Flood of 1916 Changed Biltmore Village and Family Lives Forever

The Biltmore Company

The Biltmore Village of today is as charming an area of town as anyone is likely to find.

Its lovely, historically significant, old homes-turned-shops, with their characteristic pebbledash and half-timbered exteriors, are clear reminders of their beginnings as part of George W. Vanderbilt’s grand plan for the area that included his magnificent Biltmore House, the massive gardens and grounds, and the planned village at his gate that was home to many of his master craftsmen and their families.

A flooded street in 1913.

Photo above: Looking south down Biltmore Avenue across the Swannanoah River in Biltmore Village. The Lipe’s House is believed to be the two story white house pictured in the center of Biltmore Avenue. All Souls Church is seen at the end of the string of telephone poles on the left side of Biltmore Avenue. At the time of the flood, about 200-300 people lived in Biltmore Village.

But this idyllic setting was dramatically and savagely disrupted one summer day in 1916 when the Swannanoa River rose up and swallowed Biltmore Village in one of the worst incidents of flooding that Western North Carolina has ever seen.

While many photographs and newspaper accounts of the Flood of 1916 exist, personal accounts of those who survived it provide today’s generations with a much more intimate look at these long-ago events that forever changed the courses of many families who lost loved ones to the flood waters.

A flooded Asheville during the 1916 flood.
The Biltmore rail yard west of Biltmore Village.

After all, “history” is much more personal to those who live it than simply the reporting of lives and property lost, crops destroyed, and the cost of rebuilding – rather, it is life itself. These events become part of a family’s lore, passed from one generation to the next through stories told around the kitchen table, on the porch, or in front of a warm fireplace. This is the story of one of those families, and the story that has been told to the generations that followed those who lived in July 1916.

Kathleen Lipe Carter.

Kathleen Lipe Carter (1898-1989) recounted some of her recollections of her early days in Biltmore Village to her daughter, Betty Carter Brock. According to Betty Brock’s husband, C. C. Brock (who recently passed away in June 2003), this same account was given to the Heritage of Old Buncombe County in July 1986, the 70th anniversary of the flood. It provides a touching and highly personal look at life in Biltmore Village before, during, and after the Flood of 1916.

“My parents, James Cornelius and Sarah Annabella Clark Lipe, from Mooresville, NC, were among the first residents of Biltmore Village. Our two-story home had a wide front porch, shaded by vines in summer, and stood on the banks of the Swannanoa River near the old iron bridge that led to Asheville. Papa, a master carpenter and superintendent of skilled labor for the Vanderbilt estate, told me that when Biltmore Village was finished, Mr. Vanderbilt gave it to his wife as a birthday present. In those days, Mr. Vanderbilt’s dream of a model village included having the lawns moved for the residents.

The youngest of seven children, I was baptized at All Souls Church, Biltmore, and attended the parish school where Cornelia Vanderbilt was a student. The school, a one-story, stucco building, architecturally similar to homes of village residents, had the best equipment, waxed floors, and, on the walls, copies of old master paintings. My excellent teachers insisted on good manners and high standards. One day I wrote a composition about a drive up Mt. Pisgah with Papa in a buggy. Having supervised the building of the Vanderbilt lodge at the summit, he needed to inspect it. I wrote that, coming home in a buggy, we ‘hit the high spots’ all the way down the mountain. My poor grade, the teacher explained, was based on my use of a slang expression.

The school sponsored a May Day Festival on the Village Green, a special day for young and old with folk dancing and winding of the May Pole. In 1909, at the end of my fifth year, the school closed and I entered public school.

In the early days when our home had no electricity, our Christmas trees were lit by candles. My family attended Christmas parties at Biltmore House given by the Vanderbilt’s for their employees. I remember standing with Cornelia and classmates on a polished table in the banquet hall to view the presentation of gifts to each guest. Many of the gifts had been purchased by the Vanderbilt’s during their travels in Europe.

The most memorable event of my life in Biltmore occurred three weeks before my 18th birthday, on July 16, 1916, when the Swannanoa overflowed its banks. Papa, knowing the foundations of our home on the riverbank to be strong, did not expect trouble, but Mama took Nell, my crippled sister, and my Grandmother Clark to stay with friends on higher ground. (Note: The “higher ground” that Kathleen Lipe Carter was referring to was the Plaza Building, which was torn down in the 1940s to make way for a restaurant and other buildings; in its place today is the building where Talbot’s Clothing is located . Her mother, sister, and grandmother stayed in the second floor apartment of a friend in this building throughout the flood).

