July, 2016 marked the 100th anniversary of the Great Flood of 1916 that devastated western N.C. On Tuesday, January 3, the Iredell County Public Library opened an historical exhibit from the North Carolina Office of Archives and History on the flood called So Great the Devastation: The 1916 Flood. Tuesday evening the exhibit was opened with a special program by Iredell County historian, author, and educator O.C. Stonestreet. A crowd of 75 attended the opening reception and program with refreshments provided by Duke Energy. The exhibit will continue through the month of January and includes several oversize photographs of areas hit by the flood including the Eufola, East Monbo, and the Lookout Shoals Dam areas.
The flood rains of 1916 lasted from Saturday, July 8th through Sunday, July 16 causing severe flooding and landslides. Estimates of those killed range from fifty to eighty. No one in Iredell County was killed during the flood, but a native of Iredell was drowned trying to save his family at the Biltmore Estate. James Cornelius (J.C.) Lipe was the son of John Kelton Lipe and Esther Terissa Deaton of Mooresville. On Sept. 26, 1872 at the age of 18 he married Nancy Sarah Annabella Clark at Center Presbyterian Church in Mt. Mourne, Annabella was the daughter of Robert Harvey Clark, a schoolmaster and Sarah E. Hill. In 1881 James and Annabella moved to Statesville where Annabella’s brother, Rufus Reid Clark, was owner and editor of The Landmark.
James moved his family to Buncombe County in the 1880s where he and his wife were among the first residents at Biltmore Village. James worked for the Vanderbilt estate as a master carpenter and superintendent of skilled labor. He served as a mayor, alderman, and fireman at Biltmore Village and worked on the construction of the George Vanderbilt’s Biltmore house from beginning to end. The Lipe family lived in a two-story house with a wide porch on the bank of the Swannanoa River near the estate’s main entrance. On Saturday evening, July 15, James, Annabella, and their daughters Bess, 38, and Kathleen, 17, along with their 90-year-old grandmother Sarah Clark watched as the rain came down and the river grew wider. James and Annabella’s daughter Nellie, 28, was crippled and was spending the night at the home of Biltmore hospital nurses Mabel “Vickie” Foister and Charlotte Walker along with Charlotte’s sister 15-year-old Marion.
At around three o’clock in the morning of Sunday, July 16, the nurses received a call from the Lipe family saying the waters were rising quickly. The two nurses and Marion pushed Nellie in her wheelchair to the Lipe house to offer assistance. Annabella took the wheelchair and with help took her aged mother to safety. Men returned with a baggage trunk from the Biltmore station and placed Nellie on top and took her to the nurse’s home while urging James to abandon the house. With the waters lapping around his home, 62-year-old James gathered daughters Kathleen and Bess and with the nurses and Marion headed into the dark toward the village. Splashing through the water, they met some forestry students and together they all held hands as the water got deeper and faster.
Kathleen remembered later that suddenly they were in water up to their heads. The flood had forced the Swannanoa to change course. Instead of walking through overflowing waters they had stepped into the river itself. The forestry students swam to safety while Bess climbed on a pile of jammed lumber nearby. James helped Kathleen, Mabel, Charlotte, and Marion to a large tree. James wrapped his arms around the trunk of the tree as the women climbed from his shoulders up onto the tree limbs where they held on for dear life through the night. Nellie recalled later, “In the morning I could just see my father and the two nurses clinging to the third tree from the Biltmore lodge gate.” Her sister Kathleen had used her sweater to tie herself to the tree. Crowds gathered on the opposite bank as men began rescue attempts by canoe and horseback, but the current was too swift. Kathleen remembered her father saying, “If only they would get a flat-bottomed boat.”
Edith Vanderbilt, now owner of the estate after the death of George in 1914, arrived and handed out hot coffee and sandwiches to the rescuers. A rescuer finally reached them and began back across, taking Marion who was the youngest. Once back in the swift current, though, Marion panicked and fought her rescuer and drowned. Seeing her sister go under Charlotte Walker became hysterical crying “Marion! Marion!” and dropped into the water after her and was lost as well. After six hours of fighting the waters James Lipe lost his grip. He grabbed for a second tree and Kathleen watched helplessly as he exclaimed, “Shucks! Shucks!” before being swept away.
Kathleen continued to hold on. She remembered later that she was praying when she opened her eyes and found nurse Mabel Foister gone as well, having slipped quietly into the river. “Out of nowhere, a man reached the tree where I clung and climbed into its branches.” Kathleen tried to reach him, but fell back into the water. Another life guard reached her, though, and tied her with a rope to the tree. She was finally rescued by a flat-bottomed boat brought there by wagon from Skyland around 2 p.m.
Bess Lipe was rescued from the pile of lumber in the river. Sister Kathleen was the only survivor of the five who desperately held on to what became known locally as the “death tree.” The Lipe home stood until the flood waters receded then collapsed into the Swannanoa River. Had they remained in the Lipe home all would have probably survived. James and Annabella are buried at Riverside Cemetery in Asheville along with several of their children.
Joel Reese, Local History Librarian
Iredell County Public Library
This article appeared in the Statesville Record and Landmark as “Iredell native was killed in great flood” on Jan. 10, 1917