The Great Flood of 1916

Flood District below Smith’s Bridge and the Cotton Mill (mill water tower located far left). Remnants of Southern Coal Company and debris at right. Courtesy of Pack Memorial Library

On June 28, 1916, the Wolfe family celebrated the marriage of their second daughter, Mabel. In her book, Thomas Wolfe and his Family, she recalled how The Old Kentucky Home boardinghouse was scrubbed and polished, and the dining room was “decked in all its splendor. . . oh, how right was the world that June night!” Unknown to the family and the rest of Western North Carolina, two separate tropical storm systems were brewing, one just off the Gulf coast, and the other making its way up the Atlantic seaboard toward Charleston, SC. In a little over two weeks’ time, the Asheville area was destined to suffer chaos and devastation from torrential flooding.

A county bridge, partially collapsed with debris swept underneath. Courtesy of Pack Memorial Library

As the hurricanes reached landfall and moved inland, both brought intense rainfall to the French Broad River watershed. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the first storm moving in from the Gulf arrived by July 8th and over the course of two days, the French Broad River had risen nearly 9 ft above flood stage. Water levels dropped after a brief dry period, and then the second storm moving northwest from the Charleston area arrived on July 15th, bringing more intense rainfall to the upper watershed area. “By 9:00 a.m., the morning of July 16, the French Broad River had reached 18.6 feet. And, just one hour later, the river gauge, along with the bridge it was mounted on, washed away completely. The river eventually crested at an estimated 23.1 feet . . . the Swannanoa River crested at 20.7 feet.”

The Asheville Citizen newspaper from July 17, 1916, reported in a front page story, “Property Damage Estimated at $10,000,000,” and also stated, “last night Asheville was as a city of the dead. The floods from the heavens ceased to descend, but the city was a city of utter and complete darkness. Here and there a candle, or a kerosene lamp cast but feeble rays into complete darkness. The streets were almost deserted, and a sense of fear entered many a heart… Everywhere is a wide-spread waste of foaming waters, dotted here and there with floating homes…”

July 17, 1916 Asheville Citizen

Mabel and her new husband Ralph Wheaton had delayed their honeymoon due to an illness in the family. They had just began travelling to Raleigh, NC when the rains hit. Mabel recalled, “the rains poured, the skies seemed veritably to open, and the water came down in torrents . . . all the highway bridges in the vicinity had been washed down the streams.”

In Look Homeward, Angel, Tom writes about the Great Flood of 1916 coinciding with Helen Gant’s wedding:

“There was a flood in Altamont. It swept down in a converging width from the hills, filling the little river, and foaming beyond its banks in a wide waste Mississippi. It looted the bottomlands of the river; it floated iron and wooden bridges from their piers as it might float a leaf; it brought ruin to the railway flats and all who dwelt therein. The town was cut off from every communication with the world. At the end of the third week, as the waters slid back into their channels, Hugh Barton and his bride, crouched grimly in the great pit of the Buick, rode out through flooded roads, crawled desperately over ruined trestles, daring the irresistible wrath of water to achieve their wilted anti-climactic honeymoon.”

At Old Fort Mountain, a Southern Railway track after a landslide. Courtesy of Pack Memorial Library

Usually around 380 feet wide, the French Broad stretched nearly 1,300 feet across at its widest point during the flooding. Many folks were forced to climb trees and move to rooftops and hang on, and some watched loved ones wash away in the deluge. Eighty people reportedly lost their lives during the Great Flood. It was hard to know the full extent of the devastation in more rural areas. Western NC communities felt completely cut off from the rest of the world as thirty some miles of railway tracks had been washed away. Southern Railway officials reported tracks buried over 20 feet deep in places from subsequent landslides. With a record setting 22 inches of rain reported in just 24 hours, the flood of 1916 caused damages estimated at over $22 million dollars in the region at that time, nearly $480 million in today’s dollar.

For more information, check out:

Southern Railway, The Floods of 1916: How the Southern Railway Organization Met an Emergency (Southern Railway Company: 1917)



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Thomas Wolfe Memorial

Thomas Wolfe Memorial

As an NC State Historic Site, we are dedicated to interpreting the life and times of author Thomas Wolfe, and the historic boardinghouse in which he grew up.