My friend David Ewing is a superb researcher and talented writer. I admire his ability to bring various and seemingly unrelated historical facts together, offering readers insight based on his unique perspective of his subject. The following article written by David was published in yesterday’s Sunday edition of the Tennessean.
We appreciate you David!
When James Robertson and John Donelson traveled to Middle Tennessee and founded what is today Nashville in 1779, they selected a choice spot on the bend of the Cumberland for their new settlement. The first commercial and residential buildings of Nashville were built in the area of the long, powerful river.
Before this month, Nashville saw nine other major floods since the days of Robertson and Donelson, when the Cumberland reached more than 52 feet or higher. The greatest started on Christmas Day 1926. That week, Nashville had 8.39 inches of rain, with another 2 inches in the few days after Christmas. The rain pushed the Cumberland River to 56.2 feet — the highest on record — which is 4 feet over the crest of the Cumberland this month.
In 1926 older citizens still remembered the last time Nashville had a big flood, in January 1882. This flood brought great human suffering to the river city, which was still scarred from the Civil War.
By David Ewing
In the 1880s Nashville was a mill and manufacturing town, and many of these businesses were on the east bank of the Cumberland River, on First and Second avenues off of Broadway and in the Sulphur Dell area, which is where Bicentennial Mall now stands. The 1882 flood caused almost 30 homes to float down the river, and even more were toppled. Wood and logs by the thousands floated away from lumberyards, and one of the city’s largest employers, Tennessee Iron Works, was almost completely submerged. Hundreds of people were cast out of work and had no money, food or place to live.
As the water rose and displaced people and businesses, then as now, citizens were unified in helping those in need. The Daily American newspaper said it was “one proud reflection about the flood is that the humanity of Nashville rises with the tide of misfortune and the brisk energies of our townsmen in the work of relief seconded by the active and substantial aid of all classes of the community.”
The Women’s Relief Fund immediately started to raise money for victims and make sure they had proper shelter, food and clothes. Shelters were established and food and funds were quickly distributed. One man who was one of 500 people waiting in line for assistance said he had “five mouths to feed and not a bite in the house.” The treasurer of The Women’s Relief Fund, Fannie Battle, acknowledged the efforts of everyone that donated but pleaded with citizens to continue to give toward the effort, and money continued to pour in from local businesses, churches and citizens.
10,000 people displaced
During the 1926 flood, water made its way to buildings on Fifth Avenue downtown. First and Second avenues were hit hardest, and water almost reached the second floor of many buildings. The American Stream and Feed Building on Second Avenue collapsed after the water rose, and its owner, former Nashville Mayor William Gupton, estimated he lost $50,000 in the value of the building and another $20,000 in stock that was inside. When the building collapsed, hundreds of bags of feed and seed floated down Second Avenue. At another nearby building, Reeves & Company Produce, the water caused all of the chickens to drown, but the ducks escaped and were seen swimming away down the street.
Most merchants did not carry flood insurance. A leading Nashville merchant, Robert Orr, said at the time, “So far as I know, not a penny of flood insurance is carried here.”
Nashville Mayor Hilary Howse, who previously had operated a furniture store on Lower Broadway that was also flooded, ordered all city trucks to be under the direction of the police chief. City workers were sent to rescue those stranded and to notify people of the rising water and tell them to immediately leave their homes.
The 1926 flood drove almost 10,000 people from their homes, mainly in the East Nashville and Jefferson Street areas. The Nashville Real Estate Board quickly provided a list of vacant homes where people could stay. The areas hardest hit by the 2010 flood — Bellevue, Bordeaux, Antioch and Donelson — were not heavily populated in 1926 and were mainly farmland.
WLAC which had just started broadcasting in Nashville the month before the 1926 flood, immediately suspended regular programming to alert Nashvillians of the rising waters. When conditions started to worsen and people had to leave their homes, the station asked for help and money.
Fifty individuals and businesses offered vacant rooms or homes and $50,000 was quickly raised due to the nonstop efforts of the radio station.
Blues singer Bessie Smith, a Tennessee native, wrote a song called “Backwater Blues” that was recorded Feb. 17, 1927, just six weeks after the flood. It became a huge hit when other parts of the South flooded later that year.
Mayor Howse had a quick response to the flood. Even though 10,000 people were displaced out of a population of about 150,000, the newspapers reported that there was no loss of life. The Nashville Banner editorialized that “the people of Nashville will respond speedily and generously” and “that Nashville always takes care of its own.”
Nashville’s local support of the flood victims was so overwhelming that Howse turned down federal financial support offered from Washington and from the national Red Cross.
Everyone wants to compare this recent flood to previous ones in Nashville. Clearly the $1.56 billion in damages outweighs the $5 million cost of the 1926 flood or the $50,000 cost of the 1882 flood. The recent flood caused more property damage and greater loss of life than the previous big floods, but Nashville’s response to these disasters keeps getting better.
This month proved that citizens’ aid and compassion to their city, friends, neighbors and strangers has never been better. Nashville does take care of its own.