In July 1916, the Southeast suffered from a tropical 1-2 punch that resulted in historic flooding and caused dozens of deaths and millions in damage.
Northeast Georgia was near the bullseye of the storms that poured more than 13 inches of rainfall onto already saturated ground. A hurricane out of the Gulf of Mexico was followed by a tropical storm off the Southeast coast to bring tons of torrential rains to the area.
Neighboring western North Carolina perhaps was the hardest hit. Asheville was underwater, dams burst, and every highway and railroad bridge along the Catawba River was washed away. Telegraph and telephone lines fell, more than 80 people died, and damage was about $25 million.
Southern Railway, in an effort to save one of its main trestles over a river, left loaded boxcars on it, hoping to hold it down against the rushing waters. The trestle not only washed away with the train cars, but left more than a dozen dead.
Other train tracks washed away, seriously disrupting schedules. One train passenger reported waters up to the floor of a Pullman car. Another train caught fire.
Closer to home, the Gainesville and Northwestern Railroad trestle over the Chattahoochee River at Clark’s Bridge washed downstream, as did one in what was then called North Helen in White County. It was the third time that the railroad trestle at Clark’s Bridge had fallen to floods. It took several days to rebuild the trestle, costing the railroad thousands of dollars it couldn’t afford, in addition to the loss of revenue from not being able to run trains.
Tram railroads used by Byrd-Matthews Lumber Co. to haul timber out of the mountains also suffered damage. At the time of the flood, one Gainesville and Northwestern train was in Helen, and another in Gainesville. Neither could run because of the washouts. Mail had to be carried where it could by motor vehicles.
A Gainesville Midland train was trapped between two flooding creeks between Gainesville and Athens. A freight train had to be sent to rescue trapped passengers, who then were taken to their destinations.
The Chattahoochee rose 12 to 15 feet. Other bridges on the river, as well as numerous bridges over other streams in the area washed away. Streets in Gainesville overflowed with water.
Roads, few of which were yet paved, were just about impassable with large washout holes in them. Few automobiles were able to navigate what roads were open.
While the storms brought three days of intense rain, it had been raining almost every day in July over much of the area. Ten inches of rain had fallen the first week of July.
Crops suffered badly. Despite a spring drought, prospects had been decent for cotton and corn. However, much of it was lost to the floods throughout Northeast Georgia, especially in the rich bottomlands. Where farmers couldn’t rescue livestock, much of their herds drowned or were washed downstream.
Wheat and oats, already cut and lying in fields, were inundated. Nat Harrison, whose farm was off Thompson Bridge Road, lost scores of bushels of grain to the floods.
Georgia as a whole suffered, especially Southeast Georgia, where damage was estimated in the millions of dollars. Houses were destroyed, and many were left homeless. Peaches were just about a wipeout in many areas.
Snakes, routed out of hiding by the flooding Flint River, posed a threat to nearby residents. An Austell farmer, depressed over damage to his crops and farm, committed suicide.
1916 seemed to be the year of the flood worldwide. Overflowing rivers burst dams in California and caused extensive damage in Arizona.
One of the worst was in Clermont, Australia, where dozens died, and damage to roads, railroads, farms and cities was similar to that in the United States.
Floods have been a major part of Hall County’s history. The Chestatee and Chattahoochee rivers also flooded badly in 1888, doing widespread damage to property and crops.
One of the worst was 1946, when the area had become more populated right after World War II. That flood destroyed some bridges, damaged roads and also wreaked havoc with crops. Discussion was already under way for damming the Chattahoochee for flood prevention, so the floods helped put Buford Dam and Lake Lanier on the front burner.
Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. He can be reached at 2183 Pinetree Circle N.E., Gainesville, GA 30501. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com/johnny.