Southern History

Water pourin’ into Vicksburg, don’t know what I’m goin’ to do
“Don’t reach out for me,” she said
“Can’t you see I’m drownin’ too?”
It’s rough out there
High water everywhere
— Bob Dylan

In Chattanooga, early in the first week of March 1867, rains came, and did not stop for four days. People watched as the streets turned to mud and crops were destroyed. The small streams and rivulets that ran off the sides of the mountains turned to raging rivers and, most troubling, the Tennessee River was rising. Those who had the means made for higher ground and those that did not held on.

Chattanooga was hit by floods again in 1896. (Photo by Tennessee State Library and Archives)

A telegraph from Knoxville came through to Chattanooga’s telegraph station, asking if floodwaters had entered their building yet. They had not, and Knoxville replied that they would by morning.

Soon thereafter, all the telegraph wires were down and communication to and from the city was cut off. Chattanooga was slammed by a river that had risen 57 feet.

The Military Bridge, then the only bridge in the city, washed out, disconnecting the city from the north shore of the river. Homes and cabins floated by and helpless, dying cries were heard from inside them as they passed. Once operable flour and corn mills floated down the river, as did water wheels, homes and livestock. The rail yard was completely submerged.

Boats paddled up and down Market, Broad and Chestnut Streets, and all the intervening streets as far south as what is now MLK Boulevard. One of these boats was seen to capsize between the Episcopal and Presbyterian churches near 7th Street, killing the three men who were on board. A house floated through the city near what was then Sutlertown with two men hanging on to its roof. The two men slipped off, and when trying to climb back onto the roof the house turned over, dragging the men to their deaths beneath it. The bodies of other men, women and children all floated through the city—one man claimed to have been inside his house on the old Lookout Mountain road and watched as many as 15 bodies pass before him one day.

During the night came the fiends. Windows were smashed and businesses were looted, their goods being paddled silently away down the city streets. Homes were robbed and an angry group of business owners, about a hundred of them, banded together and made their way to the commander of a military post then in Chattanooga, demanding that martial law be declared to stop the looting.

One afternoon, despite the dangers, an unknown but enterprising man rowed a barge from the river up Broad Street and into the Read House, paddled right through its front doors and welcomed aboard a band of fine ladies who were stranded at the hotel.  This forgotten man toured the women through and around Chattanooga’s Venice-like streets and showed them the devastation in progress. The visiting women were said to have very much enjoyed the ride, and this led to a new pastime for the next few days. Boats were constantly rowing through the doors and into the front room of the Read House and other buildings, ferrying visitors about the crumbling town, until the city mayor put a stop to it, hoping to preserve the dignity of the dead and helpless.

In the very midst of all this terror and foolishness, even while the water was still rising, an anonymous reporter wrote this to the desperate, flooded citizens of Chattanooga on March 9, 1867, in the Daily American Union, an old Chattanooga newspaper:

“It seems, indeed, as though upon our fair land the curses of war, pestilence, and famine, were not sufficient, and now this additional calamity has befallen us. Still, one ought not to despair, nor to let their losses be an excuse for a folding of the hands and a cessation from labor.

“This calamity should rather be an incentive to new efforts. So far as its being an injury to the future prosperity of the town is concerned, our citizens need feel no alarm. Under the direction of his Honor, Mayor Carr, our energetic and worthy Engineer, Col. Wm. B. Gaw, will, when this flood has reached its highest point, make a series of water marks, showing the height of this flood, and when the waters have subsided, and he establishes the grades of the streets in the city as he is authorized to do, the grade of every street in Chattanooga will be raised to a sufficient height above the level of this flood to preclude the possibility of any part of the city ever being again submerged.  Chattanooga is a young and thriving city and, with all the chances in her favor, her people are not to be discouraged by anything. We are bound to make this city the first city in the South, and by the help of God, who always aids those who help themselves, we will do it.”

Reading the accounts of the disaster today, one is struck by the absence of the sad stories. No writer spoke of people waving helpless white flags from rooftops or angry tirades demanding the president come and part the waters. This was a different time. From the determined sound of those old newspaper stories, the citizens of 1867 would have needed an even greater weather catastrophe before they cried out for help. Remember, the Civil War had just ended (in which Chattanooga had played a huge part) and Reconstruction was in its youth. For these drowning people to scream toward Washington, insisting that the federal government was responsible for their lives and livelihoods would have required a weather catastrophe along the lines of a cold day in hell.

