In “Poet’s Progress: The Memoirs of James Larkin Pearson,” North Carolina’s second Poet Laureate seemed at a loss to explain the events that happened during the 1916 Flood near the Alexander and Wilkes County lines. A visitor to the scene was equally amazed. William F. Finley of Wilkesboro traveled by horseback to investigate the tragedy. He reported in the July 30, 1916 issue of the Charlotte Observer that, “No one pretends to know just the source of a volume of water large enough, and with sufficient pressure to literally tear out the side of a granite cliff and hurl it with terrific force far down into the level plain below. Everyone is asking. “Whence came this ocean of water.” Was it belched up out of the earth, or did it pour down from the clouds?”
On Saturday, July 15, 1916 Nathaniel Lonas Russell (1879-1940), his wife Lillie Lee Davis (1880-1976) and their five children were in their cabin on the Little Onion Knob mountain in Alexander County less than a half mile from the Wilkes County line. The cabin was on the southern slope of Little Onion near a stream called “The Jack Branch” that ran down the mountain into the Little River. The cabin had received heavy rains since July 8 from two hurricanes that had settled over western, N.C. Stories passed down say that Perry, the Russell’s oldest at nine, began to worry about the rains and begged his parents to leave the cabin.
Before they could leave the Russell’s heard rushing water and a terrific roar from above the cabin. Lonas jumped for little Adolphus while Lillie grabbed infant boy Sewell. William F. Finley reported that “a shapeless mass of debris, 20 feet high, swept down the long ravine, groaning, grinding, seething, surging to the lowlands, plowing up trees and earth and rocks as it went, and adding them to the great mass. Not only was the earth torn up to the rock beneath, but the solid rock, kept firm by the deep layer of earth covering it was chiseled out like a trough to a depth of five feet and for a distance of hundreds of yards.”
The cabin was picked up and carried down the hill and smashed into a large walnut tree. Finley, later, could only find bits of furniture left of what had been the Russell cabin, yet somehow Lonas and Lillie and the child each held survived. They ended up over a hundred yards below in branches jammed against a large popular tree, their clothes torn away, and blinded by mud, water, and debris. The three oldest Russell children, John Perry (9), Doctor “Lewis” (7), and Jennie May (6) were gone.
It would be a week before Charlie Chapman found the bodies of Lewis and Jennie Russell a mile and a half downstream in bottomland owned by Lee St. Clair. In a story in the Taylorsville Times on May 3, 1973 Mrs. J.C. Fortner said that it was on a Saturday when the two were found. The condition of the bodies required immediate burial. Store owner J.C. Fortner made a large wooden goods box lined with “factory” cloth into a coffin. A wagon pulled by two horses carried the coffin containing the little brother and sister to the Bumgarner Cemetery on Boone Gap Road in northern Alexander County. The hole was dug and they were laid to rest by family and friends by lantern light around midnight in what is today an unmarked grave. Older brother nine-year-old Perry’s body was never found.
The children’s death certificates under cause of death read, “Cloud Burst, Landslide. Drowned, (in flood).” What happened the night of July 15, 1916 remains unclear. During his examination of the site two weeks later William F. Finley said that even if “the Catawba River were turned into the Jack Branch, and the Yadkin River were added for good measure, the combined strength of the two rivers would not move the huge boulders which are now lying one-half mile down the valley below (from) where they have lain since somewhere in the prehistoric past.” Finley reported that dozens of boulders weighing at least ten tons and half the size of a Pullman sleeper were sent off the side of the mountain one-half mile below, where they were buried on the valley floor from three to ten feet deep.
Recorded history of the Russell tragedy mentions flood, landslide, and cloud burst, while The Wilkes Patriot reported “waterspouts” during the flood. James Larkin Pearson said it was “nature in her maddest mood.” To those who visited the site it seemed impossible that such large boulders and sections of earth could have been broken loose and sent down the mountainside by flood waters. Jack Branch was normally just a small stream. The only reasonable explanation is that the heavy rains and perhaps a cloud burst caused a landslide which went down Jack Branch taking everything in its way including the Russell cabin with it.
Joel Reese, Local History Librarian
Iredell County Public Library
This article appeared in the Statesville Record and Landmark as “Great Flood swept away family, cabin” on Jan. 24, 1917