Part 2: Surviving the Great West Virginia Flood of 1985

May 11, 2011 by

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EDITOR’S NOTE: In Part 2 of Matthew Burns’ recollection of the Flood of 1985 in West Virginia, which killed 47 people, he recounts the changed world that awaited him and his family on the morning of Nov. 5, 1985. This account is reprinted  from his blog Appalachian Lifestyles, devoted to “stories, tales, lies, musings and daily life in the mountains of central Appalachia.” Read Part 1 here.

By Matthew Burns

As we awoke on the morning of November 5, 1985, none of us could imagine the changes that were being wrought upon our world. It was still raining and Burns Holler was gone – all that was left was a raging torrent of muddy water. We walked down through the garden and across our neighbor’s property to get to where the creek passed through a large culvert. This was the only way to get from my granddad’s house to our house and Grandmaw Mary’s house. We were all in shock that the old stone cow barn was gone…it had been there longer than even Grandmaw Mary could remember.


The old Dixie Schoolhouse in Riverton, built right after the Civil War. My dad attended elementary school here.

Also on our minds was how Dad fared overnight stranded at the Lime Plant. My Uncle Tom had a motorcycle and decided to try and go down through the Bland Hills and out through Germany Valley to check on Dad. He was gone most of the day, and when he returned that evening, Dad was on the back of his motorcycle. They said that they had to jump several places in the road where the water had washed out the cattle culverts, which were across the road everywhere where the backroads intersected with a creek. Dad said that Uncle Tom about scared him to death, jumping over missing sections of road like Evel Knieval.

Dad said the Lime Plant was closed down but planned on operating around the clock when the floodwaters started to recede, and that he would be working about 20 hours a day. The plant was going to process the limestone that would be needed in rebuilding roads. He said he came home to get rested up and wait out the destruction. Dad told of the Lime Plant bridge that was completely underwater, and how the road was washed out all around the plant, and how Riverton looked completely under water. He and Tom could only see the tops of a few house roofs.


Remnants of the Riverton Community Building.

Later that day, the rain began to slack up and Dad and Tom rode down off the mountain to Judy Gap to see if the bridge down there was still standing, and to try to get some news from down in the valley. They wanted especially to hear about the little community of Big Run, where my Aunt Pat lived. The Judy Gap bridge somehow survived the massive flood, although all of the land around it was destroyed.

Uncle Jack told them that there were a few people up that way who were killed – one was my Granddad’s friend, Delmar Nelson. He was in his truck and got washed away into the river.

While down there, they talked with a few other people who were from all over the valley, and someone from up around Big Run was there and said that several people up that way had been killed in the flood. They mentioned Patsy Nicholas. This was a huge shock to both Dad and Tom because Pat was their sister. The man said that he heard that Aunt Pat was last seen hanging onto a log in the middle of the river, apparently unconscious and that her 3-year-old daughter was hanging on to her. This, of course, greatly upset Dad and Tom, and they hurried back up the mountain to spread the bad news. They also said that they were going to try to get up to Big Run, and since there was no road in several places, they were going to have to go along the mountainside to get there. They didn’t know how long they would be gone, but everyone of course wanted to know about Aunt Pat.


The road (or what used to be the road) in Circleville.

By the time they got back down to Judy Gap the water had went down enough to where Dad, Tom and my Granddad were able to cross the bridge and get on the old road that went to Circleville. This road would make their trip a lot easier than climbing along the mountainside. They made it to Circleville and they just so happened to run into my Uncle Jack, Aunt Pat’s husband, who was trying to get to Monkeytown to let everyone know that they were all okay. This was, of course, a great relief to everyone, and Uncle Jack was flabbergasted that someone would tell such a story like that about Aunt Pat. He said their house was flooded but they were all safe at Hilltop, a little shelter on the mountainside near where they lived. Uncle Jack said that the road was washed out in several places, and most of the houses in Big Run were destroyed. He had never seen anything like it.


Destroyed homes just above my Aunt Pat’s house.

Jack’s dad, Punk, was so sure that he was going to die that he said he was going to go out in style, and went outside and got in his new Cadillac.

After making sure that Aunt Pat’s family was okay, Dad, Tom and Granddad came back down to Judy Gap and then on up the mountain to let everyone know that Aunt Pat was fine, even though they had lost their house to the flood. Uncle Jack also told them that there were a few people up that way who were killed – one was my Granddad’s friend, Delmar Nelson. He was in his truck and got washed away into the river. Delmar had a wooden bed on his truck and the truck floated away while he was trying to get home.

Uncle Jack also told of the floodwater surrounding his mom and dad’s house early on in the flooding, and they refused to evacuate. By the time that they realized the situation was serious and unlike anything they had ever experienced before, the floodwaters had surrounded the house and cut them off from escape. Jack’s dad, Punk, was so sure that he was going to die that he said he was going to go out in style, and went outside and got in his new Cadillac. The floodwaters moved the car around in the yard but he, and his home, was otherwise spared.



The road above my Aunt Pat’s house.

We were greatly relieved to hear that all of our family survived the Great Flood, and the rain was finally slacking off. Circleville School had been opened as a permanent shelter and word came that the National Guard had been called in and we were going to get some help with our disaster.

All through November 5, 1985, the floodwaters still raged and the rain was still falling in some places. We knew that much of our world was gone, but we also knew that our family was safe. We were somewhat relieved but saddened at all the loss all around us. We had no idea just how much until the floodwaters receded and we could witness the world around us.

This flood left an indelible mark upon my family, so much so, that the timeline in our minds was forever changed to “Before the Flood” or “After the Flood.”

Part 1 | Part 2

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Read more of Matthew Burns’ writing, including his reactions to the aftermath of the great flood, at his blog Appalachian Lifestyles.

RELATED: A slideshow of photos of the Flood of ’85
SUGGEST SOMETHING for Blogalachia, a collection of the best writing from blogs related to West Virginia and Appalachia,

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