Remembering the Stokesville flood of 1949
Before June 17, 1949, the ground was already very saturated by recent rains. A tropical low moved from Georgia into the Mid-Atlantic. This was not a named tropical storm, but a very moist, humid air mass.
The rain was enhanced along Shenandoah Mountain because of the terrain. Air rising around low pressure was forced to rise even more on the eastern slopes of the mountain.
The weather recording station at the North River Dam recorded 7.25" of rain in a matter of hours.
It’s still not fully known exactly how much rain fell. The USGS estimates that rainfall would have been between 10″-15″ along Shenandoah mountain. This led to nearly 100 landslides in the area and likely hundreds of additional smaller landslides or rockslides. The forest was also very bare because of the logging industry at the time. This led to the massive runoff of water.
According to a study done by the USGS in the 1950s, they state that while this flood was in fact historic, “this part of northwestern Virginia is prone to intense storms and floods.”
Miraculously, no one perished in Stokesville during the flood. However, the heavy rain sent area rivers rising, quickly. The North and Dry rivers quickly rose and some were washed away in the flood waters.
Four people died in Bridgewater due to flooding.
Clayton Towers was an avid weather watcher and kept weather records for the Bridgewater area for decades. He was a WHSV weather watcher for a very long time. In his papers, he writes that he was a student at Bridgewater College at the time of the flood. What came as big surprise to so many in Bridgewater was that there wasn’t much rain on the day of June 17 in the town of Bridgewater. All of the rain fell along Shenandoah mountain and caused the rivers and tributaries to rise. It was that water that rushed into the town of Bridgewater so you can image the shock of seeing flood waters, and the river rising so quickly when it had barely rained.
Around midnight, Towers writes that he went down to College street after hearing “commotion” and rumors about a flood coming. “I really couldn’t believe it since we hadn’t had too much rain in Bridgewater. I couldn’t understand why water was flowing this way but I was told the Dry River coming across town.”
Towers continues to write about the damage seen once the sun came up the next day. “I wandered around town to witness the damage. I couldn’t believe that water could have so much force. I saw a car on the athletic field backed up against a tree. Trash and debris everywhere. Damage was heavy in the flooded area.”
Three people lost their lives in Bridgewater as a result of the flood. According to the newspaper the river reached a 15′ crest.
Before the storm, only one dam was in place. After the storm, the town of Bridgewater built the flood control levee. It was decided that more flood control dams were needed, and nine additional dams were built over a period of years. This not just after the devastating 1949 flood in Stokesville, but there were numerous flood events in the 1940s.
These dams and flood control levees are vital to the area, and have prevented future flooding disasters (flooding in 1996, 1985) from becoming worse than they already were.
Note* This was not the same flood that impacted downtown Harrisonburg the same year. The famous photo of the old cars in downtown with the high flood waters was from a different even, an individual storm in August of 1949.*