Before dawn on the 16th, my sister, Bess, and I found Papa securing some chickens and turkeys on the front porch. Already, sightseers from the village were wading near the house to view the swollen river. With Papa, we joined a group of forestry students and young people heading into the village. To my surprise, as we crossed the train tracks, the water became deeper, the current more swift. Our group held hands, keeping our backs to the current, and struck out across the Village Green, hoping to reach high ground beyond the lodge gate to the Biltmore Estate. By the time we reached Lodge Street, the water was almost over our heads. Torrents from broken dams upriver had changed the course of the Swannanoa. We were caught in the middle of a wide, wild river.

The large gate entrance to The Biltmore.Some of the men swam to safety. Bess, who had waded ahead, spent the day on a pile of jammed lumber, praying it wouldn’t be swept away. Though a good swimmer, Papa helped me and three young women to grab hold of a large tree near the lodge gate. Both Vickie Foister and Charlotte Walker were nurses at the hospital; Marion Walker was only 15. None of us were strong enough to shinny up to safety in the branches far overhead. We stretched my sweater around the trunk to hold to, moving it up as the cold water rose. Papa positioned himself behind me so that I was cradled in his arms. (Note: Vickie Foister and Charlotte Walker were boarders in the Lipe home; Marion Walker, Charlotte’s sister, was visiting her sister at the time of the flood. Regarding the flood waters, photos that were taken immediately after the flood as the water was subsiding indicate that the water reached approximately nine feet at the entrance to the Biltmore Estate, see photo above).

Crowds lined the shore to watch as life guards attempted to rescue us through the swift current. Men in canoes and on horseback failed. Papa kept saying, ‘If only they would get a flat-bottomed boat!’ Our struggle to keep from being swept away by the swift, cold current was exhausting us.

A railroad line over the Swannanoa River.

At last, when a life guard reached us, we insisted he take back Marion, the youngest. Though she agreed to go, on the way back Marion panicked, fought her rescuer, and drowned. Charlotte, her sister, became hysterical, crying, ‘Marion! Marion!’ and shortly she dropped off the tree. (Note: The rescuer that Kathleen Lipe Carter referred to was a member of the Justice family, a young man – probably still a teenager at the time – who was well-known as an excellent athlete and swimmer. A generation later, another member of the same family, Charlie “Choo Choo” Justice, came along and became perhaps the area’s most successful athlete to date, playing football at the University of North Carolina, where he was named National Player of the Year in 1948).

I lost track of time. Hours must have passed before I felt Papa’s arms leave me. As he struggled to grab at the next tree, I wondered if he had had a cramp. Then I heard his familiar, ‘Shucks! Shucks!’ as he was swept away. Photo above on right is a current photograph of the railroad bridge that crosses the Swannanoa River in Biltmore located approximately fifty yards below where the Lipe house was located.

Vickie Foister gave no cry when she let go. I was praying for the strength to hang on when I missed her. Alone, I continued to pray, hoping that Papa and the girls had managed to grab another tree.

Out of nowhere, a man reached the tree where I clung and climbed into its branches. When I begged for his help to climb up, he explained that, as a father and husband, he could not take the risk. Instead, he let down a branch, offering to pull me up. Exhausted, as soon as I was raised from the water, I fell back. Frantically, I grabbed for the tree again. Now my sweater was gone. My inner thighs, gripping the rough bark, were raw. I wondered how much longer I could last.

The Swannanoa River surrounded by lush green trees.Suddenly, I saw a life guard swimming toward me with a rope. When he reached me, he tied me to the tree. Then I knew my life had been saved.

Sometime in the afternoon, about eight or nine hours after I had left home, men reached the tree in a flat-bottomed boat. Only after I had spent several days in the hospital was I told that my father, Vickie, and Charlotte had drowned.

Our home stood until the water subsided, then collapsed into the Swannanoa.” Photo on right is a current photo of the Swannanoa River near the entrance to the Biltmore House.

Kathleen Lipe Carter recovered from the injuries she sustained on that terrible day, and went on to lead a productive and fulfilling life as a teacher, wife, and mother. She was an active participant in the passing of a NC law that requires cars to stop behind stopped school busses. She had an innate ability to cope with major life changes and stress, and was admired by those who knew her as an outgoing, practical, intelligent, kind-hearted, generous, and optimistic woman. Her husband’s career with Southern Railroad took the family to Washington, DC, in 1937, and they remained in that area the rest of their lives. She died in 1989 at the age of 90.

