Some 50 people came together at the Tuckasegee VFW Building on June 14 to share stories about the flood.
As George Frizzell, local historian and retired head of Western Carolina University Special Collections, put it, “That’s how we refer to it in Jackson County: THE flood. We mean 1940.”
George pointed out that for other parts of Western North Carolina, the big flood was in 1916, but that one didn’t impact our county as much.
Before opening the floor to others, George outlined the deluge that swamped Jackson County on the night of Aug. 30-31, 1940. It was the highest flood ever reported on the Tuckaseigee River and is still the county’s greatest natural disaster.
A fact often overlooked in the wake of the gigantic Aug. 30-31 event is that there were two floods that August. Two weeks before Aug. 30, a hurricane drenched the area and produced some flooding; on Aug. 30, a localized storm system brought an amazing amount of rainfall to the county’s Caney Fork and Canada sections.
“It was one of those inundations that took people off guard,” George said. “People in other parts of the county were not aware of what was going on. It happened suddenly, and many didn’t realize its severity until too late. There were reports of cars disappearing, stories of water rushing down off mountainsides, and reports of rocks and trees coming down small streams.”
According to the Jackson County Journal, the water crested at 15 to 18 feet above the level of the Cullowhee Dam, and “barns, tourist cabins, cows, pigs, trestles and bridges came rushing down the river.”
The next day, the search began for people who were lost. There were four reported deaths, all in the Canada community.
First to speak was 86-year-old Baxter Wood of Cullowhee. In 1940, his family lived 10 miles up Caney Fork at the forks of Piney Mountain and Mull Creek. “We had to leave our house, and there was no way to get across the creek,” Wood said. “Seven of us spent the night in two-holer toilet (outhouse). I’ve never seen rain like that. When it would lightning, you could read the headlines in the newspaper. I saw trees going down Mull Creek standing up – it was an unbelievable sight.”
According to Wood, one of things that made the flood so deadly was the amount of timber cutting going on at the time, and the fact that so many logs were in the creek waiting to be floated down to the sawmill.
George pointed out that the big flood came before any dams had been built on the West and East forks of the Tuckaseigee River. Construction on Lake Glenville started on June 27, 1940; the August flood damaged what progress had been made.
I’ve been writing about the 1940 flood for several decades, but I learned some new things during the program, which was sponsored by the Jackson County Genealogical Society. Three of the four victims were from the same McCall family. I heard about their fate from the late Roxie Queen, who was their neighbor, and I’ve read about it in newspaper reports.
Albert McCall and his two children drowned after a tremendous slide hit their house and swept it away, according to The Sylva Herald’s Aug. 30, 1951, county centennial issue. The force of the slide “carried Mrs. McCall across the raging creek where she caught the top of a tree and saved herself.”
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, according to The Jackson County Journal’s Sept. 5, 1940, edition. The bodies of Albert McCall and the other child were never found.
Sanji Watson shared the McCalls’ tragic story during the June 14 program, and she added more detail. The 5-year-old found on Governors Island was named Journey, and the little boy who was never found was called Dale.
“Ethel Luker McCall was swept away,” Sanji said. “She heard a big rush and the house was gone, washing Albert and the children away. Ethel always said she was following a light, but when she made it to a neighbor’s house, they said they hadn’t had a light on. Sanji also mentioned also that Ethel McCall was pregnant and later gave birth to a daughter.
The fourth Canada resident to perish in the flood was Mrs. Vessie Mathis, who was also pregnant at the time.
The Jackson County Journal reported that her husband told of a slide and huge quantities of water coming down Pistol Creek (a tributary of Sols Creek) and carrying his home away. According The Herald’s county centennial issue, Mathis said “he 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.
The late Alvin Burrell, who lived by Sols Creek in 1940, recalled during a 1982 interview that a private dam on Pistol 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,” Burrell said. “There was even a ten-dollar bill in one of the tea cups. That was to pay the granny woman when their baby came.”
Neighbors checked on each other as the waters rose. One woman at the program said her mother and her family were asleep when a neighbor came and told them they had to get out of the house. Water was already on the floor, but they didn’t know it.
Talk soon turned to the resilience of county residents who dealt with the aftermath of the flood in the days before television, cell phones and FEMA.
Baxter Wood said the one blessing of the flood was that it came at night. “We talked about it later – if it had been during the day, more lives would have been lost, because people would have been out doing stuff.”
After the flood, it was mostly neighbor helping neighbor because there wasn’t much organized relief.
George said he’s read newspaper accounts of people in Cullowhee tying messages to arrows and shooting them across the river.
In summing up, George said that people survived the flood, and their descendants are still here to tell the tale.
“That’s the best thing you can say,” he said. “Our parents and grandparents made it and handed down the stories. History is not always written down – sometimes oral history is what gets passed down to the next generation.”
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.