Secrets of the Blue Ridge: The Devastating Flood of 1942

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Rushing streams gashed through roads in western Albemarle’s remote Blackwell’s Hollow during the October 1942 flood. While “official” highway crews were occupied for many days with reopening primary roads around the state, volunteers from Blackwell’s Hollow and Mission Home banded together to retrieve and reset culverts and to provide roadfill necessary to restore access within their area. Photo courtesy of the Larry Lamb Collection.

How often it is that all seems well—until it isn’t. Around home in October 1942, the Blue Ridge mountain air was fresh and brisk, leaf colors were glowing, and there was ready work for all in the heavy-laden apple orchards as well as in the local manufacturing plants that had converted their facilities over to war production. If you were not working, you’d better have a good reason why not.

Such busy-ness keeps one’s attention focused on that day’s tasks, or, as the Holy Scriptures state in just so many words, “Don’t worry about tomorrow, but let tomorrow worry about itself. Today has enough troubles of its own.” Never mind, for just a moment, that daily, bold headlines shouted World War II’s terrible engagements around the globe: all countries involved were both winning and losing battles, torpedoing ships, blasting fighter planes from the skies, and accounting for their precious lost and wounded. All were in this war together, rationing and doing without, praying fervently for loved ones away in the military service, and each bent to the task of doing their part.

This idyllic rural farmstead alongside Blackwells Hollow Road was narrowly spared in 1942 by the same torrent that ravaged the low-stream crossing near its entrance. Photo courtesy of the Larry Lamb Collection.

On Wednesday the 14th, a sidebar on page two of the afternoon newspaper noted that .63” of rain had fallen during the night and into that morning. “Occasional rain and cooler tonight.” Nothing of concern in that benign report. Thursday’s troubles would note, however, that the beneficial “farmer’s rain” of the night before hadn’t yet let up—and an additional 4 ½” had changed the deal entirely. Friday’s troubles tallied a three-day total of seven inches and was now front-page news!

East of the Blue Ridge Tunnel at Afton, three earthslides and an extensive washout of the fill beneath the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad’s main tracks completely shut down that portion of the line. The largest of the slides commenced about 500 yards east of the tunnel and extended for nearly a half-mile. It was exacerbated by waters roiling down the mountainside that undermined the railbed at that point and left a 60-foot stretch of rail suspended in midair. 500 yards farther east, a 200-foot slide that left rails buckled and broken carried a workman’s auto to a point below the road in Afton. The third, easternmost slide at Afton covered the rails, creating yet another delay for work trains that were forced to wait until bulldozers arrived to begin clearing the debris.

Tarry’s Tourist Camp on Route 810 north of White Hall was damaged beyond repair during the flood of ‘42, with portions of the African American-owned business being swept downstream. Photo courtesy of John Hughes.

Nine work trains and crews sent to the disaster worked day and night from both ends of the multiple slides. Rock was blasted from the mountainside near the tunnel, allowing for a temporary railbed to be placed 15’ nearer the mountainside. Limited tunnel traffic resumed after four days of closure.

During the repairs, rail traffic bound for Charlottesville from the west was rerouted from Clifton Forge onto the Southern Railway at Lynchburg. About 1,000 westbound C&O passengers were marooned on railcars at the train station in Charlottesville until that emergency workaround was put into service.

The state’s highway commissioner said that Albemarle County appeared to have been hit hardest as flood waters ripped out more than 1,000 feet of steel bridges, with 13 bridges reported damaged or washed away. Permanent repairs were delayed principally because of the wartime shortage of steel. To expedite repairs on vital roads, convict labor was transferred to work on those damaged sections. About 19 primary state highways were blocked at times throughout the state, reported Richmond’s Times-Dispatch.

The country store at Doylesville, operated for decades by Early, Bibb and Blackwell families, fronted the road that passed between the store and Doyles River. The road was relocated to the opposite side of the house, away from the river, after it was destroyed during the 1942 flood, thus changing a front porch view to a back porch view. Photo by Frances Benjamin Johnson, 1933.
Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Staunton’s Daily News Leader reported, “A number of bridges were washed out along Route 250 in Albemarle County. There was a considerable washout at the west end of the ‘new’ bridge at Mechum’s River.”

Locally, washed out bridges listed by the Daily Progress included the Route 29 bridge over the South Rivanna north of Charlottesville, plus ones at Advance Mills, Hydraulic, Millington (where the water’s crest was seen sweeping through the second-floor windows of the mill keeper’s house), Milton, and Mountfair. The Moormans River bridge near Free Union was lost and Buck Mountain Creek bridge between Free Union and Boonesville was badly damaged. One linking Crozet and Greenwood was swept away as well as another between Miller School and Rt. 250. Numerous other smaller spans damaged or destroyed were too numerous to receive mention.

The Moormans River crossing at Millington, between Free Union and Garth Road, suffered the loss of a structural steel bridge that was washed from its abutments and turned onto its side a short way downriver. Photo courtesy of the Guy and Susan (Garrison) Pittman family collection.

At the Charlottesville Woolen Mills, workers continued their duties only on the third and fourth floors for more than a week, while the first and second floors were being reclaimed after being filled with the Rivanna’s flood waters. Water stood in the mill “five feet higher than any known before,” a company official said.

In the Piedmont and Shenandoah Valley regions, heavy agricultural losses were accounted for in livestock and poultry as well as orchard and field crops. Apple orchards were especially affected, with 50% of the crop dropping to the ground during the extended deluge. Fodder shocks and hay stores were swept away, as was lumber at mills near waterways.

Tarry’s Tourist Camp, just north of White Hall, was damaged beyond repair. The quaint, roadside log-bodied store and bedroom cabins were pushed from their foundations, with some being swept away. A swinging footbridge across Doyles River behind Tarry’s along with the popular open-air dance pavilion that it served, disappeared, never to be seen again.

For most, work stuttered only briefly while essential clean-up and rebuilding took place, then it was right back to the task of watching out for your own household, relieving your neighbor when able, and the full-time daily grind of supporting the nation’s war effort. Tomorrow would have to do its own worrying. 

Many miles of Route 810 running alongside the Doyles River between White Hall and Brown’s Cove were destroyed by floodwaters in 1942. The road was rebuilt on a higher grade away from the river bank. This earlier cement bridge, now abandoned in a lowland field, bears solemn testimony to that disastrous event. Photo: Phil James.

Follow Secrets of the Blue Ridge on Facebook! Phil James invites contact from those who would share recollections and old photographs of life along the Blue Ridge Mountains of Albemarle County. You may respond to him through his website: www.SecretsoftheBlueRidge.com or at P.O. Box 88, White Hall, VA 22987. Secrets of the Blue Ridge © 2003–2022 Phil James 

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