Early in May, Nashville suffered one of its greatest disasters since the Civil War. Almost $2 billion in damage, loss of lives, homes and cherished items occurred when the Cumberland River rose to the highest level in decades, and almost 14 inches of rain fell on Nashville in two days.
Almost 100 years ago, in 1912, 25 million gallons of water caused great damage to numerous homes when the southeastern side of the Nashville reservoir above Eighth Avenue split wide open and burst. Water violently gushed downhill and swept homes off their foundations, and hundreds of people were flooded out of their houses.
This event triggered a major city investigation, sparking the biggest local crisis ever in Nashville government.
Today citizens and elected officials have tough questions for the Army Corp of Engineers and the National Weather Service about what could have been done differently to prevent the flooding. In 1912, citizens demanded answers to how the massive stone reservoir could have failed and caused so much damage. Mayor Hilary Howse assured citizens that the city had properly maintained the reservoir.
When business leaders asked to see the city’s financial books as proof, it began years of investigations and the worst upheaval of Nashville’s government in history.
Howse refused to provide any information to verify the annual work, and business leaders who never liked the mayor pressured local government for a full, independent audit of its records. New York auditors — paid by the local business community — conducted the audit.
When they asked Howse for the city’s cashbooks, which were vital in detailing the public expenditures, he said he could not produce them. The 11 missing books were never located, and many believed they were burned or sunk to the bottom of the Cumberland River.
Howse had spent a lot of money improving the city’s buildings, constructing new schools such as Hume-Fogg, improving the underground water system, and expanding the city’s public hospital. The city charter of 1899 prevented Nashville from spending money above the revenue of the previous year. This practice was abandoned in 1907, before Howse took office; by 1915, he had run up a city budget deficit of more than $1 million.
On June 25, 1915, the city was deemed officially broke, the city treasurer was arrested and charged with misappropriation of $10,000, the city’s finance commissioner was also arrested, and the city’s assistant treasurer disappeared.
A month later, a chancellor ordered Nashville to be placed in receivership. Howse and his city commissioners were thrown out of office by the court. The chancellor appointed a prominent lawyer named Robert Vaughn as the city’s clerk and master, to take over all the operations of government, including management of all finances and executive authority. The city was in receivership for only two days; an appellate court overturned the ruling, allowing a board of three commissioners to select a new mayor.
During the summer of 1915, Nashville experienced some its hottest weather on record. The three city commissioners met in the muggy, air-conditioning-less courthouse to pick a new mayor. The divided group of three met day after day, and no one would budge from their personal candidate.
Finally, after the 579th ballot, each member dropped their personal candidate and all three agreed on a new one.
Howse was later cleared of any wrongdoing related to the books, and he got the last laugh: He was elected mayor again in 1924 and served a record 20 years in office until his death in 1938. Even after the financial crisis ended, the local government remained unstable. Before Howse returned in 1924, the Nashville City Council removed two of his predecessors, in 1921 and 1922.
David Ewing is a ninth generation Nashvillian. He practices law at Rudy, Wood & Winstead and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.