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.


One thought on “

  1. Carolyn

    I'm doing a research paper on Henry Gupton, son of Mayor William Gupton. It's part of a project I'm doing as a graduate student. Would you happen to have a picture of Henry? Thanks for your help.Carolyn


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