Seventy-six years ago this month, the most disastrous flood in Ashe County’s history occurred when the remnants of a hurricane stalled over the region and rained itself out for four days. Joe Worth, U.S. weather official, reported 12.26 inches falling from 6 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 11 until 6 p.m. Wednesday (Aug. 14). Damage was estimated over $2 million; an astronomical amount for 1940. This flood broke records set by the flood of 1916.
Nine bridges over the New River were either washed out or damaged beyond repair. Several bridges over creeks met the same fate. Ashe County was almost completely cut off from the rest of the world. NC 194 to Boone was open but barely passable. US 221 was open to Sparta. A temporary bridge over the New River on NC 16 was completed August 23 in order to reopen the route to North Wilkesboro. The railroad was damaged so badly that train travel was suspended until repairs could be made. The Norfolk and Western Railway predicted 30 or 40 days. Mail was delivered by rail to Damascus, Virginia and trucked on to West Jefferson from there.
The Hamby Dam and power plant serving Warrensville was completely washed out. Ernest Bumgardner’s home at the Sharp’s Fall power dam was completely washed away. The dam survived and remains in operation today. Over 30 homes were washed away and at least 75 more damaged. The 100 year-old home of S.V. Alexander, the homes of Ed Shepherd, Rev. Arthur Ashley, F.S. Barker, Sam Caudill, Ed Bowers, George Hewitt, Todd Eller, Will Ballou, Ed Eldreth, Gwynn Lewis, Mrs. Marsh Roupe, Fred Pugh, Charlie Winebarger, F. Jarvis, Bob Coffey, W.M. Pugh and George Miller were among those destroyed. Elmer Jones, who lived on the North Fork of New River near
Warrensville, opened all the doors and windows in his house, allowing the water to flow through, thus saving the structure.
Churches were also damaged or completely destroyed. A Helton church floated as far as Crumpler where it took out a bridge. A large tabernacle at Fig (Riverview) and the Oak Grove Church in Warrensville were destroyed.
Governor Clyde Roark Hoey called on farmers not to destroy their cattle for lack of feed. He stated, “The mountain section of the state will be set back five years if cattle are disposed of because of lack of pasture.” The American Red Cross and the Emergency Seed Loan Corporation were organized to provide relief.
Schools scheduled to open August 29th were delayed until September 12. All 66 schools opened on that date except Fleetwood which did not open until September 23rd.
Buck Richardson grew up in a house on the North Fork of New River in Clifton. I asked him if he remembered the ’40 flood. “Oh, yes,” he replied. “We had to go out our back door and cross the ridge to Mill Creek. When we were able to come back, the house was still there but the slop bucket that was behind the cook stove when we left was sitting in the middle of our dining-room table.”
Let’s hope we never have another disaster like the flood of 1940.
Most of the information for this article came from an August, 1940 edition of The Skyland Post.