western North Carolina that would rival even the grimmest aspects of the looming Great War years. Hurricanes had no names during this time, and pre-warning systems in weather forecasting were almost non-existent, so when the rivers in Asheville and the surrounding mountain and foothill communities began to leave their banks courtesy of two back-to-back storms, many were left scrambling to save both property and lives. In the end it would rain for over a week and according to the National Climatic Data Center, before the rains were finished the Blue Ridge region had seen more rain than any United States locale had seen since record keeping had first been started by the Weather Bureau.1
By the end of the flood, the best information at hand would place the loss of life in the region at more than 80, while hundreds of homes and businesses had been destroyed. In neighboring Madison County north of Asheville, in the tiny area of Marshall, 53 homes had been washed downstream. In McDowell County, which lies just to the east of Asheville, and all along the Eastern Continental Divide, much of the landscape had been obliterated by floodwaters.2
The Asheville Citizen-Times newspaper estimated that the damage done to Asheville stood at $1 million dollars, but in Buncombe County as a whole, the additional losses would bring the total closer to $3 million. A July 17th article would proclaim that, “Asheville today staggers under the greatest catastrophe it has ever known…”3
There were many survivors who would later recall how the flood had seemingly cut off Asheville from the rest of the world. With water in downtown Biltmore Village topping trees, it was an apt description and the flood required citizens from all walks of life to pull together and help one another. One such lady was Edith Vanderbilt, the widow of George Vanderbilt of the Biltmore Estate. The Biltmore Estate largely escaped the devastation the flood had wrought, and Mrs. Vanderbilt would later aid those in Asheville left homeless from the flood by distributing food, blankets, and assisting with transportation. The only loss on the Biltmore Estate’s grounds was the plant Nursery, and while the floodwaters had reached a height of nine feet at the Estate’s gate, the home itself had been spared.4
Many mountain communities depended on the railroads to transport in a major portion of their foodstuffs, such as sugar and coffee. Some residents of the area were left scrambling for necessities with the damage done to area rail track. The major railroad in the area, Southern Railway (today’s Norfolk Southern Railway), documented the storm’s economic damage to their company in the millions of dollars. Thirty miles of track belonging to Southern Railway had been washed away, and in some places, slides buried the line twenty-eight feet deep. Southern Railway estimated its losses at $1.25 million, roughly the equivalent of $22 million today.5
In downtown Asheville, The National Casket Company’s stock had been ruined. The Standard Oil Company lost all but one of its largest tanks. The Carolina Coal Company lost much of its coal, which was particularly devastating in the dawn of a wartime economy where coal was being utilized in the manufacturing of millions of tons of iron and steel.6 The Asheville Citizen-Times would sum up the devastation in an article in which they wrote, “Our full measure of sympathy will also go out to the businessmen, tradesmen, merchants, and manufacturers of the entire section who in many cases have seen the investments of a lifetime swept away…”7
The flooding would also temporarily paralyze the area particularly in tourism– which much of the area was already known for– and transportation, which left many of the local economies in the area stagnant. However, the losses to manufacturing, agriculture, and railway would ensure that many in Asheville and the surrounding areas would feel an economic pinch that would last through the Great War years and beyond.
Additional Resources on The Flood of 1916
Click on the link to view a video of an Oral History on the Flood of 1916 by Bill Carson from The Orchard at Altapass in McDowell County.
Figure 1: “Southern Railway Station”, Photo Taken 7/16/1916, Image A394-8, Luther Higgason, North Carolina Collection, Pack Memorial Public Library, Asheville, North Carolina
Figure 2: “Southern Railway Track Between Asheville and Old Fort”, 1916, Image F234-8, William A. Barnhill Collection, North Carolina Collection, Pack Memorial Public Library, Asheville, North Carolina
Figure 3: “Sepia Real Photo Postcard”, 1916, Image AA168, North Carolina Collection, Pack Memorial Library, Asheville, North Carolina
Figure 4: “Biltmore Estate Gate After Flood”, Photo Taken 7/15/1916, Image AC148, H.B. Ramsey, North Carolina Collection, Pack Memorial Library, Asheville, North Carolina
Figure 5: “Lackawanna Railroad Car Submerged Along French Broad”, Image AA167, William A. Barnhill Collection, North Carolina Collection, Pack Memorial Library, Asheville, North Carolina
Figure 6: Schandler Family Collection Photos, 1916 Flood, ca. 1916, D.H. Ramsey Library Special Collections, University of North Carolina at Asheville, Asheville North Carolina
Figure 7: “Avery Street”, 1916, Image A388-5, North Carolina Collection, Pack Memorial Library, Asheville, North Carolina
- National Climatic Data Center, “Great Flood of 1916 Brochure,” Asheville: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
- Milton Ready, Asheville: Land of the Sky (Brightwaters: Windsor Publications, 1987), 1-136.
- “Property Losses Are Found to Be Large,” The Asheville Citizen (July 17, 1916).
- Lyn Leslie, “Flood of 1916,” Asheville, accessed 26 March, 2015, http://www.asheville.com/news/flood1916.html.
- Southern Railway, The Floods of 1916: How the Southern Railway Organization Met an Emergency (Southern Railway Company: 1917), 27.
- Ronald D. Eller, Miners, Millhands, and Mountaineers; Industrialization of the Appalachian South, 1880-1930 (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1982), 108-109, 155.
- “Property Losses,” The Asheville Citizen (July 17, 1916).