The 77th anniversary of the great flood of Aug. 30, 1940, was a month ago Friday, but questions about the event are lingering.
Last week I heard from Robbie Shelton of the Jackson County Code Enforcement Office regarding the location of Pistol Creek, which claimed the life of one of that flood’s four victims. Robbie is helping state geologist Rick Wooten gather information about Jackson County’s greatest natural disaster, and he discovered that “Pistol Creek” is not on any of the U.S. Geological Survey maps of the area. Based on interviews I did years ago with people who remembered the flood, I was able to help him pinpoint the stream in question. Called “Jeffs Branch” on the maps, it’s about a mile from the Canada Fire Department; Charleys Creek Road crosses it near a refurbished cabin that was the late Alvin Burrell’s home for decades.
The tales told to me by those (all now deceased) who remembered that day are chilling.
The Canada resident who perished in the flood along Pistol Creek was Mrs. Vessie Mathis. The Sept. 5, 1940, Jackson County Journal reported that her husband told of a slide and huge quantities of water coming down Pistol Creek and carrying his home away.
Based on accounts from the time, Mathis held onto his wife as long as he could, then grabbed something solid and pulled himself from the waters. His wife’s body was found the next morning.
I heard a firsthand account during a mid-1980s interview with Burrell, who lived on Charleys Creek Road next to Sols Creek. He recalled that a private dam on Pistol Creek, a tributary of Sols Creek, gave way and sent a rush of water toward the main creek, sweeping the Mathis house along with it.
“It was pitiful. Their house was gone. But just a little way from where the house had been their pie safe was standing upright, just like someone had set it there. All the food still looked good. The pickled beans they’d had for supper were right there, and so was the cake she’d baked. There was even a $10 bill in one of the tea cups. That was to pay the granny woman when their baby came,” Burrell told me. According to Burrell’s account, Mathis and his wife went out the front door of their house – the door on the creek side. “If they’d only gone out the back door, they’d have been fine.”
The flood’s other three victims were all members of the Albert McCall family and lived in Cedar Valley, off N.C. 281. I learned what happened there from the late Roxie Brown Queen who lived near the McCalls.
“It rained all day as hard as ever it could. I woke up around midnight when I heard a roaring sound. I opened the door to look outside, and water poured into the house,” she told me in 1982.
Despite the day’s hard rains, Roxie and her parents were not especially worried and had gone to bed as usual, only to be awakened by the sound of water hitting the house.
What Roxie termed a “cloudburst” on the mountain above sent a torrent of water down the normally placid creek that flowed a few yards from their home, she said. The force of the water was so great that it drove a poplar log partway through the wall, and the raging water swept away her father’s barn and moved huge rocks that had been on top of the mountain down into the yard.
The Browns’ neighbors, Albert McCall and his two children, drowned after a tremendous slide hit their house and swept it away. The force of the slide “carried Mrs. (Ethel) McCall across the raging creek where she caught the top of a tree and saved herself,” reported this newspaper’s 1951 Centennial edition.
The late Dot Nicholson remembered hearing Ethel McCall’s own account of her escape from the swirling water.
“Everybody comments on how dark it was that night, but Ethel always said there was a light that guided her and showed her how to find her way to a neighbor’s house,” Nicholson told me in 2000.
The McCalls’ home was last seen “plunging over a 50-foot waterfall,” reported the Sept. 1, 1940, Asheville Citizen.
The body of the McCalls’ 5-year-old son was swept nearly 60 miles by the floodwaters and was found on an island near Bryson City; the bodies of Albert McCall and the other child were never found, according to The Jackson County Journal.
Data from a Tennessee Valley Authority report prepared in March 1982 supports eyewitness accounts that the magnitude of the 1940 flood exceeded any previous high water event.
It is the maximum known flood at the Cullowhee Dam. The river crested 15 feet over the top of the dam at a flow of almost 60,000 cubic feet per second. The average flow at the site is 580 cfs.
Since the 1940 flood, six dams have been built on the Tuckaseigee’s East and West Forks. The largest, Glenville, was under construction in 1940 when the flood ripped through the county. Constructed by Nantahala Power and Light Co., the four East Fork dams – Cedar Cliff, Bear Creek, Wolf Creek and Tanassee Creek – were credited with a degree of flood control by a longtime Tuckasegee resident.
Jane Chastain, who died in 2013, once told me that those lakes put an end to a lot of flooding.
“Every time the Tuckaseigee got up, it would wash the bridges away. The Tuckaseigee River before the dams was something you’d better be afraid of. You didn’t fool with it when it was up – it’d get you.”
Lynn Hotaling was editor of The Sylva Herald for 18 years, retiring in January 2016. She is the author of two books on local history.