Friday, 01 September 2017 01:01

Remembering Richmond County's Biggest Flood in Wake of Hurricane Harvey's Destruction

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Brick foundation remains from Pee Dam No. 1 in Hitchcock Creek at the Steele Street Greenway Bridge are visible reminders of the impact of the 1945 flood which occurred during a heavy rain storm which caused the Ledbetter Dam to burst creating a damaging surge downstream. Brick foundation remains from Pee Dam No. 1 in Hitchcock Creek at the Steele Street Greenway Bridge are visible reminders of the impact of the 1945 flood which occurred during a heavy rain storm which caused the Ledbetter Dam to burst creating a damaging surge downstream. Photo courtesy of Richmond County Historical Society.

In the wake of Hurricane Harvey's destruction along the eastern coast of Texas this week, the Richmond County Historical Society retraces steps into Richmond County's past experiences with tragic flooding.


On Sunday, Sept. 16, 1945, Betty Walters and Jim Smith were married at 8 p.m. in Rockingham. The reception followed at the Leak-Wall House. In those days before air conditioning, weddings were often held at night when it was cooler.

It was raining; in fact, it had been raining for the past five days for a total of 11.01 inches at the time they wed.

Immediately after the reception, the new couple left in a heavy downpour for their honeymoon.

Some 12 hours later, and 3.75 inches more of rain, Rockingham was to experience the worst flood disaster in its history, unbeknownst to the Smiths who had just escaped.

The state at that time was experiencing the rain effects from the Homestead Hurricane, which made landfall in Florida a few days before and was dissipating northward along the Atlantic Coast.  

A chain reaction began on Hitchcock Creek when the Ledbetter Dam holding back 700 acres of water broke at 7 a.m. on Sept. 17. The break sent a flood of water racing down the creek wiping out the dam at Pee Dee Mill No. l, which was located several blocks downhill on Steele Street from the Leak-Wall house.

The entire first floor of the mill was covered with 15 feet of water. Every one of the 260 looms were completely submerged in water, and covered in filth and mud.

At McLaurin Ice & Coal Company on Hitchcock Creek, located near what is now U.S. 74 Business west, Gene McLaurin's grandfather, Bert McLaurin, and young Joe McLaurin, Gene's father, went to the roof of the plant with other employees and, “there they remained in the steady downpour of cold rain from around 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.,” the Rockingham Post-Dispatch newspaper said.

McLaurin had no water insurance.

Several children were trapped in schools because roads were flooded. Some of the stranded children were taken in by families until parents could arrange to collect them. Some 25 younger students had to spend the night in private homes because roads were flooded, and 22 high school students slept on cots at the United Service Organizations building in Rockingham.

“The town and school district is indebted to the teachers, the Red Cross and the USO for so quickly (moving) on this relief job. It was well done,” the Rockingham Post-Dispatch said.

The final rainfall of 14.76 inches had eclipsed previous rainfall records of 9.49 inches in 15 days in June and July, 1943; and 6.85 inches in a 40-hour period in October, 1929.

Fortunately, there was no loss of human life from the flooding. However, “Two dead cows were seen careening over the Pee Dee Dam – probably now in the Atlantic Ocean, food for the sharks,” reported the newspaper two days later. Pigs and chickens also were killed.

“It’s remarkable to say, not only was no life lost in this horrible calamity, but no one was injured,” the newspaper said. “Worst flood in history of county. Pee Dee River was 2 1/2 feet higher than ever before” the headline said. It was long remembered as “Black Monday.”

The Rockingham Railroad lost three trestles and would be out of commission for several weeks. Betty's uncle and aunt, Henry and Elizabeth Wall, with whom she lived with, were major stockholders in that railroad.

The Pee Dee River surged to the highest in its history, flowing some 14 feet over the top of Blewett Falls Dam. The power plant shut down because it was flooded.

“Juice was being made by the Cape Fear steam plant near Moncure,” the newspaper reported. “Thus power was continued without interruption.”

Partial breaches were reported at the Everett's pond and Midway pond dams.

The last time Ledbetter Dam broke was in 1889 followed by dams breaking at the Roberdel and Pee Dee mills. Downstream from Pee Dee Mill pond, the Methodist Church had 14 feet of water inside. The Baptist Church had water up to the piano keyboard.

Overall damage was estimated close to $1 million, which would be equal to $13.5 million today.

Loss of the dam at Pee Dee Mill No. 1 did not stop production. By 1945, it had converted to electric power. With the loss of the dam and its pond, the local swimming hole was gone, never to be restored. It wasn't until the creation of the Greenway by the City of Rockingham that the “pond” acreage   was restored to use as a walking trail.

Local historian Neal Cadieu said, “the flood began in the Hoffman area with a washout of a pond dam there. That wall of water came to Ledbetter where they had been trying to open the flood gates but could not do so in time.