150 years ago this week: Chattanooga's great flood
This is part one of a two-day series taking a look back at historic floods in Chattanooga.
At one point during the flood of 1867, the water pouring toward Lookout Mountain over the flatlands between Missionary Ridge and downtown was so deep and flowed so swiftly that some residents worried the Tennessee River would change its course and leave the city on its north shore.
› The flood of 1917: When the river flowed down Main Street › Could it happen again?
That didn't happen, but the flood, which began 150 years ago this week, destroyed the city's only bridge over the river - a gap that took 24 years to fill - and set back the railroad town's attempt to recover from the Civil War.
The Union army had withdrawn from Chattanooga only a year earlier, and the scars of the war were still evident. The landscape was denuded, bereft of trees.
In September 1863, when panicked Union troops streamed back into town after the rout at Chickamauga, Ga., they hurriedly felled all the trees on the outskirts of town as barriers to the Confederate forces they imagined were hot on their heels.
Confederate Gen. Braxton Bragg wasted his hard-fought victory by taking his time moving on Chattanooga, but when his men occupied Missionary Ridge, they dug rifle pits at the base of the heights and cut down any tree within 700 yards of their front lines to improve their view and field of fire.
Market Street was the main street in town, but it was a wide dirt road, turning to mud in the spring rains. Scattered businesses stretched along nine blocks south from the river.
For the last two years of the Civil War, the city had been a staging ground for supplies sent further south, and the town was chock-full of military warehouses and corrals for the thousands of horses needed to move war material.
The city then had fewer than 5,000 inhabitants clustered in the bend of the river between Main Street (then known as Montgomery Street) on the south and what would become Central Avenue on the east. The military cemetery, which the state coincidentally turned over to the federal government the week of the flood, was still on the outskirts of town and the Fort Wood community, a block from where Erlanger hospital now stands, was the easternmost neighborhood.
But the railroad lines that had made Chattanooga a target for Union commanders were again in operation, and the streets south of Cameron Hill and around the Union Terminal at what today is Broad Street and M.L. King Boulevard rang with the sound of machine shops and railroad yards. Broad Street didn't yet exist - instead, a railroad line ran along its length toward the river.
There was one bridge over the river, nicknamed Meigs' Folly in honor of Union quartermaster Gen. Montgomery Meigs, a genius at supplying the Union Army but a mere mortal when it came to building a bridge that could resist the raging Tennessee River.
Chattanooga was in more danger of flooding than any other town along the entire Tennessee River, Tennessee Valley Authority officials concluded when they made their case in the 1930s for building a series of dams to tame the river.
There had been floods before 1867, but few Americans lived in the area then, so no one took much notice.
The river level is usually about 643 feet above sea level at the measuring gauge beneath the Walnut Street bridge, and flood level is 30 feet above that, about 673 feet.
But much of the land in Chattanooga between the river, Missionary Ridge, and the Georgia state line is only 660 to 670 feet above sea level, with a few isolated islands of higher ground on Cameron Hill, Orchard Knob, McCallie Avenue, and in what is now the museum district downtown.
At its peak in 1867, the Tennessee River would rise to 701 feet, nearly 58 feet above normal, the greatest flood in Chattanooga history.
The weather had turned cold by Wednesday, March 6, 1867, after two days of hard rains, according to the recently launched American Union newspaper.
"The heavy rains of the past few days have had their material influences upon the Tennessee, and the water was rising yesterday at the rate of six inches an hour," the newspaper said. "If the rain has fallen as heavily above as it has in this vicinity, we may look for a big flood, and we fear the Bridge Company may report the downfall of their structure."
The military bridge was built on a dozen pillars across the river, and because of their relatively close spacing the pillars were starting to snag driftwood, rafts of logs and other debris, which increased the pressure on the supports. The bridge's owner, Capt. J.R. Slayton, had a crew working to dislodge the debris, but few were betting he would succeed.
"If the river continues to rise as we are afraid, the bridge will take a trip to Bridgeport (Ala.)," the newspaper reported. "We saw, while looking at the men working, one raft pass by, numbering one hundred logs. A chicken coop also drifted swiftly onward, a cock on the roof, crowing lustily as he passed between the piers."
By the following day, the scope of the impending disaster was beginning to be apparent.
"Widespread Destruction - Bridges in all directions swept away - Railroads blockaded - No mails from any direction" the paper's headlines read.
"The rain has come down in torrents. Every little run is now a roaring torrent, while the creeks have become rivers and the Tennessee River is worthy of being styled a huge lake," the newspaper's anonymous reporter wrote. "Fortunately, the telegraph lines are yet standing."
Unfortunately, the telegraph lines brought word that the heavy rains were continuing across the entire Tennessee River watershed to the north, guaranteeing that in a matter of hours much of Chattanooga would be flooded.
