The flood from Lookout Mountain, with Cameron Hill at left. Most of the flatlands south of downtown are flooded.

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The year the Tennessee River flowed down Main Street


The grandmother at the Orange Grove school was 68 years old, with a red bandana covering her white hair.

She was among 150 families forced by the rising floodwaters of the rampaging Tennessee River to flee their homes and haul their possessions into the vacant classrooms.

It was cold this first week in March 1917, with only a handful of portable stoves to heat the building. Coal was running short and food was mainly sandwiches and stew from local churches.

But the grandmother was philosophical.

"It's the will of God," she told a reporter for The Chattanooga Times, "and I ain't worrying. We'll make out all right and what's the use o'grumbling?"

The town did make out all right, after a huge volunteer effort rescued thousands of families from their homes, but before it was over Chattanooga had suffered worse damage than in any of the floods that regularly had inundated the city for 50 years.

That was largely because there was more to damage. When the all-time worst flood struck in 1867, the city was confined to the area between the river, Main Street and what became Central Avenue.


But by 1917, manufacturing had spread beyond the foot of Cameron Hill all the way down to where Chattanooga Creek wove its way into the Tennessee River near what was then the Scholze Tannery and Southern Saddlery, and what is now the abandoned site of U.S. Pipe and Wheland Foundry. Hundreds of small homes dotted the vast flatlands from Churchville and Bushtown on the north, near Citico Creek, down past Warner Park and McCallie Avenue and south to East Lake, Alton Park and South Chattanooga.

Most of the people who lived there were poor or middle-class and many were African-American, and they bore the brunt of the storm's destruction.

In 1917, The Chattanooga Times did not put local news on the front page of the newspaper no matter how important — that was reserved for national and international developments, with speculation as to whether the U.S. would soon be drawn into World War I.

But on March 5, back on page 5, there was word on the flooding upriver in Knoxville, Bristol and Dayton after four days of heavy rain. Sevierville was in darkness after floodwater put the "electric light plant" out of commission. The prediction for Chattanooga: a top flood level of 45 feet.

As the flood headed downstream, local civic leaders began to organize for what they knew was coming. The Tennessee River had surged at least 40 feet above flood level nine times in the 50 years since the big one in 1867.

The water rose quickly that very day, in places Chattanoogans today will find familiar — along South Chickamauga Creek, Citico Creek and Chattanooga Creek, where houses, stores and factories were only a few feet above the level of the river.

In the African-American neighborhoods of Bushtown and Churchville, the railroad embankments helped block the waters from spreading toward Warner Park, at least for a day or so.

"By nightfall yesterday hundreds of families had been aided in moving from marooned homes by a special detail of policemen who began work yesterday morning," the newspaper reported. "With a truck loaded with boats of all descriptions, [officers were] working like Trojans in the flooded districts of East Lake, Ridgedale, Oak Grove and South Chattanooga." Police officers distributed hipboots donated by a local business.

At 19th and Long streets, five blocks south of the train terminal that is now the Chattanooga Choo Choo, "a baby was born just as the waters were creeping into the rooms of the home and it was necessary for police headquarters to dispatch the ambulance to that place to care for the young mother and her child," according to the newspaper.

On page 8, The Times printed a table showing the elevations of various roadway intersections along Rossville Avenue, Main Street, McCallie Avenue, Williams Street, and Long Street. Of 51 intersections, only 12 were higher than the predicted flood level, and seven of those by less than a foot.

Most of the city's industrial facilities were close to the river and were affected almost immediately.

Work was halted on the final central span of the new Market Street bridge because barges could no longer be anchored safely beneath it. Ten thousand feet of lumber was swept away from the Vang Construction Co. on the north side of the river, and the golf and country club reported most of its links were underwater.

By the following day, March 6, the floodwaters had swept across much of the city, leaving an estimated 800 families, or 4,000 people, homeless, a large percentage of the city's population of approximately 50,000.

The principal of the newly constructed Clifton Hills schoolhouse grabbed volunteers and a boat and rushed to the building, moving furniture and books up to the second floor only hours before the floodwaters reached the top of the first floor.

On Main Street, at the intersection with Bushnell Street, "only the roofs of a double row of pretty bungalows were visible," according to the Times. "One woman with tears in her eyes said her husband had rowed to their home in a boat before the water reached the top of the windows and had seen her piano floating around in the parlor.

"'I have cried myself sick,' said a woman on South Hawthorne Street as she waited on her front porch for a moving wagon. The water had reached her back door. 'Women,' she said, 'learn to love every stick of their furniture and it's hard to see it ruined. We've only been in this house four weeks. If I can just save my books and my piano I won't worry,' she said."

Hundreds of Chattanoogans flocked to Cameron Hill to observe the scene.

"The big body of water seems poisonous. It is life itself, as the swirling eddies and rushing current strongly attest, but on its sides all things are dead," a Times reporter wrote. " The whole scene from the hill is one of disaster.

"From Cameron Hill all of South Chattanooga seems under water. There is nothing but the dirty, yellow flood to be seen until Lookout Mountain rises defiantly out of the river at the toe of the moccasin, or rather where the toe of the moccasin should be, for its sharp outlines have been completely obliterated by the spread of the stream. The current is strong, and down the center of the old channel is carried a steady stream of logs, trees and even houses. Occasionally, the balloon-like body of a dead horse, pig, or cow floats by."

