James O. Bass Sr. has seen them all.
A few months shy of his 100th birthday, he spent Tuesday watching family members clean up floodwaters from inside his Belle Meade home.
He remembers the flood in 1973, the first that inundated Opryland. And he remembers 1927.
“I was a teenager,” he began. “I remember it, because the water got up past Third Avenue. It was a mess, and nobody was ready for it. It hadn’t happened before, really — certainly not that bad. I remember going down there and looking at it. It was quite a sensation. It was pretty bad. There were businesses in the Lower Broadway section that were badly hurt.”
The rain fell for 11 days as 1926 rolled over into 1927. At the time, it must have seemed like Noah came to Nashville — a bit more than 10 inches fell in a week and a half or so.
The water kept rising.
In the pre-Tennessee Valley Authority, pre-Army Corps of Engineers days, little could be done.
Until May 1, many Nashvillians — at least those younger than Bass and his cohorts — saw the Cumberland River as the benign ribbon that splits the city. It was almost a historical treasure. It was the river that brought Donelson to meet with Robertson. It leant its name to local streets and landmarks. Barges still tread the river, but Nashville’s commerce is no longer as tightly tied to the Cumberland as it once was.
But on May 1, 2010, the historical became the historic.
This flood is already being called the worst natural disaster in the city’s history, and if it isn’t worse than the East Nashville fire of 1916, which destroyed 700 homes in a 32-block area, it’s pretty close.
Echoes of the past
Reports from 1927 remind that water doesn’t care what year it is — it doesn’t stop rising because we have flat-screen TVs or GPS on phones in our pants pockets, or because we can know what’s going on in Mumbai every second of every day.
The river doesn’t care that when it washes over Second Avenue, it’s not inundating Black Bottom — the common name for Nashville’s red-light district hugging the river, so called because of the rich, dark silt the flooding Cumberland would leave behind. It doesn’t care that we now call it SoBro or LoBro or the euphemistic “Entertainment District.”
When water rises, it doesn’t care that it’s sweeping away million-dollar drivers of the tourism industry and no longer casting off houses of ill repute.
Reports from the 1927 flood are, in a way, strangely familiar.
“Revised official estimates of 4,000 persons homeless in Nashville lowlands, 200 city blocks inundated and 1,500 persons out of work, were not added to materially today,” The Chicago Daily Tribune reported New Year’s Eve 1926. “The Cumberland was a mile wide from Fifth Avenue west of the river into East Nashville, and its backwaters extended for three miles over the north Nashville and Edgefield district, submerging hundreds of homes and inundating industrial plants and business blocks.”
The rains, of course, came quicker in 2010, with 13 inches falling in one weekend.
“At that time, we didn’t have any of these TVA dams,” Bass said. “There wasn’t anything to control the river at all. It’s more controlled this time, but there’s more water, too, I suspect.”
The river crested at 56 feet in ’27 — four feet or so higher than it did this year — and its high-water mark on Lower Broadway almost reached the site where the Music City Center is being built, behind Bridgestone Arena on Fifth Avenue.
There are other lessons from the past, too, the echoes of which ring true today.
There were reports of looting from those earlier floods — “flood bandits,” they were called — but it was minimal, just a blip, like today. Colleges took in displaced people, just as Lipscomb did in 2010, and Fisk, on one of the city’s highest hills, did during a flood in 1937. A grassroots call for sandbaggers helped save the Woodland Street bridge in 1927, much as the hundreds who dismissed the police’s warning that
they “could die” did to shore up the levee at MetroCenter.
The river doesn’t care what year it is — but neither does Nashville.