The earthen roads had turned to mud, but the metal railroad tracks fared little better.
"The long mooted problem of how long the Whiteside bridge on the N.& C. RR would stand has been settled," the American Union reported. "About one hour after the mail train passed over it, at 1 1/2 o'clock yesterday morning, it fell with a crash."
The river was now rising at an ominous rate of a foot every hour.
"The waters come booming along, bearing on the angry crests of the surging waves huge rafts, driftwood, fish-boxes, cabins, hencoops and every movable thing which had accumulated along the banks of the Tennessee and its tributaries," the newspaper said.
The island in the river (now Maclellan Island) below what is now the Hunter Art Museum was quickly under water, forcing those living there to flee. The paper reported that "Mr. A. Kesterson made his escape by swimming to land holding to the horns of a heifer."
The first major casualty was the bridge. Here's how the newspaper chronicled what happened:
"Early yesterday morning crowds assembled upon and near the bridge, some watching for the excitement of seeing it fall, and others drawn by sympathy with its enterprising owner, and hoping against hope that it might withstand the flood. About 11 o'clock, while some fifty persons were standing on or near the draw[bridge], and some ten or fifteen were near the middle of the bridge apparently calculating its powers of resistance, a slight crack was heard which those upon the draw averred to be simply the driftwood. Anxious to investigate, we advanced toward the place where the crack came from, but seeing at the moment a rush made by several parties toward the shore, we concluded that discretion was the better part of valor and incontinently ran for our life. The cracking behind us added a new impetus to our progress, and when we finally reached terra firma we turned to behold our estimable friend D.R. Grafton making excellent time for shore and as he stated, fully satisfying himself that he was perfectly qualified to do credit to the Lightbodies in their approaching contest with the Lookouts, for the Base Ball championship.
"While we, in common with most of those on the bridge, had been running for our lives, the draw[bridge] and the two spans next to it had been carried away bodily. There were four men and a boy at the draw at the time it fell, who, singular to relate, were not hurt in the least. Most providentially, the hull of the steamer Dunbar had been moored to one of the piers that gave way, and was lying in such a position that the wreck of the draw floated against it and the submerged individuals clambered out of the ruins and into the Dunbar, where they were safe for the time being. The hulk being loosened from its moorings, started down the river, evidently intending to make a trip to the Muscle Shoals. When opposite the saw mills of Messrs. Richards and Handman, the unwilling adventurers were rescued by a canoe, which was sent to their relief by Mr. Handman, and brought to shore none the worse for their unexpected voyage.
"During the afternoon, a third span of the bridge was carried away, and as the river is still - 11 p.m. - rising, we are fearful that today will see the whole structure swept away.
"At the time the bridge fell, Capt. J.R. Slayton, the owner, was nearly in the center of it, and by the disaster was cut off from this shore. After a considerable period and many efforts, a skiff managed to cross the raging stream and bring the wanderer back to his despairing friends and all hands immediately took a drink, and Slayton soon forgot his heavy losses and thought of happier days to come."
While sawmill owner Handman was the hero of the day, his mill's proximity to the river proved unfortunate.
The floodwaters were soon over the mill's steam engine, and the lower story of his home at the base of Cameron Hill was flooded, forcing the family to flee first to the second floor, and then to leave the home entirely. He and his partner reported the floodwaters had swept away several rafts consisting of hundreds of logs, at a cost of at least a thousand dollars, a huge sum in 1867 (in comparison, Slayton's losses for his bridge were estimated at $3,000).
Rumors spread of families swept away in their homes by the raging waters.
"After dark with the increasing flood, several cabins were reported to have been seen floating down the river, and faint cries of persons in distress were heard by people in the vicinity of the river," the newspaper reported, "but the darkness and the fearful storm prevailing prevented any assistance from being afforded the sufferers.
"Reports are afloat that whole families have been drowned, but we have heard of no well authenticated instance as yet, although the suffering among the poorer class has been intense, and nearly four hundred poor creatures, men, women and children, are tonight houseless, homeless, and starving. Those to whom they have hitherto looked for assistance are themselves so busily engaged in protecting their own property that they have little time to spare for charitable deeds. It seems, indeed, as though upon our fair land the curses of war, pestilence, and famine were not sufficient, and now this additional calamity has befallen us."
A pregnant woman was rescued from her bedroom "when the water was within a few inches of overflowing her bed," according to the American Union. "Scows were manned and propelled yesterday all over the submerged sections of the city rescuing families who had been unable to escape from their homes and were seen standing on the roofs, waving their handkerchiefs and calling for help."
