The Easter Torrent
If you were alive in the spring of 1936 and didn't believe in Armageddon, you might have had second thoughts. Over in Europe, Adolph Hitler was threatening to take over the continent and the rest of the hemisphere as well. In the Northeast, monumental floods ravaged New England towns. Nearer to home it had rained cats, dogs, birds, and several domestic animals since New Year's Eve, filling local rain gauges with more than 25 inches, an all time record for the first third of a year.
The year 1936 was one of extremes. Eleven states had all time record highs in the hottest year since 1869. The previous winter was one of the coldest in the nation's history. With the extreme temperatures, massive and deadly storms were bound to occur. The apocalypse began on April 6 when multiple tornados slammed into Gainesville, Georgia. The storm has already reeked devastation on Tupelo, Mississippi, killing 213 people just two days before. When the cyclone was over, 203 people were dead and more than 1600 were hurting. The thirteen-million dollar cost included more than 750 damaged or destroyed homes. The cyclone was the fifth deadliest single-day killer in our country's history, just behind the Tupelo tempest.
Dubliners and Laurens Countians immediately mobilized to send relief. Blanche Metts, W.H. Lovett, and Harry Johnson traveled to Gainesville to survey the damage and lend a much welcomed hand.
Everyone down river on the Oconee, the Ocmulgee, and the Altamaha knew what was about to happen. As the torrential rains made their way into the rivers of North Georgia, people in Dublin prepared for a flood. Dr. Ovid Cheek tied up his pleasure boat, the Wieuca, hoping that she would not wash away.
By Maundy Thursday, April 9, the Oconee River had risen to a dangerous and unprecedented level of 29.97 feet and rising. A bridge on Blackshear's Ferry Road was washed away. Flood waters were already swiftly seeping into the nearly clear waters of Session's Lake near the present day Dublin Country Club. During the night, the situation worsened when 1.49 inches of unwanted rain cascaded down to the saturated earth.
Flood watchers saw the river rise another two feet by Good Friday. Water levels in the Scottsville neighborhood of northeast Dublin kept on rising into yards and streets. Observers reported a "three-block long wide stretch of water backing up in the area."
Some Scottsville residents took the floods in stride. M. M. Harp saw one house where the water was rising under the back porch. An amused Harp reported that its owner was hanging out fishing poles hoping for a mess of fish for a Friday night supper. Some residents were catching carp, who loved the shallow waters, with gigs and pitch forks. Other less patient fishermen were pulling out their shotguns and firing at the floundering massive fish. Disoriented ducks were seeking refuge in the flooded woodlands of the neighborhood.
Just to the north of Scottsville on Parker Dairy Road, the creek waters splashed the bannisters of the bridge across Hunger and Hardship Creek. City officials kept a close watch on the river bridges. The passenger bridge, which was erected in 1920, was said to have been one of the safest anywhere in this part of the state. One young woman recalled decades later that she remembered water touching the bottom of the railroad bridge, which is still in existence today.
My midday on Saturday, the flood waters had risen nearly another two feet to 31.28 feet. The under side of the Georgia Plywood mill on the edge of the river just above the bridge was flooded. The water, still on the rise in Scottsville, began to form islands around higher elevated homes. Out in the county, bridges, roads, and farm terraces were washed away.
Just as the Easter Sunday church goers were praying for the river to crest, it did. Just after noon, the river, at Dublin, crested at an all-time documented record of 33.08 feet. Fifty persons were homeless, but thankfully, there were no injuries or deaths. The bridge over Hunger and Hardship Creek on Parker Dairy Road, finally gave way allowing foolish daredevils the ability to cross the swollen creek where the bridge once stood. Upriver at Blackshear's Ferry, ferryman Rawls Watson's gauge measured the river at 33.4 feet deep, just under the all-time high-water mark of 34 feet set in 1888.
Hundreds and hundreds of spectators left their churches and went to the river to see the rising tide as it submerged the lower end of East Gaines Street. Turkey Creek covered the Glenwood Road at Robinson's Bridges.
The river gauge at the plywood mill was completely washed away in the torrent, but the official gauge remained in place.
To put this all perspective, in the last 117 years, the level of the Oconee River at the bridge has exceeded the 30-foot level only one other time. That was on March 11, 1998 when it peaked at 32.0 feet. And, to put that flood into a greater perspective, the river waters were controlled by dams at Lake Sinclair and Lake Oconee. In the decade and a half before the great flood, the river gauge read 29.8 feet on January 25, 1925; 29.3 feet and 27.6 feet on the 7th of March and the 5th of October in 1929; and more than 23 feet twice in 1919.
At the crest of the flood, national weather service equipment at the river bridge measured a discharge of 96,700 cubic feet of water per second. That's enough water to cover a football field 25 inches high, each second, or 125 feet high, every minute!
Wrightsville and Tennille Railroad president B.H. Lord reported that some of his hands told him that they saw two washtubs floating down the river, one with a clock in it and the other with a big black cat holding on for one of its nine lives. D.R. Thomas related that he saw a log floating down the river with a wildcat one end and a rabbit on the other, neither one knowing whether or not to eat or swim.
Coincidentally, H.H. Dudley, Prof. W.L. Hughes, Prof. Marcus Ingram, Ruth Hunter, and M.H. Dudley had already arranged a performance of the African-American operated Silas Green Show on the Burch lot on the first block of West Madison Street. H.H. Dudley, seeing the opportunity to support the victims of the Gainesville tornado, set aside twenty-five percent of the proceeds to relieve the tornado victims. Although 789 people came to see one of the longest running tent shows in American history, only a mere $30.01 was raised.
By the end of the week, all 125 hands and employees of the plywood mill were back at work and things slowly began to return to normal.
Although the Corps of Engineers and state officials have helped to bring floods along the Oconee River under control, the chances of a great flood coming back one day are good. Remember the great flood of 1994 on the Ocmulgee? That monumental flood could have easily hit us. Will you be ready the next time?