Survivors, family share stories of 1940 flood

Aug. 14, 2014 @ 09:20 AM

On Aug. 13, 1940, it was raining in Caldwell County, and had been for about a week.

About 5 p.m., the Johns and Yadkin rivers jumped their banks -- by a wide margin -- and widespread flooding nearly washed away entire communities, sending houses floating downriver and washing out 90 percent of the county’s bridges.

Nina Todd, a 15-year-old girl, disappeared in the flood waters, carried away from the front porch of a house where she and other family members had sought shelter from the storm in Stony Fork, where Nina was visiting with cousins.

Nina’s brother, Riley Todd, now 86, was among the flood survivors who came Wednesday to the Caldwell Heritage Museum to share stories about the flood with dozens of people who came to listen. Also in attendance was Nina Todd's cousin Betty Greene Triplett, 75, who was in the same house during the flood.

It would be days before the Todd family was told of Nina’s death -- someone had to walk to Buffalo Cove from Deep Gap to deliver the news, Riley Todd said.

Part of a monthly program called Coffee with the Curator, Wednesday’s discussion drew about 80 people, making it the most well-attended of any that museum director John Hawkins could recall. It also was the second-largest crowd for any event at the museum.

A hurricane that made landfall in South Carolina on Aug. 11, 1940, brought the rain, and on the evening of Aug. 13 especially heavy rains pelted the area. Lenoir received 9 inches in roughly an hour, explained Colin Foust, assistant director at the museum.

The 1940 flood caused an estimated $13 million in damage and killed 50 people across Western North Carolina, Foust said.

Hawkins, a Caldwell County native who was 4 months old when the flood happened, said he doesn’t remember the flood but has heard stories told many times. His father had carpooled to work that day, and on the return trip home the car could not cross a flooded bridge. Hawkins' father swam across and walked the rest of the way home.

Growing up, Hawkins said, he had three books in his home, the Bible, a dictionary, and "The Disastrous Flood," a book about the 1940 flood.

Stories from other survivors and family members were passed around the room, like that of Anneaa Ledbetter, 96, whose parents were to be married in Boone on the day in 1916 that an earlier flood came to Caldwell. She told how her mother was awaiting her father’s arrival from Lenoir. Thinking he would be unable to make it she left, after which he finally did make it to the church.

When it was Ledbetter's turn to be married, history repeated itself and the 1940 flood got in the way, she said, keeping her fiancé from making it to Lenoir.

Other stories included one of a house that floated 150 yards while a family slept inside, and the story of a song about the flood that was inspired by the recollections of an aunt who was on the porch with Nina Todd.

Hawkins said he had never heard some of the stories before, which is good because the purpose of the meeting was to get people to share their stories and keep them from being lost.