The damage now spread up Market Street and into other areas of the city. Mrs. M. Gorman's Millinery and Dry Goods store, J.C. Warner's hardware store, and a dress-making shop owned by a Mrs. Harper, all at Market and Seventh streets, were forced to move their merchandise, as was D. Friedmann's clothing store on Market between Sixth and Seventh.
"The rising of the waters on Thursday night undermined the posts beneath the hardware store of Gillespie, Watkins & Co., in the same block, and about 1 a.m., the floor came down in a crash," the American Union reported. "A horse, tied in a stable in the rear of these stores came near to being drowned on Thursday night, by the sudden rise. When discovered, there was nothing but its head above water."
By 11 p.m., the water was 9 inches deep on the floor of the Union Station passenger depot, across the street from the current Read House near the site of the current EPB headquarters and the Bank of America Financial Center. But no trains were arriving in any event.
"On the Knoxville road, besides the bridges carried away, there is a landslide of over one hundred yards in length between Tiners Station and Ooltewah," the American Union reported. "On the Nashville road, the track is under water from the depot at this place to several miles beyond Lookout Mountain. The Western and Atlantic road is submerged as far as Chickamauga Junction. On the Wills Valley road no trains were running yesterday, the superintendent wisely concluding that doubtful things are always uncertain and that it would hardly pay to make any experiments in the way of running trains upon submerged track, unless all of the passengers were able to swim and had their lives insured."
Across the street from the terminal, where the Read House is today, stood an equally imposing hotel, the Crutchfield House, normally a hubbub of activity.
"The hotel swarmed with people arriving and departing with the trains, east, west, north, and south," one description read, "hurrying to and fro with eager and excited looks, as if lives, fortunes, and sacred honor hung upon the events of the next hour."
In 1861, Confederate President Jefferson Davis had made an impassioned plea for secession in its confines, a plea repudiated by one of the Crutchfield brothers who owned the building, a strong Union man. Tempers flared and a duel was mentioned, but emotions cooled and Davis went on his way.
But Davis was now in a federal jail and the Crutchfield's owners had other concerns. All the hotel's outbuildings were flooded and the water threatened to come into the bar and billiard room.
"All of the carpets and furniture in the lower rooms were removed to the second story," the newspaper reported. "The beautiful garden in front of the house with which a good deal of trouble had been taken is under two feet of water with its fences floating. The board walks all around the house are riding on the top wave."
By 1 a.m., the floods covered Market Street from Ninth Street to Fifth, including the warerooms of a furniture store across the street from the newspaper itself.
Farther south of downtown the Vulcan and South Western Iron Works (which later became U.S. Pipe) were submerged, causing considerable damage to the machinery. To the east, U.S. Army Chaplain Thomas B. Van Horne, who was instrumental in laying out the National Cemetery, was forced to abandon his home on the grounds.
"The scene in its grandeur of desolation can hardly be described," the newspaper correspondent wrote. "Nothing like it has been witnessed in many a year, and none of us may every live to see such a flood again. The losses of our merchants and business men, who have been compelled to move their goods or have lost a part by water, will foot up to quite a formidable sum. The losses that will be felt the most however, are those of the farmers and landowners throughout the Valley of the Tennessee. Hay, corn, grain, live stock, fences, everything movable, have been swept away by the flood, and the abundant crops which were expected, will hardly we fear prove equal to those of last year."
But even at this time of crisis, there was a note of levity.
"The great feature of the day was the arrival at Crutchfield House of a large barge which had arrived the day previous at the levee loaded with hay, and which was paddled up Railroad Street without difficulty and its passengers landed on the porch of the Hotel," the American Union noted. "Quite a number of the ladies boarding at the hotel took a trip through and around the city on this singular conveyance, and were much pleased with the novelty of the scene, and the adventures of their ride."
And the newspaper's editor made it clear that no one should think that a mere flood would halt Chattanooga's progress.
"So far as its being an injury to the future prosperity of the town is concerned, our citizens need feel no alarm," he wrote. "Under the direction of his Honor, Mayor Carr, our energetic and worthy city engineer, Col. Wm. B. Gaw will, when this flood has reached its highest point, make a series of water marks, showing the height of the flood and when the waters have subsided, the grade of every street in Chattanooga will be raised to a sufficient height above the level of this flood to preclude the possibility of any part of the city ever being again submerged.
"Chattanooga is a young and thriving city and, with all the chances in her favor, her people are not to be discouraged by anything. We are bound to make this the first city of the South, and by the help of God, who always aids those who help themselves, we will do it."
Despite the writer's braggadocio, the roads were not raised above any possible flood and it would be 24 years before a new bridge would cross the Tennessee River.
While the city would quickly recover and become a center of iron manufacturing in the South, Chattanooga would face repeated devastating floods for more than 70 years before the TVA's dams tamed the Tennessee River.
Contact staff writer Steve Johnson at 423-757-6673.