Knoxville, thanks to some geographical and political good luck, doesn’t encounter many natural disasters. It wasn’t always like that. If anybody ever asks you about the worst natural disaster Knoxville ever experienced, it was about 150 years ago.
It started during the first days of March 1867, as Knoxville was trying, with limited success, to recover from the shock of history’s most destructive war. The town of about 6,000 had just begun to see its railroad economy boom when the war knocked the wind out of it. But things were—maybe—beginning to turn for the better.
The Civil War wasn’t wholly over. Tennessee’s hardcore anti-Confederate governor was Knoxville editor “Parson” W.G. Brownlow. He worked in Nashville, but his famous weekly paper, the Whig, still stirred the pot here. Every issue was political, and to read the descriptions of “Union men” and “rebels,” you’d think the war was still on. It was still a violent time. Brownlow was blaming Confederates, and in fact the whole Democratic Party, for the murders of blacks in other parts of the South.
The winter that had just passed had been an unusually cold one, and there were reportedly piles of snow in the Smokies. A warm spell in late February began melting them, forming cold streams that rushed down to the river valley.
Those mountain streams, and the speed with which they transported water to the valleys, made the Tennessee River unpredictable. (The segment that included Knoxville was still called the Holston until 1875.) Spring flooding was not unusual. But even the old-timers had no memory to compare with what was happening that week.
It began late Saturday night, March 2, with a hard rain. It was a strange rain, in that it hardly let up for four days. Storm followed storm. “Storms and such storms,” went a newspaper account. “All will remember that the lightning flashed, the thunder clashed” day after day: Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday. It didn’t let up until Thursday morning.
By then, there was a problem that would last for several more days. Even after the rain stopped, the river kept rising. A few feet of flood would take the river out of its banks. A few feet more and the warehouses by the river had enough water on the floor to worry about storing their products.
Samuel T. Atkin’s well-known lumber mill made architectural products in a good-sized facility with modern machinery at the mouth of First Creek, just upstream from the sturdy bridge across the river that the Union army had built a couple of years earlier. Atkin and his associates, a firm called Gasper & Davis, were mindful of water. Atkin liked being at the creek because it offered him visibility, and an opportunity to test his new line of products. Just after the war, he began building wooden boats, and the creek was deep enough to offer a test spin.
Soon, though, the river and the creek and the unrelenting skies supplied more water than Atkin and company liked. The water was rising inside their factory, threatening their machinery and tens of thousands of dollars worth of fresh lumber. With no other recourse, he and his associates sought higher ground.
Water swirled around the factory, and soon, the Atkin’s mill sailed off like an ungainly ship.
Several other mills, including the Cokers’ sawmill and gristmill at Park’s Ferry, and Mr. Park’s steam mill, were swept away, along with an estimated 600,000 feet of lumber. An old red warehouse, a landmark before the war, “sailed majestically down the river, no doubt the largest craft that has ever gone down the waters of the Holston.”
Joining the boat parade were smaller craft, the modest houses of many people who lived in the lowlands. The river flowed into the creeks, river water battling with swollen creek water. People who could afford to live elsewhere didn’t live near the creeks, but hundreds did. The lucky ones found higher ground.
The trains stopped running, both from the northeast and from the south, toward Chattanooga, where word got around, was a city mostly under water. The roads in and out of Knoxville were impassable.
Williams Island—soon to be renamed Dickinson Island, for its owner, leading merchant Perez Dickinson, and today the host of Downtown Island Airport—was completely underwater.
The altitude of Knoxville’s business district had been a disadvantage that people had complained about since the 1790s, especially troublesome to those loading cargo or trying to drive a team of mules to town, but this time it worked in Knoxville’s favor. First and Second Creeks both swelled and widened, finally joining via the “Flag Pond” on the north side of Gallows Hill. Knoxville, or most of the business part of it, became an island in the middle of a swirling torrent.
Most of downtown Knoxville was once, more literally, known as Uptown, and there was a time when it was a significant distinction. It was the top of the plateau, the high part of town with the courthouse and Market Square and most of the churches. Uptown never flooded, and that week Uptown got very crowded. Old, young, black, white, everybody jammed into that half-square mile. But, once there, they couldn’t look away. The most crowded part of town was the top of the bluff, overlooking the river. As horrible as it was, they knew they wouldn’t see something like this again.
“For the greater portion of the week, nothing was thought or talked about but the flood,” reported the Whig, in a rare non-political commentary, “and hundreds of our citizens of all ages, sexes, and colors crowded along the riverbank to behold the turbid waters dash impetuously forward, carrying everything away by their irresistible power, bidding a sullen defiance to the weak effort of bystanders to prevent them from accomplishing their destructive purposes.”
