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Floods once were more trouble than droughts

POSTED: January 3, 2008 5:02 a.m.

Droughts seem to happen more often in North Georgia the last few decades.

We're in one of the worst at the moment. The 1980-81 drought that caused Lake Lanier to fall to its previous low record is one within fairly recent memory, but there have been other less serious dry spells, including one later that same decade.

While droughts come and go with time, it seems floods were more frequent in years past. Many remember when the Chattahoochee River seemed to regularly overflow its banks around Helen.

Frequency of floods added momentum to build Buford Dam in the 1950s. Crop land and even whole communities along the Chattahoochee were inundated before the dam was built.

One of the worst occurred in January 1946 when the ground already was saturated, and rivers were high. Five and a half inches of rain fell over four days, not an abnormally large amount, but it didn't take much in the middle of a wet winter. The area had experienced a heavy sleet storm that Christmas, and heavy rains had fallen upstream.

More than 2 inches of rain fell in Hall County on two different days, Jan. 5 and 6, to swell the streams to overflowing in that 1946 flood. The Chattahoochee ran 4 feet higher than any resident at the time could remember. It was the worst flood in the area since 1888.

It washed away numerous bridges, including Brown's Bridge. What was then known as the iron bridge or Shallowford also was swept downstream. Heavy damage was done to Keith's, Davis, Clark's, Browning, Lula and Belton bridges. Eight smaller bridges over Little River and Wahoo and other creeks were destroyed.

In 1940s dollars, the damage amounted to $100,000 just to the bridges. Most rural roads at the time were dirt, and the heavy rains washed them out at numerous points. Mail service took a hit, and buses couldn't be relied on to get children to school. Brookton, Sardis and Oakwood were among schools that had to curtail classes because muddy roads were impassable.

Some homes were swept away along with barns, outhouses, cars, farm equipment, fences, chicken houses and other structures. Chickens, hogs and cattle drowned. Only one person died, an Atlantan who drowned when the waters rushed over the Hightower River bridge in Dawson County.

Even downtown Gainesville was affected with businesses and nearby homes taking in as much as 7 feet of water in their basements. The flood hurt local stores for a time because some people were marooned or otherwise couldn't get into town.

As the waters rose, people thronged the highways leading to the bridges. The Gainesville News at the time related eyewitness accounts:

"Jim Shoemaker's home, which for many years had been located a few hundred yards down the Chattahoochee River east of the Glenn McConnell home, could be seen slowly turning around in the bend of the river and moving from obstruction to obstruction as the angry waters forced it downstream.

"At the same time half of Brown's Bridge gently parted in the middle, the southern half floating against the bank while the remainder rushed down the stream, heaving and sighing as the muddy waters rose and fell."

The concrete bridge over the Chattahoochee on the Dawsonville Highway outside Gainesville survived, but waters covered it for a time. Residents had never seen water over that bridge, and they feared it, too, would be destroyed. Longstreet Bridge on the Cleveland Highway also made it through the flood.
Thompson Bridge, a wooden covered structure at the time, had burned in a fire just weeks before the flood, so getting into and out of Gainesville in some directions became a challenge.

Before the waters receded, local and state officials already were seeking ways to repair the damage. The state asked the U.S. Army for materials to rebuild Brown's and Thompson bridges, and Bailey bridges eventually replaced them.

Droughts are bad enough, but folks who endured the 1946 flood were wishing for a dry spell just as we today are hoping not for a flood, but at least some heavy rains to help Lake Lanier recover.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. His column appears Sundays and on gainesvilletimes.com. First published Nov. 25, 2007.



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