Benjamin Franklin correctly observed that everyone talks about the weather but no one does anything about it. Whether it’s hot, cold, wet, or dry, when people meet and finish exchanging greetings, it’s usually the weather that dominates the conversation. Everyone has an opinion, complaint, and sometimes, but not often, an expression of pure satisfaction.
Any remark about unusually hot or cold weather out of season brings to life doomsday or end-of-the-world remarks. Invariably, someone will warn that the Bible says that we will not know one season from the other at the end of time. Obviously, we have not yet come to the end, regardless of how many times that passage has been quoted. Weather might confuse some, but it seems that trees are never confused, always knowing when to robe and disrobe.
We are left to wonder if the people of the Bethel Presbyterian Church area considered April 15, 1849, as the end of the world. While they prepared for their spring Communion, wheat was in full bloom, corn was knee-high, and cotton was showing a good stand. That day, snow fell and covered the ground to a depth of five inches and was followed by a hard freeze.
Six years later, though the world did not come to an end, it certainly appeared that way to many in Western York County and throughout the state. In 1855 March came in like a lion, and by March 9 “cyclonic” winds were blowing over the state. Across the Broad River in Union County, houses were collapsing, and embers from fireplaces were scattered in the debris, setting hundreds of fires. Around 9:00 that morning, the fires had united into one inferno, and they were racing toward the Broad River. The fire, aided by the wind, leaped across the river and began to burn everything in its way. By sunset 2,000 acres had been burned, along with homes, out-buildings, and fences.
Earliest weather records at the Museum of Western York County report severe droughts in the county in 1755, 1766, and 1769. Records on the ebb and flow of the Broad River begin with September 11, 1784, marking a “big fresh” on Broad River. [Editor’s Note: Freshes and freshets are sudden rises in the level of a stream or river due to heavy rain or melting snow. Freshes are also bursts of unseasonably warm weather.]
Eight years later, the first session of court at Pinckneyville opened on April 2, 1792. For lunch, the judge and court officials had to cross the river to dine at a tavern, but while the court was dismissed, the river made a sudden rise. When the judge saw the rolling water, he sent his servant across on a ferry to dismiss the court for him.
Freshes and freshets came and went over the years. There was a large flood on the river in 1822, and on August 24, 1850, high water was measured at 24 feet at Howell’s Ferry. Flood waters destroyed large portions of bottomland and crops. Dr. Thomas Beard Whitesides lost a child in the flood near Ninety-Nine Island Dam, while catching watermelons floating down the river. The next two years, the Broad River produced destructive floods on August 24. The 1851 August flood was measured at 27 feet, and the following year’s flood was equally destructive.
On December 21, 1855, snow began to fall and fell for five consecutive Saturdays. Snow was still laying on the north side of hills between Bullocks Creek and Howell’s Ferry on March 10, staying for two months and 21 days.
The winters of the 1870s were rough and hung long over the land. In 1873 a heavy frost killed everything in May to a degree that would not be seen again for 22 years. Following a flood on the Broad River in June 1876 that rose to 22 feet, an Arctic blast hit South Carolina, making it one of the coldest on record. In Columbia the Democrats and Republicans locked horns, neither willing to leave the statehouse and spending the night without lights and heat. An inch of ice formed over the well of John Smith at Smith’s Ford. His well was 55 feet below ground level, and it took a heavy blow to break the ice sheet.
The county was struck by another Arctic blast in 1881, breaking a record set in 1835. The Broad River froze over for the first time in 35 years. That same year, a drought set in on April 26 and continued to September 10, making it comparable to the drought of 1845. Crowder’s Creek all but dried up, and the Broad River was reduced to a small branch.
Speaking of droughts, many of us old-timers can remember the drought of 1954 when Turkey and Bullocks Creeks went dry. The town of York suffered the worst water shortage in its history. Water was hauled in from local fishponds from August to November, and irrigation pipes were used to bring water to the reservoir from five ponds. Following the drought, the town built a 15-acre pond for water supply.
Bad weather continued during 1884, with a tornado thrashing through Western York County in May, followed by a drought. By November of that year, a high death rate among hogs was being reported, attributed to the drought. Another tornado came on May of the following year, virtually tracing the path of the one the year before. The twister first touched down on the Chambers farm in Bullocks Creek, damaging trees and fences. As it traveled toward the north of York, it twisted trees, collapsed out-buildings, toppled chimneys, and blew the roofs from homes. The top story of Thomas Wood’s home was blown off, and a buggy and wagon were blown out of a shed and carried 80 feet. After flattening a small house on the farm of Butler Thomasson, it passed into Mecklenburg County in North Carolina.
Hardly a month later, rain fell in torrents for nearly an hour, and the creeks of Western York County rose out of their banks. Doolittle Creek was reported to be 15 feet deep and 125 yards wide. At the Hawkin’s farm, it was estimated to be 500 feet wide and the greatest freshet in memory. Those living on Kings Creek experienced the greatest crop losses from the flooding. H. M. Moore lost a reported 200 shocks of wheat.
The heavy rains in May 1886 washed out the bridge at Kings Creek near W. J. McGill’s mill, the bridge at Clark’s Fork suffered heavy damage, and the bridge over Bullocks Creek on Hamilton’s Ford Road was moved from its abutment. A number of flour and corn mills were swept into the Broad River — it was 33 feet above the low watermark. One man claimed that the river was 2½ feet higher than when Sherman came in 1865.
In June 1881 Dr. J. Rufus Bratton was caught in a flash flood on Bullocks Creek as he was making a house call. Attempting to cross over a submerged bridge with a patient, the horse stepped into the raging water and, while trying to climb the bank, got tangled in the harness and drowned. Dr. Bratton was able to save his patient, but lost his medical bag and medicines.
During August 0f 1887, the Broad River was reported to be higher than it had been in 30 years. All bottomlands were inundated, ruining corn and cotton crops. The piers on the rail trestle above Howell’s Ferry broke from their foundations as trees were hurled by rapid waters. One farmer in Chester County lost a 1,000 bushels of corn and eight bales of cotton.
In August of 1893, the “Quattlebaum Storm” did tremendous damage. It was so-named by Hickory Grove Methodist Church because it came the same night Rev. Quattlebaum closed the revival at Mount Vernon Church. The next couple of years experienced record temperatures. March 31, 1894, was the coldest night of the year, killing grain and even some trees. And in May 1895 the heaviest frost since 1873 covered the land.
In 1904 the Broad River was at its lowest level in memory, lower some said than in 1881. Sand bars were well visible, the ferries were grounded, and the Cherokee Cotton Mill was running only two or three days per week.
As the century entered its second decade, weather continued with its high and low temperatures, and the river ebbed and flowed, but no one was expecting the Great Flood of 1916. And when it came, it must have seemed like it was the end of the world. Though time continued, those who lived through it never forgot.
Weather has always shaped the land and those living on it. We are lucky that our system, today, can often warn us in advance of weather’s wrath. But in earlier days, the warning you received was usually just before the hammer struck. That’s why your grandparents often watched the sky.
J.L. West – Author
This article and many others found on the pages of Roots and Recall, were written by author J.L. West, for the YC Magazine and have been reprinted on R&R, with full permission – not for distribution or reprint!
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