The freakish and terrifying culmination of a series of heavy rains and two hurricanes, one hitting the Gulf Coast and the other coming on shore at Charleston, SC, the Flood of 1916 ravaged much more than Biltmore Village. The losses from this catastrophic natural disaster were enormous and far-reaching. The Asheville Citizen newspaper from July 16, 1916, reported in a front page story, “The damage at Biltmore is frightful.” The article also stated, “With flood waters subsiding, Asheville is today carrying out relief work and taking count of the loss of life and property from the storm. Along the river fronts in the Swannanoa and French Broad valleys industrial plants have been submerged and wrecked. The damage in Asheville is estimated at $1,000,000; in Buncombe county the loss will add close to two million to this sum.” The Asheville Citizen further reported, “From the outside towns and communities come reports of death and havoc to property. In Marshall 53 houses are reported washed away in the narrow valley where the town lies. Two lives are said to be lost and two people are missing.”

According to “The Floods of July, 1916,” a report by Southern Railway Company (1917, pages 11-12), “West of the Blue Ridge all the streams flowing into the Tennessee were in severe flood, probably the most disastrous so far as loss of life and property is concerned being in the French Broad (see photo on the right). Gagings in that river are made at Asheville, NC. On the morning of the 9th, the river had reached a stage of 4.8 feet (flood stage, 4 feet) [from a Gulf Coast hurricane that came ashore near Mobile, AL], and by the morning of the 11th it had risen to a stage of 8.8 feet; it then declined until the morning of the 15th, when it stood at exactly 4 feet, or flood stage. The tremendous rains on the 15th and 16th in the watershed of the river [from an Atlantic coast hurricane that came ashore near Charleston, SC] caused it to rise with great rapidity. At 8 AM, on the 16th, it stood at 13.5 feet, 9.5 feet above flood; by 9 AM of the same day, it had risen to 18.6 feet; and at 10 AM the bridge on which the gage was located was washed away. The crest of the flood was about 21 feet; the exact figures will be determined later.”

The Southern Railway Company further reported, “The precise number of person who lost their lives in the floods will doubtless never be known, although the best information at hand places the loss of life at about 80, the great majority of whom were drowned in the streams of western North Carolina. …The property loss, as near as can be figured, was near $22,000,000 …”

George Vanderbilt’s splendid Biltmore House escaped damage from the floodwaters. While some outbuildings had minor flood damage, the only loss the Estate sustained was the Biltmore Nursery, located at the confluence of the French Broad and Swannanoa rivers, which was destroyed.

Edith Vanderbilt, George W. Vanderbilt’s widow (he had died two years earlier, after complications from appendicitis), provided some much-needed immediate relief following the flood. While remaining quietly in the background, she aided flood victims with food, blankets, and transportation.

The Lipe’s home, which collapsed the day after the flood and toppled into the river, was located where Pizza Hut is on Biltmore Avenue today. The Village Green, where the Lipe party had been headed the morning of July 16, 1916, was sited where the Biltmore Avenue McDonald’s restaurant is now located.

A maple tree near the entrance of The Biltmore.But what became of the tree that saved the life of Kathleen Lipe Carter? A maple (see two bottom photographs), certainly older and taller, but still as strong and healthy as it was on that summer day so many years ago, remains undisturbed by the passage of time, and quietly stands guard in its position, third on the right from the lodge gate, as thousands of visitors pass it daily on their way to the house, gardens, and winery.

The Biltmore Village Historic Museum, located at 7 Angle Street in Biltmore Village, is a free, non-profit, volunteer-staffed museum, and contains a great deal of interesting information about Biltmore Village from the late 1800s to the present, including the Flood of 1916. Photographs, maps, antique post cards, clothing, and vintage artifacts are all part of their collection. The collection also includes original maps and copies of original drawings of the Biltmore Village cottages. The museum is available to the public by appointment only. For more information, please call 828-274-9707.

For more information about the Biltmore House and Gardens, please visit their web site, www.biltmore.com.

Special thanks and sincere gratitude to Ginny Gutierrez (granddaughter of Kathleen Lipe Carter), Betty Carter Brock (daughter of Kathleen Lipe Carter) and her late husband, C. C. Brock, Mary Hyde of the Biltmore Village Museum and Sue Clark, Associate Curator of Interpretation for The Biltmore Company, for providing information and fact verification on this story.

Story written by Lyn Leslie. Flood photos provided by The Biltmore Company.