Upland Chronicles: River rechanneled to prevent flooding

Feb. 04, 2013 @ 12:20 AM

On May 2, 1966 a groundbreaking ceremony was held for Sevierville’s Flood Protection Program. The project consisted of widening, rechanneling, removal of debris and deepening the two forks of the Little Pigeon River.

Throughout its history the town of Sevierville had suffered the consequences of periodical disastrous floods. While oral tradition maintains that floods affected the town from its earliest days, the oldest record of a major flood was recorded on March 7, 1867 at 16.5 stage feet. The largest Sevierville flood ever recorded was on Feb. 25, 1875 at 18 feet.

During the 1875 flood the McNutt Bridge over the east fork of the Little Pigeon was destroyed by the raging waters. It was replaced with the Harrisburg Covered Bridge.

On April 1, 1896 a flood measuring 16.8 damaged most businesses in downtown Sevierville along with many dwellings.

Another devastating flood occurred on April 2, 1920. This time the official recorded flood level was 16 feet. Since the height of the flood was at night much of the business goods in downtown Sevierville were lost.

Ray Sharp cut a notch measuring 19 inches off the floor on the showcase at Sevierville Hardware, beginning a custom that continued every time a flood occurred. The Knoxville, Sevierville and Eastern Railroad track was badly damaged between Sevierville and Ewing Station (near the current site of Sevierville Convention Center).

On June 29, 1928 another flood reached a high level of 15.4 feet. Although the flood on Aug. 5, 1938 was a moderate one in Sevierville, eight lives were lost when a cloudburst hit the Webb Mountain in the Pittman Center area. Alfred Ball and his wife Lona McCarter Ball perished along with their sons: Glenn, 11; Alfred Jr., 6; Dallas, 2 and Harold, 3 months. Jessie Evans and his wife, Eula Whaley Evans, were also victims of the same flood.

Both prongs of the Little Pigeon River once again overflowed on Jan. 31, 1957. The crest which came around midnight in Sevierville was 14.7 feet. Extreme damage was sustained in the basement of the Post Office on Bruce Street. Water filled the basement within 9 inches of its ceiling.

On Wednesday, March 6, 1963 another flood measuring 14.7, occurred causing extensive damage to downtown businesses and residences. But the worst was yet to come! While residents were still cleaning up from the March 6 flood, a second flood hit the following Tuesday.

The March 12 flood crest was a foot higher than the one the week before. Water levels reached the tops of the parking meters on Court Avenue. The rear wall of Cliff Davis Motor Co. collapsed causing extensive damage, and almost all the homes in Love Addition were evacuated.

The event garnered attention from national news sources such as Associated Press, United Press and major television networks. Also, the town was declared a disaster area by the Small Business Administration, allowing owners of affected businesses an opportunity to receive a loan at 3 per cent interest to be paid back in 20 years.

After years of trying to solve Sevierville’s flooding, 1st District Congressman Jimmy Quillen organized a meeting with Mayor Jimmie Temple, City Recorder E.T. King and J.B. Waters. The city agreed to provide the right of way for rechanneling and to keep river banks clear of all debris.

Before the flood control work began another flood hit on Friday, March 26, 1965. This time the flood level was recorded at 16.1 feet, the highest since 1920.The headlines of the April 1 edition of the Sevier County News-Record read: “High water hits Sevierville third time in two years — all in March.”

The same issue of the paper carried a story stating that Rep. Quillen told the newspaper by phone on the previous Tuesday that the TVA flood project was assured. Congress approved the appropriations bill that included the funding later that year. But another flood occurred on February 13, 1966 before ground was broken for the project.

Before the plan was implemented, TVA conducted a study to determine what measures could be taken to alleviate the problem for Sevierville and the entire Little Pigeon River watershed. In 1964, TVA submitted a draft Comprehensive Plan. One option recommended a Channel Improvement Project which would widen 2.8 miles of the east prong.

In addition the lower .7 mile of the west prong would be relocated away from the central business district moving the “forks” where the east and west prongs join about 2,300 feet downstream. The lower limits of the channel work would end three miles upstream from the French Broad River. The cost of the project was estimated at $2, 440,000.

TVA also submitted a second plan called the Three Reservoir Plan. This plan included a dam at Richardson’s Cove on the middle prong, a dam on the east fork that would hold the waters of Wilhite, Dunn and Dixon branches and a dam on Waldens’s Creek. In addition to flood control, this plan included recreational and shoreline development benefits along with additional sources for municipal water.

The estimated cost of the Three Reservoir Plan was $9 million. The committee voted to adopt the less expensive Channel Improvement Plan. Completed in 1967, the improved channel carried all floods inside the banks until March 28, 1994 when flood waters overflowed but due to the extensive work the damage was minimal compared to past floods.

— Carroll McMahan is the Special Projects Facilitator for the Sevierville Chamber of Commerce. The Upland Chronicles series celebrates the heritage and past of Sevier County. If you have suggestions for future topics, would like to submit a column or have comments; please contact Carroll McMahan at 453-6411 or email to cmcmahan@scoc.org; or Ron Rader at 604-9161 or email to ron@ronraderproperties.com.