South Carolina's Deadliest Flood

Jun 6, 2016

With the state still feeling the effects of last fall’s rain event and floods, there have been many attempts to assign the flood its place in history.  Gov. Nikki Haley has described it as a “thousand year flood.”  But a look back in history shows South Carolina has dealt with some major floods over the years. In 1908, heavy rains caused the highest river levels ever to be recorded on the Wateree in Camden and on the Congaree in Columbia, and they caused extensive flood damage.

In 1916, rain from the remnants of two hurricanes over North Carolina caused massive flooding on the Catawba River.  The bridge linking Rock Hill to Charlotte was lost. But perhaps the worst, and certainly the deadliest flood occurred on June 6, 1903 along the Pacolet River in Spartanburg County. 

Before dawn that morning, the Pacolet, already swollen from days of upstate rain and an extremely heavy downpour the night before, became a roaring wall of water when it swept through the thriving textile mill towns of Converse, Clifton and Pacolet.  Perhaps close to 100 people were killed.  Six large textile mills were destroyed or severely damaged.  70 homes were lost, 600 people were left homeless, and 4,000 people were forced out of work.

According to Brad Steinecke, Director of Archives and Local History Programming at the Spartanburg County Libraries, there was a big, booming system of textile mill villages that had built-up around where textile plants were located on rivers in the Upstate by 1903.  “The flood catches people by surprise, they are sleeping.  They wake up to this, and it’s already at that point a pretty catastrophic thing,” Steinecke said.

Historical and media accounts from the time said that when the flood waters on the Pacolet reached the ten mile stretch of river where the mills and mill villages were located, the current was moving at about 40 miles an hour, and the water level was believed to be 22 feet above the river’s flood stage.

“It’s enough to move buildings, it’s enough to float the wooden houses, it’s enough to erode these enormous brick structures,” said Steinecke.   “Trees and everything you can imagine is all up in that water,” Steinecke also said.

There was never an official death toll from the flood.  News accounts put it at around 70, but many think it was higher.  Some residents were simply never seen again.  The small community of Santuck, where the loss of life was great, was literally wiped off the map according to Steineke. 

“The recurring story that you hear so much about the flood is the helplessness,” Steinecke said.  “People are on the riverbank watching people get washed down through the river and not able to do anything to save them, and children that are crying and screaming for help, and it’s a gut-wrenching experience to imagine that scenario,” he also said.

Not only were people washed away, but livestock, bales of cotton and even a church as well. The 1903 flood was well-documented by photographs and news accounts, but for the most part it has been relegated to a part of the great lore that surrounds the state’s one hundred year textile era which centered around the mill communities and their way of life.  In Clifton and Pacolet, the owners and the workers re-built the mills following the flood, and they operated until the 1980’s when textile production moved off-shore.

Textile mill workers were always considered a sturdy group.  Gene Campbell, a native of Pacolet and an un-official historian of Pacolet Mills says today people still talk about how the mill communities overcame the floods.  “They knew how to come back.  Once they were knocked down they come back fighting.  They didn’t give up,” Campbell said.  “They had faith. They had a lot of faith.  I bet you there was more praying going on in this one little ole community in one year than it’s been in the lifetime of the whole United States,” Campbell boasts.

Gene Campbell
Credit SC Public Radio

Today, the Pacolet River still flows gently towards the Broad River and then on to Columbia.  It’s hard to imagine the terror and the loss inflicted on the communities of Converse, Clifton and Pacolet early on that June morning. 

In 2011, where US Highway 29 crosses over the river at Converse, the community and the Spartanburg Water System which gets its’ water supply from the Pacolet,  erected a sculpture and monuments to the memory of those who died in the flood of June 6, 1903.