Southeastern Section - 60th Annual Meeting (23–25 March 2011)

Paper No. 7
Presentation Time: 10:25 AM


WITT, Anne C.1, SMITH, Michael S.2, GILLON, Kenneth A.1, BAUER, Jennifer B.1, DOUGLAS, Thomas J.1, FUEMMELER, Stephen J.1 and WOOTEN, Richard M.1, (1)North Carolina Geological Survey, 2090 U.S. Highway 70, Swannanoa, NC 28778, (2)Department of Geography and Geology, University of North Carolina Wilmington, 601 South College Road, Wilmington, NC 28403,

In July 1916, two major weather systems passed over the Carolinas. The first storm brought widespread flooding, but no report of major landslides. It’s most significant effect was to increase antecedent moisture conditions, setting the stage for an even larger disaster. A week later, rains from the second storm inundated much of western North Carolina. Rainfall totaled 4-16 inches from July 14-18; a record maximum of 22 inches in 24 hours was measured at Altapass in Mitchell County on July 15. This intense rainfall probably triggered hundreds, if not thousands, of landslides in western North Carolina.

The facts surrounding the flooding and landslides associated with this nearly century old storm have since become entangled in a mixture of oral and family history, legend, and outright myth. For this investigation, we collected information from historical documents, death certificates, scientific literature, field investigations, and first-hand accounts from newspapers, survivors and witnesses to synthesize a history of the landslides associated with the July 1916 storm.

What has emerged is a story of a storm that not only affected the western mountains, but also the Piedmont as far east as Alexander County. Landslides (primarily debris flows and rockslides) were reported in 7 counties and along hundreds of miles of railroad track and roads. Landslide impact alone killed at least 24 people. Flooding killed an additional 25 people. The July 1916 storm not only disrupted the flow of daily life but also caused a rethinking of major transportation arteries and the abandonment of traditional mountain homesteads and communities.

Recent mapping in Doughton Park in Wilkes County has identified likely deposits from some of the 1916 debris flows in the devastated Basin Creek Community. During completion of the landslide hazard mapping in Henderson County the site of a fatal debris flow was located in the Middle Fork drainage, as well as the general locations for five other 1916 landslide sites in the county. Although these landslides have proven difficult to locate in the field, the documentation of historical landslide locations and damage has furthered our understanding of landslide hazard areas in western North Carolina and where and when such events are likely to occur in the future.