Far above it all, Lookout Mountain residents looked down on the spectacle.

"With the use of a field glass the various sections were located and the depth of the water ascertained by the houses, some partially covered and others just the chimneys or tops peeping up to tell the place was once livable," one observer wrote. "The one-story factories, spreading out over the low places, were almost submerged. To see the gorgeous sunset reflected in the lakes of water in the valley below the west brow, which was fringed with icicles and snow, made a beautiful sight and almost made one forget the pathetic scene of the populated districts as seen from the east brow. All during the day, groups of mountain people with cameras and field glasses on the brows were silhouetted against the sky."

Back in town, the city's sewer pipes became a channel for floodwaters to go under the railroad embankments and flood the area around Warner Park. The water pressure in the sewers sent a column of water 3 feet in diameter an estimated 7 feet into the air at the intersection of East End (now Central Avenue) and Garfield Street, which today is behind the Ronald McDonald House and across from Erlanger's parking garage.

The African-American communities in Churchville and Bushtown were hard hit.

"Negro families were moving out as rapidly as possible," the Times reported, "and a white man was hastily loading a wagon that stood almost to its bed in water in front of a home where the water was already close to the windows. With trousers rolled to his knees, the head of the family waded on an improvised plank walk, itself under water, to the wagon bed and deposited household goods, even chickens, in the vehicle. The water at that time was nearly halfway up the walls of a small negro church."

Farther south, off of Main Street, "all afternoon wagons filled with household goods hastily gathered together filed in a constant stream from the two main thoroughfares leading from South Chattanooga. All of the city fire and street department wagons were requisitioned for this purpose. The local transfer men also rendered invaluable service, as did volunteers with automobiles and delivery wagons. It was not an uncommon sight to see country carry-alls partly filled with hay and produce coming to the rescue of a family whose furniture was about to be engulfed in the rising waters.

"Every house on the west side of Orchard Knob Avenue had been flooded by 3 in the afternoon and occupants were forced to move out the backdoors, using a partly-inundated alley as an outlet to Main Street. From this street across a sparsely-settled area extending to Rossville Boulevard, the water extended in an unbroken stretch. For twelve blocks Rossville Boulevard can only be traced by a line of telephone and telegraph poles.

"In a section of South Greenwood Avenue, several families were caught in the backwater. Their furniture was packed in a farm wagon, which was forced to make its way for two blocks down the partly-covered car tracks before safety could be reached. Mr. Watson led the way, walking in water above his ankles with his baby wrapped in a blue flannel blanket. A baby bed, ready made up, in the wagon testified to the hurriedness of the flight."

By the third day of the flood, reporters were looking for more offbeat stories to tell. Animal stories were popular.

"Bodies of dead chickens, dead cats and dogs were numerous in the flooded areas yesterday, and many a dog and cat could be seen on the porches and roofs, waiting for one of the rescuers to stop his boat or canoe and pick it up," the Times said. "[S]chool boys have allied themselves with the Humane Society and are working to prevent the drowning of cats, dogs and other animals. The thrilling rescue of six pigs from a water-filled house in St. Elmo was effected yesterday by boys who took one pig at a time to safety, using a skiff."

A local movie star, Lem F. Kennedy, got into the act. Kennedy, who acted in four silent films and directed or wrote several more, "rescued an old woman who, sick in bed, was watching the water enter her home, and on Hickory Street, he saved an old man and several dogs and chickens. Mr. Kennedy also swam a horse to safety."

That the majority of the flood sufferers were African-American was not acknowledged by the paper until the flood's third day, and then it was to praise the role of white citizens in helping them.

"The total possible loss of life so far reported is one human, a colored man who disappeared behind some houses back of Williams street and cannot be located, and less than a dozen animals," the paper said.

"There has been considerable inconvenience, considerable stress for a little while, but on the whole the negroes numbering two-thirds if not more of the people driven from their homes, have fared admirably with ample to eat, and while perhaps crowded a bit, afforded comfortable quarters of shelter. Good breakfast, good meat, hot soups, hot coffee, fresh milk, fresh and canned vegetables, even delicacies from the kitchens of the well-to-do have comprised the menu to all for whom provision was made. And the lowly blacks have fared as well as the whites. White ministers, white laymen, white women and white young and old of both sexes have tenderly cared for the colored sick and have cooked for the colored hungry, and aristocratic white women are today behind the tables of the free kitchens inaugurated yesterday, dispensing with their own dainty hands food for the — yes — fortunate blacks."

"It has all been the richest illustration of true brotherhood, a demonstration of rare civic pride and compensations must result from such generous beneficence as has been extended to six thousand or more of the citizenship," the Times said.

The river finally crested at 47.7 feet early on the morning of the third day. It took a day more before the waters began to recede, and it was not until March 11, six days after the flood began, that the river was once more back in its banks.

The city's doctors warned of possible health problems from the flood, and homeowners were not allowed back into their houses until they had been inspected, but Chattanooga recovered quickly. Houses, stores and factories were restored and the city entered one of its fastest growth periods.

There were proposals for levees to be built near Citico Creek and south of Cameron Hill, to prevent future flooding, but little was done. It would be another 16 years before the Tennessee Valley Authority was created to tame the river and boost economic development.

But even TVA did not completely end the threat of floodwaters to the city.

Contact staff writer Steve Johnson at 423-757-6673,, on Twitter @stevejohnsonTFP, and on Facebook,