Ask Hamilton: The Flood of 1917

Dear Hamilton,

I love how the Tennessee River flows through the heart of downtown. It’s part of what makes this city so beautiful! But with it being so close, I have to ask – what happens when waters rise?

Sincerely,
Reflective on the Riverfront

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.

ask hamilton black and white image of chattanoogaA 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.

Overview of the flooding

Pictures from the 1917 flood reveal the extent of the damage, as 47 feet of water washed over the city. Locals navigated submerged streets on boats and by constructing temporary causeways. Entire neighborhoods were affected, leaving blocks of houses halfway submerged. The flood even made national news – The New York Times covered the flood’s aftermath, its headline reading “7,000 Left Homeless by Tennessee Flood.”

Things began to look up for the flood-weary people of Chattanooga in 1933, with the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority. The TVA took action to create flood control in the area and did so by building the still-standing Chickamauga Dam, along with eight other dams and locks spanning the river. These flood control measures, along with the use of insecticide, reduced mosquito populations and the spread of disease, sparing countless locals from succumbing to mosquito-borne illnesses.

black and white chattanooga history photosLocals cross the water using a temporary causeway.

 

The construction of the Chickamauga Dam and its reservoir required the purchase of over 60,000 acres of land, which involved clearing the landscape and relocating families and even cemeteries. President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated the dam in 1940, praising its ability to provide needed control to the people of Chattanooga and protect against future overflow. Since then, it has successfully maintained the Tennessee River’s water levels and kept the region from enduring the level of flooding it once viewed as normal, allowing the city to rebuild and grow.

chickamauga damn Chickamauga Dam under construction

 

Chattanooga has experienced flooding since the construction of these dams, but nowhere near the level it used to see. So, while heavy rain may still cause road closures and standing water, the flood control implemented almost a century ago on the Tennessee River means we won’t see the likes of the flood levels experienced in the 19th century.

You can enjoy waterside walks and rest assured that the river is staying right where it’s at!

Hope this helps!

Hamilton Bush
Resident History Hound
Chattanooga, TN

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