The Great Flood of 1916

Long before meteorologists could accurately track storm systems and decades before hurricanes were assigned proper names, two major hurricane forces struck the Blue Ridge Mountains and Catawba River Valley in July of 1916.

At Altapass NC, northeast of Asheville, rainfall was measured at an astonishing 22inches over a 24hour period.  It was the largest recorded accumulation in the entire country at the time and still holds the state record for rainfall over a 24hour period.

The Catawba River flooded for hundreds of miles from the North Carolina mountains and into the South Carolina midlands.  Almost every bridge and railroad trestle over the Catawba was damaged or washed away.  By the time flood waters receded an estimated 80 lives were lost and towns, homes and farmlands were in ruin.

The Great Flood of 1916 is still considered one of the worst natural disasters to ever hit the Carolinas.  However, the flood and destruction would eventually lead to the creation of present day Lake Wylie and the transformation of the Catawba River.

great flood of 1916

Catawba River at flood stage during Great Flood of 1916. (Courtesy Duke Energy Archives)

~

York County, South Carolina 1904

The economy surrounding the Catawba River region was undergoing a shift in the early 1900s.  For years, agriculture and particularly cotton had been the main driving force.  The introduction of textile mills brought manufacturing to the agrarian society, and inexpensive, readily available electricity was needed to power the machine spindles.

In 1900 the Catawba Power Company was formed by several prominent men, specialists in the emerging field of hydroelectricity production.  Made up of founding members Dr. Walker Gill Wylie, brother Dr. Robert H. Wylie and William C. Whitner, the Catawba Power Company quickly began construction of the very first dam along the entire Catawba River at India Hook shoals just north of Rock Hill, SC.

Work on the dam was completed by 1904 and the Catawba Dam and power plant was soon in operation providing surrounding towns with hydroelectricity, powering thousands of textile machines.

historic york county survey

The 1910 Jones & Walker survey of York County SC depicts original impoundment along the Catawba River as a result of the first dam at India Hook shoals, constructed 1904. (click to enlarge)

The dam had impounded 668 acres of water creating the earliest version of Catawba Lake, predecessor to Lake Wylie.  The 1910 Jones & Walker survey of York County provides insight into the lake’s original shape.

Per the 1910 survey, notable bulges along the river were present at Allison Creek and Beaver Dam Creek.  An island more than 1mile in length (referenced as Huddleson Island in a 1914 map of York County school districts) sat slightly north of ‘Rocky Allison Creek’.

At the time of its construction, York County’s Catawba Dam was regarded as one of the most impressive engineering feats in the entire southeast.  The resulting hydroelectricity production propelled York County and surrounding towns into regional leaders in textile manufacturing.

Shortly thereafter, Dr. Walker Gill Wylie met tobacco tycoon and millionaire James Buchannan Duke and eventually convinced Duke to invest in future projects.  With Duke’s considerable resources the Catawba Power Company, renamed Southern Power, completed additional dams and reservoirs farther south along the river at Great Falls and Rocky Creek, SC.

A short twelve years after its completion, the Catawba Dam at India Hook shoals would be severely damaged in one of the greatest floods to ever hit the Carolinas.

~

The Great Flood of 1916

July 5th, 1916 – After making landfall on the Mississippi coast and sweeping up through the south, the first of two back-to-back hurricanes settled onto the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains.  Once in North Carolina, the hurricane dropped rain for almost a week straight, finally giving out on Tuesday, July 11th.

great flood of 1916

Catawba Hydroelectric Plant, India Hook shoals, at high water during the Great Flood of 1916. (Courtesy Duke Energy Archives)

Days later a second hurricane, this one coming from the Atlantic, hit Charleston and marched towards Charlotte on its way to the mountains.  The night of Friday, July 14th, strong winds downed trees in Charlotte.  By Saturday morning city streets and residences were littered with debris, but the worst damage would eventually occur north and west of Charlotte along the Catawba River Valley.

After reaching the mountains, the second hurricane finally dispersed on Sunday, July 16th, but not before unleashing pouring rain on land already drenched to capacity from the previous week’s storm.

Those living in the mountain and foothill towns of Asheville, Morganton and Hickory NC, watched helplessly as the rising river destroyed homes and buildings, washed away fields and livestock.

It would take another few days to reach York County, but the flood waters eventually rushed out of the mountains and foothills, carving a path of destruction miles wide.

By the time flooding hit York County, the river’s momentum remained strong enough to severely damage the Catawba Dam and power plant.  Even farther south along the river, the hydro station at Rocky Creek was completely destroyed.

In addition to the lives lost, structural damages attributed to the Great Flood of 1916 amounted to almost $500million by today’s dollars.  Given the loss of crops, livestock and ruined farmland, total monetary damages most likely exceeded this estimate.

great flood of 1916

Catawba Dam and Hydro Plant, India Hook shoals, shortly after the Great Flood. (Courtesy Duke Energy Archives)

~

Birth of Lake Wylie, 1925

Construction on the dam at India Hook/Lake Wylie, 1925. (Courtesy Duke Energy Archives)

Following the Great Flood of 1916, the Catawba River underwent a massive transformation.  Community and government-sponsored efforts to rebuild damaged towns and infrastructure were quickly enacted.  Meanwhile, construction of additional reservoirs and hydroelectric plants along the Catawba River soon began.

James Buchannan Duke’s initial investment in Southern Power had proved a success.  Reservoirs and hydroelectricity had spurred economic growth across the Piedmont region of the Carolinas.

The potential to increase and capitalize on hydroelectric production also served to help protect towns and residents along the Catawba River from future floods.  By harnessing the power of the river via dams and controlled water releases, the likelihood of another Great Flood was slim.

Between 1916 and 1925, several new dams along the Catawba were built creating Lake Rhodiss in Morganton and Charlotte’s Mountain Island Lake, among others.  During this time the dam at India Hook shoals was also rebuilt and enlarged.

Reconstruction of the Catawba Dam at India Hook in York County was completed in 1925.  The dam was raised and the total water impoundment increased to almost twenty times its original size, from 668 acres to near 12,500 acres.  The resulting reservoir was called Catawba Lake.  In 1960 it would be renamed Lake Wylie to honor Dr. Walker Gill Wylie, founding member of the Catawba Power Company and primary proponent of hydroelectricity production along the Catawba River.

Lake Wylie Dam 1925

1926 aerial view of the newly rebuilt Catawba Dam and Hydro Plant, seen here in middle ground. Lake Wylie or ‘Catawba Lake’ as it was known at the time seen towards rear of photo. (Courtesy Duke Energy Archives)

lake wylie dam and power plant

Lake Wylie Dam and Hydro Plant, present day.

lake wylie dam and power plant

Lake Wylie Hydro Plant (foreground) and Dam, present day.

~

** For additional reading on the Great Flood of 1916, we recommend “From Great Flood, new life for Catawba River” by Duke Energy archivist Akeem Flavors and “Hell and High Water: The Flood of 1916” by Heidi Coryell Williams.  A 1912 Charlotte Observer article provides a first-hand account, told by Dr. Walker Gill Wylie, of Wylie’s interest in hydroelectricity production and the creation of the Catawba Power Company and Southern Power.    

~