It was not until March 14 that the floodwaters began to subside, and the city was left covered in mud and debris and nearly destroyed. The Daily American Union told of the dangers being faced by downtown citizens and shopkeepers, of capsized boats leaning against storefronts, of a house washed up in the middle of Chestnut Street and the wreckage of countless other structures strewn about the city. The newspaper also felt it important to offer this prudent warning to the unwary: “…hoop skirts and unmentionable articles of women’s apparel are seen hanging from drying lines in suspicious proximity to gentlemen’s hats [and] coats.”

The Daily American Union left no stone unturned.

As the years passed, memories of the flood faded. The Tennessee River was dammed and brought under control. Eventually, the harrowing flood and the destruction of Chattanooga were forgotten.

More than a century later, archaeologist and UTC Professor Dr. Jeff Brown became fascinated by strange architectural features he was finding on some of Chattanooga’s downtown buildings. Walking the city streets, he’d find the top of a window at sidewalk level here, a half-submerged doorway there. Asking around, he learned from some of the city’s utility workers that there were tunnels beneath these city streets, some of which ran all the way to the river and others that led to nowhere. There were stairways that led up to the sides of doorless walls. They told him about rooms beneath some of the older buildings that had been bolted and locked shut years ago and no one could say what was on the other side.

Dr. Brown noticed that none of these tunnels or underground rooms were marked on any of the city’s maps, and no one questioned seemed to know when they were created or why these mysterious tunnels and caverns existed. City workers told of digging outside downtown buildings and finding staircases that led into the sides of underground walls. Intrigued, Dr. Brown looked into these architectural oddities further—and what he eventually found was that the city of Chattanooga had been backfilled and lifted, from six feet at 9th Street to more than 20 feet at the north end of downtown. Though forgotten, that anonymous reporter’s exhortation in the March 9, 1867 edition of the Daily American Union had been carried out. The level of Chattanooga’s streets had been silently raised, from the river all the way to 9th Street, up to 20 feet at some points.

Strangely, the amazing feat was poorly documented. There were the newspaper reports and photographs of the flood, then for nearly a hundred years all was forgotten until Dr. Brown rediscovered, in a sense, the phenomenal task the citizens of Chattanooga had accomplished. While people were drowning, starving and the river still rising, they said they were going to pick the entire north end of the city up and raise it 20 feet—a nearly unimaginable task—but the proof of their determination is found right under our feet.

The ruins are still there today.  Under the streets and buildings on the north end of downtown, a person feeling ratty enough can pop down a manhole when no one’s looking and see a side of Chattanooga that hasn’t been seen in over a century. Don’t expect to find gold tombs, Dead Sea scrolls or Rosetta Stones there. There is wonder, though: staircases to nowhere, rusted metal lights hanging from rotten ceilings, doorways that lead to blackness, old signs painted and crumbling on walls that were once street level. These ruins are the dream homes of ghost stories—Chattanooga Ghost Tours will even take you to see part of the Underground. But the ghosts there are of a different sort—you find under this city ghosts of a time when men were determined to make it on their own and when self-reliance and pride determined a people’s worth.

To today’s citizens, the old 1867 mud puddle seems a thousand years away—to most it has been forgotten. But those old citizens who braved the flood, lived through it and swore to restore the city they were once proud of—what if we today were to have passed by them then? They would be standing in the middle of Market Street, knee-deep in mud and garbage, shovel in hand and sweating. They might pause for a moment if we were to pass by and ask them why the president didn’t have the National Guard down here, or even why the president himself wasn’t there to help clean up that pile on the north end of Broad Street.

Back in our world, tonight’s nightly news should remind us all this: oil wells still explode, dams burst, economies still bottom out, banks still don’t give a damn about you and those bread lines are long. But 20 feet under the north end of Market Street some mud-caked ghost might float up and remind a person of what citizenry once was and what self-reliance meant, if one is willing to see them that way; or, if the shoe fits, one could run away scared.

This article first appeared on chattanoogapulse.com

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Cody Maxwell

Cody Maxwell is a freelance writer from Chattanooga, Tennessee. His work focuses on southern cultural issues and forgotten aspects of southern history. He takes special interest in tales found around corners and off the beaten path.