The Flood of Forty - Watauga's Worst Moment

The Flood Of Forty - Watauga's Worst Moment

By August 13, 1940, the rains had been coming down with little let-up for a week. Nightfall brought a final deluge, with observers describing torrents accompanied by high winds and lightning.


That brought it all down on Watauga County, as water-drenched hillsides collapsed and sent slides up to five-hundred feet wide racing to the valleys below. The Watauga River crested at six feet higher than ever before recorded - during the 1916 flood - and swept away the bridges at Valle Crucis and Cove Creek.

The Flood Of Forty - Watauga's Worst MomentFrom the headwaters to Tennessee, the damage to farms, fields and communities was unlike anything ever seen in the region; no other natural disaster had claimed anywhere near the sixteen lives lost in Watauga County alone.

Some bodies were never found; one was discovered twenty miles downstream, and William Townsend, 68, was found lodged in a cliff above the Watauga River near Elizabethton, Tennessee; by some estimates more than fifty miles from where the waters had first taken him.

In the Grandfather Community in the eastern part of the county, virtually the entire colony was wiped out; from the Post Office to the railroad the cut and eroded south slopes of Grandfather Mountain and rampaging river destroyed most in its path.

The railroad was so badly damaged that the company decided not to rebuild. Farther downstream, the first electric power plant in the county at Shulls Mill was also virtually demolished. Farm and crop damage was estimated in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, a massive hit for the main income producer - agriculture - near the harvest time.

Highway 421 to Wilkesboro was cut in two and closed. More than thirty homes were destroyed and countless other structures damaged. But it was in and around Deep Gap, where the mountainsides loosed tons of soil and debris that Watauga County residents suffered the worst.

Andrew Greene felt his home torn loose and turned over at least three times before coming to rest, and coming completely apart. Greene survived, holding to a metal bed post for the night. So too did his wife Eliza and son Hooper, 19, who caught on to a bush a ¼ mile downstream and hung on for his life.

He watched from there as one of his three sisters, Velma Lea, 14, was washed past him, screamed one last time, and was gone. Sister Creola, 16, also drowned. As did the youngest girl, Vernita, only twelve years old. The girls were buried together in a mound.

The last child, B.L., remembered nothing from the demolition of the house, and woke up to find himself trapped in a drift of logs, mud, and debris, barely scratched. He piled some wood over him to keep out the rain, laid his head back down, and went to sleep again. The next morning he pulled himself out, and went home to find it gone, his family scattered, and sisters dead.

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