Mother and child stand near submerged sidecar track
Dear Reflective on the Riverfront,
Thankfully, you have nothing to worry about as safety measures exist to keep rising waters at bay. However, that wasn’t always the case. A century ago, Chattanooga was notorious for being the valley’s most flood-prone city. An untamed Tennessee River regularly surged into commercial and residential areas, causing an annual $1.7 million in infrastructure damage – that would be over $31 million today!
That number doesn’t even account for the flooding’s long-term effects on businesses unable to operate, families displaced from their homes, and the spread of diseases. These floods didn’t just destroy homes and businesses – they were deadly. Unprepared residents and untrained swimmers often didn’t have enough warning to escape the torrent. Immense structural damage also occurred, from destroyed telephone lines to entire bridges wiped out.
A flooded Chattanooga
High water levels created plentiful breeding grounds for mosquitos and, consequently, mosquito-borne health crises. Their population ran rampant and transmitted deadly diseases, such as malaria and yellow fever, to Chattanooga residents. By 1933, malaria affected a third of the population in the region, joining other mosquito-borne diseases in taking a devastating number of lives.
Heavy rain was all it took to raise the water levels high enough to spill into the streets of Chattanooga. After an especially devastating flood in 1867, city officials even proposed that the streets be raised an entire story to escape the flood level. Though this flood takes the title of largest flood in Chattanooga’s history, with waters rising to a flood stage of nearly 60 feet, the 1917 flood is better remembered because we have the pictures to prove it. Locals toting newly portable cameras immortalized the natural disaster in film, allowing us to step into the watery realities of a flooded Chattanooga.