Picture who might have been there, crowded together, with the water swirling around them. Confederate veterans, Union veterans, freed slaves, European immigrants, all equals, at least for the day, in the face of a common catastrophe: the family of Julius and Bertha Ochs, Bavarian immigrants, including their son, Adolph, who would later be the New York Times‘ most influential publisher; Fannie Hodgson, the recent English immigrant, who would later be internationally known as novelist Frances Hodgson Burnett; Sam Dow, the Union veteran involved in starting a baseball league; Patrick Sullivan, the Irish immigrant who was starting a saloon; his friend Cal Johnson, the recently freed slave who also had ambitions to start a saloon, or maybe a chain or saloons; Gustav Knabe, the Leipzig musician who aspired to start a symphony orchestra here; Peter Staube, the Swiss immigrant who wanted to build an opera house.
For this distinguished audience, the flood was quite a show.
They called it the Great Freshet, an innocent-sounding term more common in that day. No one had ever seen anything like it. There was a legend of an enormous flood in the same month 76 years earlier, in 1791, the year Knoxville was founded as capital of the Southwestern Territory. For years, gray-haired elders had enjoyed scaring their grandchildren with stories of that pioneer-era flood. But this new flood of 1867 was seven or eight feet deeper even than the flood of legend.
In 1867, one of Knoxville’s most impressive feats of engineering was the first “permanent” bridge ever built across the river, just three years earlier, during occupation, by the Union army. It was at near the foot of Gay Street. Subsequently purchased by the Knox County government, it quickly became a useful link for civilians, especially South Americans, as those on the south side were called, a joke about their remoteness.
The bridge was built for war, but not for a flood of this magnitude. According to Brownlow’s Whig, “after standing up nobly against the waves for a full 12 hours longer than was expected by its most sanguine friends, was finally compelled to yield to the irresistible power of the undeterred billows and gave way, to the sorrow of the entire community.”
Also destroyed by the raging currents was the Main Street bridge over First Creek. One block north, the other main bridge over First Creek at Cumberland Avenue survived, only through the diligence of County Judge Columbus Jones, who saved it by removing all its planks, so the water could just flow past it.
It was Judge Jones who went to work immediately raising money for a new county bridge over the river.
Knoxville’s flood crested at 4:30 on Sunday afternoon, the 10th, eight days after the heavy rain began, and it slowly began to recede.
Similar things happened all over the region. Strawberry Plains lost its new bridge over the Holston. Dozens of grist mills were carried away. If Knoxvillians had a way to get in touch with Chattanooga, they might have warned them about what was on the way. A low-lying city with a deeper flood, Chattanooga got the worst of it. Much of Chattanooga was underwater that month. Though the flood affected cities all along the Ohio and Tennessee Valleys, from St. Louis to Pittsburgh, it’s sometimes known as the Chattanooga Flood. As was the case in Knoxville, its death toll is unknown.
In those days, local newspapers didn’t always report about human misfortunes, unless the story was especially peculiar or the humans in question were well known. There was only the scant beginning of a police force in Knoxville, and there was no one whose job it was to count the dead or the homeless. What papers reported on were political and economic effects, especially on businesses that lost hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of assets. One of the most notable economic effects of the flood was that, with so many bridges gone and even roads along the ground washed out, commerce was nearly impossible, and in Knoxville, which experienced an uncomfortable cold snap in the days after the flood, the price of all fuel skyrocketed.
There was a mention, from a paper in another city, that 200 Knoxvillians were “washed out of their homes.” Over the years, there were more apocalyptic tales of the discovery of corpses tangled in the upper branches of trees along First Creek.
The Tennessee Valley Authority arrived in 1933, and by 1944 or so, thanks to multiple dams, Knoxville was much less flood-prone than it had been for its first 150 years. Still, I don’t hear anyone claim that catastrophic flooding is impossible here.
Knoxville filled up with new people who didn’t remember the flood, and by 1900, when Knoxville was more than five or six times the size it was in 1867, the Great Freshet was a long-ago legend remembered by few. But those who witnessed it wanted it to be remembered.
In 1948, 81 years after the Great Freshet, construction workers found a carving on an old bridge pier on the hillside barely east of the Gay Street Bridge we know. It was inscribed “HWM 1867.” It was the high-water mark from the worst flood in history. It was a curiosity at the time, marked at 33 feet above the river’s level. Some observed that if the river were ever that full again, it would come halfway up the arches of the Henley Street Bridge.
What became of that carving after its news-making rediscovery isn’t reported. If you have a clue, let us know. If it still exists, it’s the only relic of Knoxville’s worst disaster.
Jack Neely is the director of the Knoxville History Project, a nonprofit devoted to exploring, disseminating, and celebrating Knoxville's cultural heritage. He’s also one of the most popular and influential writers in the area, known for his books and columns. The Scruffy Citizen surveys the city of Knoxville's life and culture in the context of its history, with emphasis on what makes it unique and how its past continues to affect and inform its future.
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