A Flood Story for a Rainy Day

by Curtis Brookshire
August 13th, 1996

    56 years ago today a hurricane was raining itself out over the Blue Ridge Mountains. In Boone, NC, Linville River number 9 waited in the rain with combine car 15 and probably a few freight cars.

    At 7:20 in the morning Engineer Sherman Pippin opened the throttle, Conductor Cy Crumley hopped up the steps of the combine, and the last train ever departed Boone, leaving 14 freight cars behind in the yard. "Escaped from Boone" would be also an appropriate way to describe this departure, since rain was coming down in sheets. The ground, saturated from days of wet weather, could no longer absorb the rapidly falling water, so it cascaded down the mountainsides, swelling streams and rivers. At Shulls Mills, the train waded through 2 feet of water (try doing THAT with a diesel), and passed Grandfather Mountain where it looked like the entire mountainside was a giant waterfall.

    The crew knew in their hearts that they were making the last trip, because the line they were passing over had made little money, and the damage this flood would cause would seal the fate of the Linville River Railway. The rain continued unabated through the day as the train made its trip to Johnson City and began its return into the mountains. As they began the climb up into Cranberry Gap, a man flagged the train down and told the crew they were heading into a washout. As they began backing toward Cranberry, they encountered another, where a culvert had failed. So number 9's journey ended on the hill between Cranberry and the Gap.

    "Tweetsie Tales" tells of how much rain fell in the period ending at 5 pm on August 13, 1940, it also tells that several more inches fell between 5 and 6 in an intense cloudburst. My father, who was 13 then, has shown me how high the water got in North Wilkesboro. The flood's effects were visible for months, and the memories lasted for the lives of those who experienced it.

    Hurricane floods have wreaked havoc upon railroads time and again. In 1955, Diane rained itself out in the Poconos of Pennsylvania, washing out substantial parts of the Lackawanna, precipitating its merger with the Erie. In 1972, Agnes made a great commotion in the Northeast in general, causing major damage to the Chessie, Penn Central, Lehigh Valley, Erie Lackawanna and others, driving the EL into bankrupcy, and became a factor in the creation of Conrail. And last year we saw flooding in the Blue Ridge above the Shennandoah Valley in Virginia that isolated many mountain communities, reminding us of nature's power.

    Boone never saw another train. The ET&WNC filled in the culvert, freeing number 9 and combine 15; trucked motor car 1 to Boone to begin emptying the yard. The freight cars were removed by truck in September and October, 1940. Aerial photos at the National Archives, attest to this fact. Track was probably not removed until spring, 1941, after the ICC approved the LR abandonment. We all know the rest of the story.

Sources: Tweetsie Country, Extra South, Tweetsie Tales, Summer 1991
Stemwinder. National Archives, and a little imagination.

    An addendum was added by Cary Poole (Cary.Poole@rampo.angelo.edu)

    "Overmountain Press has reissued the book on the 1916 floor which involved two hurricanes (one from the gulf that struck Mobile first and a second which came in from the Atlantic) which stalled over western North Carolina. Supposedly 24+ inches fell in 24 hours. The book chronicles Southern RRs efforts in restoring the lines. Three of the four lines into Asheville were cut for several months and the only line remaining open was the one from Atlanta to Murphy, NC and then east into Asheville. Lee Medford from Altapass told me the story when he was a boy and the trees sounded like shotgun shells because they were being snapped in two as they crashed down the mountain sides. The water was causing entire hillsides to slide as mud avalanches down the sides of mountains. Anyway, the book describes the recovery effort and has actual photographs of the flood scenes."