Investigating the Great Flood of 1916

Photo of the Asheville concrete bridge area at the height of the Great Flood of 1916

Debris collected near the Asheville concrete bridge at the height of the Great Flood of 1916. Credit: NOAA Photo Library

This year marks the centennial of the worst flooding in recorded history to hit Asheville and western North Carolina. The “Great Flood of 1916,” as many people call it, swept through on July 16, 1916, when the normally shallow French Broad and Swannanoa Rivers jumped their banks after heavy rain fell over the area. We will never know exactly how many people died that fateful day. But, experts estimate that at least several dozen citizens lost their lives in Asheville alone.

The Damages

The flood destroyed hundreds of homes in the area and engulfed industrial plants, warehouses, and businesses along the French Broad. It damaged or washed away railroad tracks and demolished all three bridges across the river in Asheville. Riverside Park, a popular amusement park and gathering place on the French Broad, also perished under the floodwaters.

Upstream from Asheville, the waters breached or destroyed all the dams that supplied hydropower to the city. At the entrance to the Biltmore Estate, water reportedly reached 9 feet deep during the flood. Overall, the damage totaled an estimated $21 million—the equivalent of $500 million in today's dollars.

The Causes

What brought about such destruction? Our scientists investigated the causes behind it by reviewing historical data and accounts describing the events. And, they found that some unique meteorological conditions came together to set the perfect stage for the devastating flooding in western North Carolina. According to historical data from the region, the remnants from two tropical systems that passed near the area within a week led to the flooding.

The first storm made landfall on the Gulf Coast, while the second did so along the Atlantic Coast near Charleston, South Carolina. Both of these storms brought heavy rain to the French Broad River watershed above Asheville: the first on July 8–10 and the second on July 15–16, 1916. A third storm remained off the Atlantic Coast until it reached New England, but our scientists believe it may have influenced the track of the second storm.

The First Storm

Animation of Meteorological Conditions in Western North Carolina from July 7 to 11 1916

According to measurements taken by volunteer weather observers, storm totals between July 8 and 10 in the upper French Broad River watershed were substantial but not disastrous. Brevard and Hendersonville—the only two stations upstream from Asheville that have data from that time—recorded 5.53 and 5.86 inches, respectively. Meanwhile, the Asheville station reported 3.70 inches of rain.

By the time the Gulf Coast Storm moved out of the area, the French Broad River had reached 4.8 feet—0.8 feet above flood stage—in Asheville. And, it continued to rise, reaching 8.8 feet on July 11. Then, after a relatively dry four-day period, it dropped back to 4.0 feet on July 15. Unfortunately, the relief was short-lived. The second storm moved into the region that same afternoon, bringing more heavy rains to parts of the western North Carolina mountains.

The Second Storm

Animation of Meteorological Conditions in Western North Carolina from July 13 to 16 1916

More than 10 inches of rain fell over the upper portions of the French Broad River watershed through the afternoon of July 16. Reported storm totals include 14.7 inches at Brevard, 12.32 inches at Hendersonville, and 2.98 inches at Asheville. Much of this rain fell in the span of 24 hours, including 10 inches at Hendersonville. And, that value remains the highest 24-hour rainfall total reported at that location in its 118-year record.

With that much rainfall, the French Broad and Swannanoa Rivers began rising again. By 9:00 a.m., the morning of July 16, the French Broad River had reached 18.6 feet. And, just one hour later, the river gauge, along with the bridge it was mounted on, washed away completely. The river eventually crested at an estimated 23.1 feet, with a peak flow of 110,000 cubic feet per second–nearly seven times its average annual peak stream flow. The Swannanoa River crested at 20.7 feet, with a flow of 23,000 cubic feet per second—over six times its average annual peak stream flow. Neither river has reached a comparable level in the 100 years since.

Stations on the eastern slope of the Blue Ridge Mountains reported the heaviest rainfall. At the unofficial Orchard Station at Altapass near Grandfather Mountain, an observer reported a total of 22.22 inches in the 24 hours ending at 2 p.m. on July 16. To this day, this amount continues to be North Carolina’s state record for the highest measured 24-hour precipitation total. At the official station at Altapass, 1 mile to the west and across a ridge from the Orchard Station, the reported total was about 1.5 inches less. While this water did not run off into the French Broad River or any of its tributaries, it was indicative of this event’s intensity.

A 100-Year-Old Reminder

This catastrophic event reminds us of society’s vulnerability to natural hazards like extreme rainfall and flash flooding. The heaviest rainfall was not in Asheville but upriver, so it also reminds us of the interconnectedness of our towns and the larger environment. We cannot stop extreme weather events, but we can make our communities more resilient to them. For more information on building resilient communities, check out the Climate Resilience Toolkit.

For a more detailed timeline of the meteorological events during the Great Flood of 1916, download our brochure and poster.