By: Jack Swift
Johnson County Historian
I’m pretty sure I’ve written bout the 1940 flood that did so much damage in Johnson and Carter Counties in TN and Watauga County, NC, but as I was contemplating what I would write for my column in this week’s Tomahawk I thought perhaps I would re-visit in print that catastrophic event.
It happened on Tuesday, August 13, 1940. There are perhaps no words that are capable of describing the horror of that event, but I can perhaps touch the surface. One of the things that prompted me to write about the 1940 flood was an old newspaper given to me by Kenneth Caswell, our Seniors Minister at First Christian Church. The special edition paper contained much information about the flood and how it affected Watauga County, North Carolina. According to that paper 16 people in Watauga County perished in that great deluge. That gigantic flood also caused much damage in neighboring Johnson and Carter Counties. Homes were lost, barns and outbuildings were destroyed, and lives were lost as the rain came in torrents and the floodwater took almost everything in its path.
By 1940 the small town of Butler – named in honor of Roderick R. Butler who was a union officer in the American Civil War – was a bustling town following the advent of the railroad that came in early 1900. Since the area had been subjected to terrible floods in the past, the idea was advanced to build a dam and create a reservoir that would alleviate the flooding. It was thought that such a body of water would not only solve the flooding problem, it would serve as a great recreational area for boating, fishing, water-skiing and camping. Swimming, whitewater rafting and kayaking also can be enjoyed on the Watauga River below the dam. The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), created in the Franklin Delano Roosevelt administration, took on the task of building the dam. Many folks took advantage of the opportunity to work on the project.
The construction of Watauga Dam began in early 1942 but was stopped later in the year due to World War II. Construction on the dam was begun anew in 1946 and was finished in 1948. The lull in construction convinced many that the project wouldn’t be finished, but it was. No words can truly describe the agony many people felt as they were forced to leave their homes and the memories associated with them. Now the town of Butler lies under tons of water. It is gone but many people are making sure that it is “The Town That wouldn’t drown.” The Butler Museum is a great example of the effort to keep the memory of Old Butler alive.