Upland Chronicles: Eight people perished in 1938 flash flood

Aug. 24, 2013 @ 11:21 PM

On the night of Aug. 4, 1938, a disastrous cloudburst struck the mountains of Sevier County. A result of the torrential downpour was a swift, thunderous flash flood. It struck with such intensity that many people barely managed to escape with their lives. 

The repressive heat and humidity of dog days did not deter a large turnout at the polls to cast their votes in the county election which was held that sultry Thursday preceding the disaster.

Among the voters who voted that day were Alfred and Lona McCarter Ball and their neighbors, Jesse and Eula Whaley Evans. They walked several miles to the polling place of Fair View. The Ball’s four children ranging in age from 3 months to 11 years went along with them.

The Ball family lived in a small modest house located in the Ball Hollow, about five miles from Pittman Center. Their two-year lease was up and they planned to move out the following week. The Evans couple lived in the Sutton Hollow, a mile further up the mountain.

After voting and visiting with friends and relatives, they began their long trek back home.  Exhausted from the long walk and apprehensive about an approaching storm, Jesse and Eula Evans decided to spend the night with the Ball family and wait until the next morning to walk the last mile back to their house. 

Throughout the hollows and hills relentless rain poured down in torrents and the wind blew at a furious velocity. Around midnight, the noise of the rain was suddenly drowned out by a terrifying roar that became louder and louder.

A mighty wall of water and debris came down swiftly demolishing everything in its path. Alfred Ball’s sister and her children, whose house was located up the hollow from Alfred’s, were hovered in their home when the water came nearly to their door. Although the house of Alfred’s uncle, Ossie Ball, was situated high upon a bank, his porch was torn away.

The family of Ossie Ball’s son Arch barley managed to escape by crawling through a back window when they heard the roar of water and planking clapping together. Their house was moved several feet and stopped by a stump and large rock.

Joe Green and his family managed to flee to safety only minutes before their home on Laurel Creek was swept downstream. Some of the others who lost their homes were Elijah Ramsey, Willard Parton, and Mrs. J.W Smelcer.

Destruction throughout the path of the storm was unbelievable; however those who lost only property and other possessions were thankful to escape with their lives. Those slumbering in the Alfred Ball home probably never knew what hit them. A wall of water, mud, and logs swept down the hollow and crashed through the house, tearing the occupants from their beds and hurling their bodies several miles downstream. 

Ironically, in the Sutton Hollow where Jesse and Eula Evans resided not a single home was washed away. The heaviest rainfall struck at Shultz Hollow, a quarter of a mile below, and at Ball Hollow. Rock Springs Church of Christ was struck with such force that the building was torn from its foundation and completely demolished.

Destruction was everywhere. For miles downstream crops were destroyed and livestock were drowned. Although substantial losses were reported in Gatlinburg, damages were said to be greatest near Pittman Center. 

Pittman Center was completely cut off when the bridges on the roads leading from Sevierville and Gatlinburg were washed away.  Ball Hollow was isolated and transportation in and out of the hollow was impossible.

Dr. Robert F. Thomas was unable to drive his car through the washed-out roads and swollen creeks. He walked miles to visit patients. He and his wife carried bags of instruments and waded over a mile up the center of a creek to deliver a baby.

It was late Friday afternoon before Alfred Ball’s body was discovered, seven miles from his home. The bodies of Jesse and Eula Evans were found about 100 feet apart, a mile below the Ball house. The tiny body of infant Harold Ball was found by Henry Sizemore who saw his little red dress snagged on a limb,

By Saturday morning all the victims had been found except Lona McCarter Ball. Fifty CCC boys came to Ball Hollow to join the relatives and neighbors in searching for her body. They found her body later that day. 

Scattered reports of the flood reached Sevierville early Friday morning. Unaware of extent of the tragedy, most people around the courthouse disregarded the repots of causalities as rumors and continued discussing the results from election held the previous day. Ernest R. Conner received more votes than his challengers a second term as county sheriff and George Allen was elected tax assessor. 

But when the searchers began to bring the bodies to town, the truth became evident.

Experts said the flood was the result of a “blow out” in Webb Mountain caused by the cloudburst in the higher elevations of the Smokies. The excess water found its way into underground chambers, and the pressure caused the mountain to actually explode. The waters swept down from the mountainsides, swelling the creeks and rivers into raging torrents.  

Jesse and Eula Evans were laid to rest on Saturday August 6 in the Shultz-Whaley Cemetery. Alfred Ball, his wife Lona, and their four children; Glenn, 11, Alfred Jr., 6, Dallas, 2, and Harold, 3 months were buried in a single grave  in Clear Springs Cemetery on Sunday afternoon, August 7, 1938.

It was seventy-five years ago this month since the tragic cloudburst cut short the lives of eight people and left another fifty homeless.    

Carroll McMahan is the special projects facilitator for the Sevierville Chamber of Commerce and serves as Sevier County Historian.

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