March 23, 1929, Flood at Oakdale, Tennessee
March 22, 1929: the Emory River in Oakdale was 35 feet below its banks at noon. By midnight, a rainstorm had caused the river to rise 6 feet.
March 23, 1929: Around 2:30 in the morning, there was a major cloudburst between Oakdale and Nemo, and the river began rising very quickly (it was estimated to be 9 feet/ hour).
In a short amount of time, the Oakdale yards were 10 feet under water. The roundhouse received the most damage. Two locomotives and the tender of another, slid into the river.
The turntable pit was filled with sand, and tracks leading to it were washed away.
Eleven company houses, 19 other buildings, and three repair tracks were swept away. Fourteen freight cars were swept down the river, and several were seen passing Chattanooga the next day.
Three full trainloads of perishable merchandise, and at least 100 other train cars were completely destroyed.
Four northbound freight trains were caught by the rising waters, and the crews had to climb on top of the cabs to stay above water.
Extra 6289, a freight, was stopped by a small landslide near Harriman. A flag man saw the river rise 5 feet in 20 minutes. A safety track watchman tried to warn folks in the company houses along the river, and when the water receded, all had been washed away.
Meanwhile, train 27, the Carolina Special was northbound and going through Tunnel 24 above Nemo. As the engine exited the north portal of the tunnel, it was upended by a landslide, trapping the cars and passengers in the tunnel for 12 hours.
As the sun rose on the 23rd, the water was still rising. It did not crest until 10:30 am when it reached a record height of 22 feet above flood stage. Water reached the depot and rose 4 feet in the YMCA. Twenty houses and businesses washed down the hillside with many going into the river. Debris from upstream collected against the concrete highway bridge.
The river washed over the southern tracks and into Tunnel 25. The wall of water created when the bridge gave way roared downstream toward Harriman, wiping out major industries along the river banks.
The southbound tracks were hit hardest as most of the rails and ties dropped into the river. No major railroad bridges were lost.
To get trains running again, focus was placed on the northbound tracks. Crews were brought in from all areas to help with repairs. By the morning of the 24th, repair crews working north from Chattanooga had reached Harriman Junction. Oakdale northbound tracks were opened on the 25th. The entire line was running again in just over 5 days.
Despite the destruction in Oakdale, no lives were lost. At least 20 people (many were children) in Harriman were swept away by the waters. Most were never recovered.
Recovery for Oakdale and Harriman was slow, and neither town would ever be the same.
The story of the 1929 flood appeared in the Southern Railway Historical Association’s 2013 first quarter edition of TIES. The story was researched and written by Jim Thurston.